So Many Choices

Finding the right preschool for your child.

As your child’s first school experience, preschool provides a foundation for learning in kindergarten and beyond. In preschool, kids acquire important social skills, such as how to share and take turns, cooperate with others and be independent, while being exposed to pre-math and pre-reading skills, including numbers, letters and shapes.

To find the right preschool, plan ahead and do some research before submitting your applications. The following suggestions will guide your preschool search as you find a program that matches your child’s and your family’s needs.

Give yourself at least a year to research your preschool options and narrow down your list. Ask about minimum age requirements and cutoff dates. Most children begin preschool at age 2½ or 3, though some preschools enroll kids as young as 18 months to 2 years old in their toddler programs.

Applications may be due as early as the December or January prior to the September your child will start school, making the spring or summer a good time to begin researching your options. In Manhattan, some nursery schools limit the number of applications they give out— families are chosen to receive an application by lottery or by being the first to call to request an application the day after Labor Day. Staying on top of deadlines for each school is critical, as each one has its own admissions timelines and requirements.

If you’re interested in preschools in your area with long waiting lists, start your search as early as possible. The sooner you submit the application, the better your chances are of getting a spot. Narrow down your search by understanding what you’re looking for in a program and focusing on your priorities.

Cost, Schedule and Location

Nursery school tuition varies widely, ranging anywhere from a few hundred dollars a month for a part-time program to upward of $30,000 for the school year. Consider schools in the range you can afford, but don’t let money keep you from applying to a school you love. Many programs strive for socioeconomic diversity and offer a sliding scale tuition to support families with financial constraints.

There is also a range of schedules available, with some schools offering sessions on half days or a few days a week and others providing full-time instruction five days a week. Some schools run during the academic year (and may or may not offer a summer camp) and others run year-round.

As far as location, it may work for some families to travel across town for a dream nursery school. However, most parents quickly tire of the commute, especially during morning rush hour. Finding a school close to home makes it easier for you to set up playdates and get to know other families in the neighborhood. Plus, chances are that many of your child’s preschool classmates will end up going to the same elementary school.

Teachers

One of the most important aspects of choosing a preschool is the staff. Do the teachers seem warm, nurturing and patient? Ask how teachers communicate with the parents, perhaps with chats during drop off and pick up, via e-mail or through weekly newsletters. Inquire about the staff’s education and experience, as well as how much turnover exists among teachers. If the teachers are happy, the parents and students are most likely happy, too.

Teacher-Student Ratio

Each state determines the maximum number of children allowed per teacher for different age groups. The National Association for the Education of Young Children guidelines call for a ratio of 1:9 or lower for classrooms with 2½ and 3 year olds, with a maximum class size of 18 students, and a ratio of 1:10 or lower for 4 year olds, with a maximum class size of 20.

Educational Philosophies

In the United States, most preschools are play-based, where kids learn through playing and they get to choose their activities. Montessori schools foster independence and use toys called manipulatives to teach specific concepts. Waldorf schools are known for their home-like environment and emphasis on creativity, while Reggio Emilia schools encourage exploration and discovery. Other preschools have an academic focus, teaching letters and numbers to kids as young as 3 or 4. Some preschools focus on religious instruction or language immersion, and co-op preschools are run by the parents themselves.

Visiting Preschools

Call to schedule a tour or a time to visit, ideally when class is in session. If it’s OK with the school, bring your child along to meet the teachers and see the classroom. Talk to the director, teachers and other staff members. Ask about safety and security policies. Is the classroom well-lit, clean and cheerful? Is the outdoor play area fenced in? Are the teachers kind and respectful? Do they seem to enjoy teaching and being around children? Can you picture your child liking the environment?

Making Your Decision

Once you’ve done your research and visited a number of schools, narrow down your choices. Consider how closely the preschool meets your criteria and how difficult it might be to get a spot for your child. If your favorite preschool is in high demand, apply to several other schools to give you adequate options.

Preschool is a great way for your child to build the social and cognitive skills needed in kindergarten. To be sure your child has the best experience possible, do your research and choose the preschool that’s truly right for your child. If your child is comfortable and happy in preschool, it lays the foundation for a lifetime of learning.

Tips for Getting Into Competitive Nursery Schools

  • If your child is on the waiting list, call the school nine to 12 months prior to when your child would enroll to inquire about the status of the application and when a spot may open. Follow up every four to six weeks to show you are serious about enrolling.
  • In the application and interviews, mention what you love about the school and why it’s right for your child. Preschools want families who share the school philosophy and are enthusiastic about the program.
  • Let the school know how you can contribute to the community. Are you interested in volunteering? Do you have a special skill or interesting job that could benefit the school, like party planning or Web design?
  • If you have a top-choice school, let the director know— but only express this to one school. Directors talk to one another about applicants.