Top 10 tips for choosing a Playschool

So today was another FIRST in my little girl’s life. Her first day at playschool! I dropped her just before 9 and stayed for 30 mins slowly edging my way out the gate. She was a star. Didn’t cry or freak out (yet) I am fascinated to hear how it went the rest of the morning. Will have to wait til 11.30 before I find out.

What really helps is that I was totally relaxed and happy to drop her off. I have total confidence that I have chosen the very best school for my child.

I love the teacher and the assistant – both who taught my son a few years back. I believe in their values and ethos. The environment is idyllic. And the class is small. All very important to me when choosing a school.

Anyway in keeping with this theme I thought I might jot down Top 10 tips for choosing a Playschool or Pre-School for that matter!

Here they are:

1. Your Child – The most important thing to consider when looking at playschools is to identify what personality type your child has and how they would adapt to a particular school, or not. Pay attention to your child’s specific needs and interests. Are they a first or only child, or do they have siblings, are they happy in a crowd or one-on-one (extrovert or introvert). Don’t choose a school that you would have loved to attend, choose a school where your CHILD will be happy. If possible schedule your visits to potential school with your child or arrange for them to visit after you have done the initial research and watch how they respond to the school and teacher. Trust your instincts. You know what’s best for your child!

2. Teacher – At this very young stage of education the most vital thing to the child is the relationship they have with the teacher. When visiting a school make sure you meet with the teacher that will be teaching your child’s class and not just with the principal. Watch them in action in the classroom – are they relaxed and easy-going? Do they genuinely love children? How strict are they? etc. Have the teachers and assistants been trained in child development? Do they interact and play with the children or just instruct from the front? Don’t be afraid to ask them questions such as if the school follows a specific curriculum, or how they teach the alphabet, numbers, etc. If they don’t have a curriculum it isn’t a bad thing just ask them for an idea of what is covered during the week. Many teachers will post a lesson plan for the week or term to help the parents engage with their kids at home (eg. animals, transportation, seasons, food, senses, etc.)

3. Class size – What is the class size? Make sure that it is age appropriate for your child. Some playschools accept up to 20 2-year-olds where others will stick to 12. Obviously the smaller the child, the smaller the class size. Once they start primary school the class size will be between 24 and 30 plus so let them ease up to this size slowly! Ensure that the teacher to child ratio is good. Preferably 1:6 when they are very little but it could be up to 1:12. The main aim is to ensure that there is always adequate child supervision. Also does the school allow for group time when all the children are together as well as smaller group time when just 2 or 3 are given individual attention?

4. Values – Meet the teacher and/ or owner of the school and find out if your values are similar. Do you place importance on the same things such as play time, free time, religious beliefs etc. Do they allow children to watch TV during the school day? (hopefully not!) What is their policy on discipline? The way the school handles social and emotional issues should be similar to your approach at home. Consistency for preschool age children is essential in helping them develop. Are the classroom rules fair and consistently applied? Does the teacher help misbehaving children reflect on how to act next time, saying clearly what behavior she expects? Listen for positive discipline words. “Remember to walk in our classroom” rather than “Stop running!” “I want you to use your indoor voices” rather than “Stop shouting!” Find out whether the school encourages parent involvement. Does the teacher discuss the child’s progress with parents at scheduled times as well as informal times? One way to learn more about the school’s approach is to ask the teachers a role playing scenario. You might ask if two children always played together and one day one of the two decides to play with another child and leaves his friend behind, how the teacher might handle that situation. And then think about whether that approach is the same one you would have taken.

5. Environment/ Atmosphere – Go with your gut on this one. Obviously many principals and teachers will put forward their best face when meeting potential parents so this might be difficult to assess on the first visit but look out for things such as how happy the children are and how they behave around the teachers and assistants, are they absorbed in their activities. Does the environment feel inviting and warm? Are the staff friendly towards the parents and kind towards the children? How do the children engage with each other? What about the noise level – is there a lot of crying, shouting or tantrums? Children should be involved and absorbed in interesting activities much of the time. They should not have to sit and listen to the teacher for a long time. Listen to word of mouth regarding the playschool, the length of the waiting list and how long the school has been operating for are also good indicators of how popular the school is.

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6. Play time – How much free play is allowed? What about imaginative play areas such as dress up corners, pretend kitchen, dolls houses or puppets? Some form of daily “pretend play” improves emotional/behavioral skills. And emotional/behavioral skills predict academic performance later. Do they allow a lot of physical play? Some sort of physical play helps children develop gross motor skills. There is a direct correlation between the gross motor skill development of a preschooler and long-term health. Ask whether outside play is a part of a typical day. And also observe when you visit the school if there is room for kids to run around. Recently more and more research is proving that the best way for a child to learn is through play. Free play time is so important, as is guided play, but PLAY is the most important element of PLAYschool. Structured learning has a place, but this will come so don’t feel that you are not getting your money’s worth if your child doesn’t come home with a Picasso painting every day. Be assured that they are learning a lot just by playing with their peers and on their own. That being said learning and play should go together, especially at this young age. It should be a combination of natural learning opportunities from hands-on experiences as well as some structured lessons too.

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7. Safety – Ensure that the basic safety requirements are met. My checklist would include: space sufficient for the number of children in the class, enough toilets within easy access, any pools or ponds nearby are fenced AND covered, jungle gyms are age appropriate, water play areas are safe, trampolines are level with the ground and that the springs are covered, dogs are locked away, gates to the play area are secure, gates to the property are locked and access controlled, teachers and assistants have been trained in first aid and enough supervision of the children. The list goes on so feel free to add any of yours in the comments!

8. Facilities – How inviting is the school to small children? Is it bright and colourful? How much space is available inside and outside for the children, are a variety of activities offered such as a quiet space inside to rest or read, a sand pit, a jungle gym, swings, slide. Are their sufficient bikes or toys to play with. I don’t mean an over abundance but enough for every child to have something to do. Is the environment interactive with things such as a class pet, photographs, wooden toys, stuffed animals, dress-up costumes? Be concerned if you see lots of loud, electronic toys! There should be building blocks and other objects for pretend play, art materials, musical instruments, puzzles and games. Are the toys or equipment in good condition? A bookshelf is a must. Every day should include time for teachers to read to individuals, small groups, and the entire class. What about the premises – is it an inviting place for children to play with enough grass and shade in the playground? Are the premises well maintained, clean and hygienic, well ventilated? Does the school allow time for individual and group activities and offer a variety of activities and materials? Are there intellectually stimulating activities as well as enjoyable ones? Is there time for outdoor as well as indoor play? The children’s work should be carefully displayed on the walls.

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9. Type of school – There are so many different types of preschools, each with their own teaching philosophies. For example, you can find religious preschools, Montessori or Waldorf. It’s important to consider your child’s personality and learning style to find the happiest match. Ask if children are able to choose some of their activities during the day. Studies show that children who get to choose some activities preschool have better life outcomes. Studies show that when children have the chance to make choices at age 3 or 4, rather than having all dictated by teacher, they have better long term social and life outcomes on a variety of measures. Find out if the day allows opportunities for your child to choose his own activities, and is not simply teacher-led instruction. Looking at a school’s schedule to see if there are windows of time that are dedicated to play and/or if there are stations where children are able to choose what to do can be helpful in identifying what type of school it is.

10. Practical aspects – This would be last on my list but might be further up on yours depending on your circumstances. As so many parents work these days it is important to choose a school that works for you as a family. Location to your home is important if you have to arrange for a nanny to do the school run mid-day. Whether the school offers an early bird drop off or aftercare facility or holiday programme will be essential for full-time working moms. The school hours are also worth considering as some schools run from 8.30 – 12.30 and others from 9 – 12 which can make a big difference to what you can fit into a morning. What age does the school accept children from and what age do they go up to? What options do they have in terms of days the child can attend – 2, 3, 5 and how is that structured. Can you increase your days mid-year? What is the school policy on potty training? Must your child be out of nappies before being accepted? Do they assist with potty training? Some schools offer extra curricular activities during the day or after school such as music, drama, pottery, gymnastics. Find out what is offered and if it is included in the fees or not. Speaking of which, remember to check what the costs of the school are! School fees can differ hugely from school to school.

I hope you have found this information useful. This is an ideal list and no one school will meet all these criteria but it’s worth identifying what is most important to you. You have to be aware of what your priorities are for your child and what you’re willing to live with or without.

Please remember that this is written from my own point of view and you might not agree with my thoughts on the topic but you are welcome to leave comments if you disagree. When researching for schools one of the very best ways to get advice is to ask parents who are a little bit ahead of you on the parenting journey. A great question to start with is: “What advice do you wish you had received before choosing your child’s preschool?” Most parents will be happy to offer their insight and advice as well as a few suggestions of schools to visit.

Remember, choosing the best playschool for your child does not have to be overwhelming. Go into the process aware, informed and ready to ask questions. Being prepared will make the process easy, efficient and effective. Good luck!

Kathryn Rossiter

Kathryn is a South African lifestyle blogger and mom of 2 who has been blogging daily for over 9 years! She writes about travel, health, beauty, fashion, decor and family... but not food (unless it's food she's eaten made by someone else) as she is a hopeless cook. She only wakes up early for 2 things... a red-eye flight to somewhere exotic and early morning game drives. She has just finished an extensive home renovation and would prefer to never see another box again. She's never met a chocolate or glass of bubbles that she didn't like!

2 Comments
  1. Hello Kathryn

    Which play school is this?My daughter is starting play school next year but is only able to stay there for the year as they only take children upto age 3.So,I now ma need to get another school for her.

    Thanks.

    Sahrah

    1. Hi Sahrah – the school is located in Tokai and takes kids up to the age of 5. If you would like more detail please email me: kathryn at becomingyou.co.za

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