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Early Childhood Education: Choosing a Preschool Program

Gross Motor Play at Preschool

An outdoor playground gives children the opportunity to develop various gross motor and social skills.

An outdoor playground gives children the opportunity to develop various gross motor and social skills.

Early childhood is a time of amazing brain development and growth. While a child is born with all of the brain cells they will ever have, the important connections between the cells occurs as the child grows and learns through his or her environment. They typical three year old child has a brain that is twice as active as an adult brain! Early childhood experiences help brain connections to form: a child must have quality interaction with people and his or her environment to develop to his or her full potential.

When contemplating preschool programs, however, remember this: expensive toys are not critical for healthy early childhood development. Caring interactions and social bonds are far more valuable than physical objects in a classroom. The article below will highlight important questions and considerations for parents who are in the process of choosing a preschool program for their child.

Nursery School Facilities

The physical grounds of a nursery school are not the most important aspect of choosing a preschool, but the location and preschool classrooms do deserve consideration. Some very important questions to ask about the preschool building include:

  • Is the preschool located in a safe neighborhood?
  • What are the security protocols for people entering the building?
  • Are the exterior doors locked when school is in session?
  • What are the sign-in/sign-out policies?
  • Is there an outdoor playground, and is it fenced?
  • Are toileting facilities attached to the classroom or easily accessed by the children?
  • Is there adequate lighting?

Security is obviously a very important concern. Verify that the preschool has a solid policy on who may pick up a child, and ensure there is adequate office staff to monitor entrances to the building and the sign in sheets.

An outdoor playground is a wonderful addition to a preschool program. Surprisingly, not all preschools have a play area in the great outdoors – if the school in question does not have an outdoor playground, determine if there is an indoor gym or large-motor activity area. Gross motor skills (running, jumping, riding a bike) are critical in the development of young children, and a preschool building that does not provide opportunity for growth in this area is lacking a vital component!

Music and Dance in Preschool

Music is critical to any preschool program, as it enhances language skills. When dance is added, the child develops gross motor and coordination skills as well.

Music is critical to any preschool program, as it enhances language skills. When dance is added, the child develops gross motor and coordination skills as well.

The Preschool Classroom

The classroom is another physical component of early childhood education. While not as important as the teacher qualifications and the curriculum, the classroom can be a good indicator of the quality of the program.

Are there opportunities for social development? A home life play center, kitchen center, and dress-up center are common classroom additions to foster social development among young children. A preschool that provides diverse opportunities like a wood-working center or a puppet theater/dramatic play area will increase the number of experiences a child has in the classroom. Many preschools will rotate the centers and add new experiences as the year progresses.

Using Dance to Enhance Gross Motor Skills

The song “Popcorn” is a wonderful example of the use of dance and music to develop gross motor skills. The song (with movements) is:

I’m a piece of popcorn

Put me in a pan (child crouches down low)

Shake me, shake me, (Child shakes and wiggles)

as fast as you can…

and I will POP! (child jumps as high as he or she can)

Gross Motor Play in the Classroom

Is there time set aside for gross motor skill development? Gross motor skills can be addressed on an outdoor playground or in an indoor gym, and are usually incorporated into the preschool curriculum. Dancing and music are a wonderful way to develop gross-motor skills: check to see if the school in question uses music and dance as part of the daily routine. Jumping, running, isolating body parts, developing an awareness of the body in space, and crossing the midline are all very important skills for young children to develop. By integrating these skills, children learn to control their bodies and to develop crucial coordination that will be required for future academic and recreational activities.

Fine Motor Skills in the Classroom

Fine motor skills are vital, too, as a child learns to control his or her hands in preparation for learning to write. Some very important fine-motor skill activities are:

Cutting: A child must be able to cut on a line prior to developing writing skills. A quality nursery school curriculum will provide ample opportunity for cutting and snipping. Often, plastic play scissors will be used with play dough to help strengthen a child’s hands.

Play-dough: kneading and manipulating play dough helps to strengthen a child’s hands and to develop coordination. A good play dough or clay center will include rolling pins, plastic scissors, cookie cutters, molds, plastic cutting wheels, and other tools to encourage fine-motor development.

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Coloring and Art: painting with fingers and with different types of brushes helps to develop eye-hand coordination and fine motor control. Look for varied activities: painting with popcorn, balloons tied together as a brush, painting with fingers and sponges, and coloring with crayons are all wonderful activities. There is one thing not to be concerned about: a tub full of small, broken crayons is actually a good sign. Small crayon pieces help to promote a proper pencil grip – so do not be concerned at the sight of broken crayons, particularly in a pre-kindergarten program!

Many fine motor activities can be incorporated in other play centers as well. A center with small building blocks, a dress up area with zippers and buttons, and items such as lacing cards and beads and strings provide small motor skill opportunities.

Observe the classroom interior to determine if the environment is “print rich.” This means there should be a lot of written material in and around the classroom. While children of this age cannot read (in general), the presence of print helps to increase awareness of letters and reinforce the concept that written words have meaning. Many preschools will label familiar objects (like the word “door” on the door, or “window” on the window). Books should be accessible with a comfortable reading center. Story time should be incorporated into the daily routine.

Sensory Opportunities in the Classroom

Experiencing different textures and sensations is important for the integration of the nervous system in young children. Some children are very sensitive to sensory stimuli, and other children crave a lot of sensory input. Look for sensory opportunities within the classroom:

Textures: Is there a sand table? Is it changed out with different objects (such as beans, packing peanuts, and other materials with different textures)? Does the preschool provide finger painting experiences? Playdough, shaving cream, and “floam” also provide different texture experiences.

Scent: There are many ways to provide this sensory input. Scented play dough may be used at the fine motor center, or cookies may be baked during a cooking project. Be sure there are no overwhelming scents, however: young children have very sensitive noses, so unpleasant and strong odors are not a good sign!

Vestibular: Young children love to swing and spin. This love of motion is because the sense of motion and balance is still developing. The inner ear controls the sense of balance, and swinging and spinning cause disequilibrium, stimulating the brain to develop balance. Are there swings on the playground? Is there a teeter-totter or spinning toy available? Are there rocking horses for the children to play on?

Sight: Is the classroom visually appealing? Look for a well-designed classroom with bright colors and a good layout. Blank, white walls are not generally conducive to stimulating young minds!

Sound: The classroom should not be a cacophony of noises. Look for a quiet preschool program with a rich musical curriculum to enhance language and rhythm concepts.

Discipline at School

Parents should ask about the discipline policies used by the preschool. Some common behavioral modification tools are:

  • Redirection: the child is simply redirected to another activity and away from the negative behavior.
  • Removal: A thrown toy is removed from the child’s possession.
  • Time Out: a child is seated away from the activity and given time to calm down before rejoining the group.
  • Contacting the Parent: a parent is called to come and pick up a child if the behavior is out of control.

More important than discipline, perhaps, is the school's use of positive reinforcement to encourage desirable behavior. A common program is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) - this program can be used in the home environment as well as in the school environment. This system allows teachers to prevent negative behavior outcomes by implementing positive rewards and developing classroom management techniques to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.

Determining the preschool’s discipline policy is critical, as some preschools may not have a discipline plan that aligns with a parent’s preferences.

Building Centers

This center has many uses: the blocks develop spatial skills (pre-math), fine motor skills, and encourage social interaction.

This center has many uses: the blocks develop spatial skills (pre-math), fine motor skills, and encourage social interaction.

Classroom Routine

Children love routine – it helps to provide a framework and boundaries around new experiences. Ask the preschool teacher about their daily routine – the general flow of activities should be the same from day-to-day. A preschool routine might look something like this:

9:00am: Greeting and Circle Time/Story

9:15am: Weather and Calendar

9:25am: Play Centers

9:45am: Outdoor Gross Motor Play

10:15am: Snack Time

10:30am: Clean up

10:35am: Classroom Project

11:00am: Music and Dance

11:15am: Free Play

11:30am: Dismissal

The routine will vary greatly by the preschool program – the particular order of the routine is not as important as the fact that the preschool has a routine.

An Excellent Preschool Toileting Area

Toilet Training

Many preschools require that children be potty trained prior to starting school. Ask about the exact requirements regarding toilet training: occasional accidents are to be expected among preschool aged children. A few important questions might be:

  • Are pull-ups allowed or discouraged?
  • Must a child be completely independent in all toileting activities to attend this preschool?
  • What does the preschool do in the event of an accident (both solid and wet)?
  • Are child-sized toilets and shorter sinks available?
  • Is the restroom easily accessible to the children?
  • Are toileting times part of the preschool routine, or must children ask to use the toilet?

Sick Policies

Nearly every preschool will have a policy with regard to ill children. Ask about the policies in place – both to protect your child, and to protect the other children in the classroom. For example, most preschools specify that any child with a fever over 100.1 degrees may not attend. On the other hand, preschools may have varying policies over runny noses and mild colds – it is good to know what the exact policy is prior to enrolling your child.

Preschool and Teacher Accreditation

Not every preschool has accreditation – the important accreditation in the United States is the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). The NAEYC sets “standards of excellence” that early childhood education programs must achieve prior to membership. The NAEYC has a wonderful search feature on their website: this will help any family find an accredited preschool in their local area.

In addition to the preschool’s accreditation, ask about the qualifications of the teachers in the classroom. How many Early Childhood Education (ECE) units must a teacher have prior to employment? Surprisingly, many preschools only require 6 ECE units for a preschool teacher – this is the equivalent of only 2 classes! A preschool teacher with an Associate’s degree (or more) in early childhood education will have much more education in the field.

Preschool Philosophies

A preschool aged boy in an Easter Bonnet at a community run preschool. It is important to ask about preschool educational philosophies. Ask about how diversity, religious festivals, cultural rites, and other matters are handled in the school.

A preschool aged boy in an Easter Bonnet at a community run preschool. It is important to ask about preschool educational philosophies. Ask about how diversity, religious festivals, cultural rites, and other matters are handled in the school.

Educational Philosophy and Approach

Nearly every preschool will have a stated philosophy and mission statement. A few questions about the preschool’s philosophy might be:

  • Are the activities teacher-directed or child-directed?
  • Is the curriculum progressive throughout the year (i.e. change as the children mature)?
  • How is communication between the parents and teacher handled?
  • What type of curriculum is followed?
  • How diverse is the preschool?
  • How is religion handled in the preschool classroom?

There are many different types of preschools, including Montessori, Waldorf, religious church-based preschools, preschool co-ops, universal Pre-K programs, Head Start, and other developmentally based approaches. Each program has its own philosophy and goals for the children in the program.

Finding a quality preschool program that suits individual family preferences and belief systems is a difficult process, but well worth the effort! A quality early childhood education program will help a child develop to their full potential, and will prepare them for the social and academic world of tomorrow.

What Matters to You?


Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 06, 2017:

I agree, letstalkabouteduc! We have seen the same thing in Western NY - our universal pre-K program is now focused on worksheets and having children read by the end of the year, rather than developmentally appropriate tasks. I am very grateful my children went to private preschools and to our local UPK program prior to the introduction of extended seat-work at the age of four.

McKenna Meyers on December 13, 2015:

Great hub! Unfortunately, the federal government has seized control in public preschools with its Common Core Standards -- an absurd checklist of discrete skills that don't acknowledge that young children learn at different rates and learning at this age is not always linear. Common Core shrinks the focus of learning and ignores so many of the activities you detailed. Misguided parents are now thinking a quality preschool is one in which their child learns to read!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 26, 2015:

Yes, certainly a good preschool will have many of these qualities - though specific programs emphasize some more than others!

preschoolhesperia on February 16, 2015:

I think a great preschool can have all of these qualities.

Clementine8 from Australia on November 05, 2012:

Yes it is fundamental leah and at present from what I see there is little understanding of what children need in general and it is causing so much damage to them emotionally. Thanks for signing the petition.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 05, 2012:

Hi Clementine - I signed your petition. A proper understanding of child development is required for those who teach young children. There are many ways to redirect children and to use positive guidance for little ones.

Clementine8 from Australia on November 03, 2012:

Please sign my petition to stop teacher bullying children behind closed doors.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 03, 2012:

You have excellent advice, Clementine8. I really like centers that have observation windows (one-way windows). This allows a parent to observe a classroom without being seen, so that the behavior of the teacher and class is not altered or disturbed by the observation. Very few centers have the one-way windows, but we were at a preschool program where every classroom and therapy room (it was a school for the deaf) had observation windows. It was absolutely fantastic, as you could observe the class and watch how the staff interacted with the children. It also allowed parents to observe their child's behavior - our son was extremely shy and withdrawn, but did better when we were not visible - as seeing us would send him into very clingy behavior.

We had a wonderful local (mainstream) preschool program near our house, and the teachers had an open-door policy. I volunteered at the preschool occasionally and the staff were very caring and fantastic with their approach to the children. The positive language, loving redirection, and enriching atmosphere were perfect for my children.

Clementine8 from Australia on November 02, 2012:

Great Hub...Parents need to be more aware of the differences between centres. Working as a teacher i see parents enrol their child in a preschool and want to drop them off that day, no questions asked!

I have worked in centres that have made me cry the way children are treated and centres that are amazing places for children to grow and learn. Something that parents need to do is spend time in the centre. You can tell a lot by how the staff interact with the children. Most centres recommend two short sessions to get the child use to the cnetre, but I would recommend more. I would also say to come at different times during the day. Centres always say you can come at a certain time (usually their quiet time), but a good centre should have an open door policy to parents and allow you to come at any time. Watch how teachers support children in times of difficulty, to they nurture them or put them down? Watch how they discipline them, do they guide them to a more desired behaviour and discuss the child feelings or send them to time out alone? Listen for a teacher language, is it positive or negative? Are the children drawn towards the teachers or does it seem false because you are there? If the teachers seem tired and unhappy in the work place you can be sure they will be unkind to the children when you are not around. It is a big decision choosing a centre, take the time to make it a good one.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 14, 2011:

Thanks, sestasik! The cost of a preschool education can definitely be a factor in choosing a program, but the quality of the program may suffer if the cost is too low (I would definitely check out the credentials and program facilities: cheap is definitely not always better when it comes to early childhood education)!

sestasik on November 14, 2011:

Wow, great information! So many people just pick the cheapest/closest preschool or daycare. This is great information for parents looking to make a more discerning decision.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 11, 2011:

It was pretty bad - something I thought would never happen (which just shows the importance of very careful questioning of school policies and teacher credentials). Thanks for the compliment on the kids/pictures, cardelean! I think they're cute, but I'm rather biased! :-D

cardelean from Michigan on November 10, 2011:

Yikes! That is horrible! So glad that you found one that meets his needs so much better. Forgot to add that the pics are great, very cute kids!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 10, 2011:

We found that one child needed a more structured and academic approach (our older child) and that our younger son needs a smaller class size and a school with a nurse (for him, the best place is actually our public universal pre-K program, which has a nurse within the elementary school building and has immediate access to his IEP and his speech therapist/teacher of the deaf). We actually had quite a bad experience with a private preschool - my little one had an accident and they left him in the bathroom - alone- after he had been ill. I came to the school when they called me to find him covered in a mess and alone in the bathroom. I withdrew him immediately! It was an absolute nightmare - and I had specifically asked about how they handled toileting accident situations PRIOR to enrolling him.

At least we know to ask VERY detailed questions about how schools handle certain situations now!

cardelean from Michigan on November 10, 2011:

You have a very well put together hub with fantastic information and tips for parents. It is so important to think about the needs of your child as well and your youngest son is lucky that you were willing to change schools to meet his needs even if it meant not using the same school as his brother.

We use PBIS in our school and the preventative measures are so important to the success of the program and of the child. Thanks for sharing your research.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 10, 2011:

Thank you, Carol3san! Preschool is such an important time of development for young children, so finding the one that best suits a family's educational philosophy is crucial!

Carolyn Sands from Hollywood Florida on November 10, 2011:

Thanks for the hub Leahlefler. It is very easy to see that you put a lot of time and energy into this piece. And it is much appreciated.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 09, 2011:

Thanks, alissaroberts! We went through a "checklist" of sorts when looking at preschools for our boys. We wanted to be sure the preschools had a positive, developmentally appropriate approach. For our younger son, we also needed good acoustics and the ability of the staff to care for certain medical issues that may arise. We had to pull him out of the same preschool his older brother attended because they couldn't handle certain issues (though they had agreed it wouldn't be a problem the spring prior to his enrollment). Sometimes you have to change gears!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 09, 2011:

RedElf, we had one preschool that was great for my older son, but not as wonderful for my younger son - the individual needs for the child have to be considered against the program's capabilities. We have also seen some "questionable" preschools, though we are very fortunate to have several quality programs in our rural area.

Alissa Roberts from Normandy, TN on November 09, 2011:

Great information in this hub! I wish I had this kind of info when trying to select a preschool for my boys. Well done - voted up :)

RedElf from Canada on November 09, 2011:

Excellent outline of what to look for in a preschool classroom environment. I am so glad you addresses the security issues as well! I attended several preschools (we moved) as a child and still have vivid memories of them - some positive, some not so positive... Well-done!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 09, 2011:

A great preschool can be an amazing formative experience in a child's life! Our boys have benefited immensely from their preschool experiences - it is really wonderful to watch them grow and blossom in many ways. I'm glad that your mom found a wonderful preschool for you, Simone!

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on November 09, 2011:

You've just described my exact preschool experience, and I have to say, these ideal conditions DID make a lasting impact on my life. I think that my behavior, even to this day, is influenced by those formative years, and I can't thank my own mother enough for giving me the best of the best.

Preschool makes a HUGE difference! I'm glad you've shown people what to look for!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 09, 2011:

That is a very good point - positive reinforcement should be a key component in any preschool program. I'll have to add that into the article. A program that doesn't have rewards for good behavior should send up red flags for parents!

s.wilson on November 09, 2011:

Great and informative hub!

Another great thing to ask for when looking at a preschool is whether they utilize positive behavior supports. A common program is PBIS. This rewards kids for good behavior, which can be just as important, or more important, than disciplining kids for bad behavior. You can also use it in conjunction at home, which makes it even more effective.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 09, 2011:

Thanks, tallglassofsass! We were thorough in our search for preschools - we found a wonderful community based preschool for our younger son, and our older son enjoyed a creative arts program through another preschool. There are a lot of great programs out there!

tallglassofsass from Salem, MA on November 09, 2011:

Great and informative hub! Voted up!

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