When you go to a center or school, think about the physical space.
Are the rooms inviting, clean, and safe? Is there ample room to play inside, and is there play equipment outside? Are there places in the classroom where your child can play quietly? Are there a variety of toys and materials within easy reach? If it’s a child-care center, where will your child take naps, and where can she go if she doesn’t nap? Does the overall environment seem exciting? Does the school accept a parent’s request for a particular teacher?
Watch the teachers and aides carefully, since they set the tone for the program. Do they seem to enjoy their jobs and relate well to each other? Do you like the way they interact with the children? Good teachers will be warm, understanding, and respectful of children. Do they seem reassuring and flexible enough to let a child follow her own interests? Are you comfortable with the way they set limits and carry out discipline in the classroom?
Try to imagine your child in the programs you observe. How would she react? Are the teachers’ expectations appropriate for her? Would the schedule allow her flexibility? What if she wanted to continue with one activity when the teachers had scheduled a switch to another? Would she be allowed quietly to finish what she was doing?
See if the teachers pay enough attention to the children in the room. One parent saw a teacher who was so involved with a small group working on the day’s curriculum project that she ignored the rest of the class. When the teacher finally became aware of an argument in the block corner, she was too late to help a child whose building had been destroyed.
Consider how many teachers there are at the center or school, and the makeup of the groups. Young children need a lot of attention and comfort. Older children need fewer adults, but the teacher-child ratio in all cases should seem satisfactory to you and meet local licensing standards. Are there mixed age groups in a single classroom, or are children placed with others the same age? You may prefer one arrangement over another.
Pay particular attention to the school or center’s program. Too many are highly structured and goal-oriented, arranged with parents’ and not children’s needs in mind. Many teachers say, “Parents want academics. Parents expect projects.” But when academics are over-emphasized, children lose opportunities to play, experiment with different materials, make discoveries, and come up with their own answers to problems. In an effective program, children have plenty of time to explore on their own, and teachers value active play and socializing, both essential for their cognitive and emotional growth.
Look at the children’s artwork. Most nursery schools and centers have children do one or two art projects a day. Is the work displayed at a child’s eye level? Are all the projects pre-cut by the teacher? Do all the finished projects look alike, or are they truly products of the children’s effort and creativity?
Finally, see if the activities are appropriate for the children. One group of two-year-olds was expected to dye Easter eggs in school, but the children were clearly incapable of following the necessary steps. Rather than drop the activity, the teachers did all the dyeing themselves.
Teachers should build on children’s interests and abilities, not give them tasks they can’t perform. Look for a program that stresses exploration and discovery, and teachers who will follow up on your child’s own interests and abilities. And if your child isn’t enjoying school or day care, or if you think the program isn’t good enough for your child, it’s worth the time and effort to start your search again and switch her to a different school.
Finally, as parents try to choose the right program for their child, they often go by their gut feelings. So when you observe a preschool or child-care center, ask yourself, “Can I see my child being happy in this classroom?”