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How to find a preschool

Maybe it is time for Mommy to go back to work, or maybe your toddler needs a few hours of structured play time and socialization. Whatever your reasons, once you determine that it's time for preschool, it can be a big job to find the right one.

You want to find a clean, loving and safe environment with experienced teachers. A good program also offers a stimulating curriculum and encourages independence, individuality and creativity.

Experts and other moms offer these tips on finding a preschool that fits your family's needs. (Be picky and ask lots of questions!)

SEE WHAT'S NEARBY

Compile a list of preschools close to your home or workplace and ask your friends and neighbors where their kids go. Start your search six to nine months (or sooner!) in advance of when your child would start. Many programs fill up quickly. For some, you may need to be in line the day registration begins to even hope for a seat.

DECIDE ON PHILOSOPHY

Examples of some different approaches:

  • Montessori: Encourages children to learn at their own pace with a focus on establishing independence, confidence and self-esteem.
  • Waldorf: Believes children learn best by imitation and focus on creative play. Waldorf classrooms are all natural and do not have computers, TVs, or plastic toys.
  • Religious: Many houses of worship run preschool/child-care programs that incorporate

    religious education.
A GOOD PROGRAM OFFERS ...
  • Physical activity
  • Quiet time
  • Group and individual activities
  • Socializing opportunities
  • Craft time
  • Meals and snacks
  • Free play
DETERMINE YOUR NEEDS

Decide whether you need a morning program a few days a week, or an all-day program so you can go back to work. Figure out your budget.

ARRANGE A TOUR

Once you have a list of schools that meet your needs, make an appointment with the director and take a tour. Be wary of schools that don't offer tours.

Take notes. Visit the classrooms and observe the children, teachers, and the environment. Do the kids seem happy? Are there a variety of toys and learning materials? Are the classrooms bright, clean and inviting? Watch how the teachers interact with the children. Are they patient, encouraging, and nurturing? Is the teacher in control of the classroom? Is there a good sense of order and structure to the day? Pay careful attention to the teacher-to-child ratio.

Peter Pizzolongo, of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said there should be no more than eight in a group of 2-year-olds.

Talk with the director about their philosophies on nap time, potty training, discipline, nutrition and their sick-child policy. Get a specific schedule of how the kids spend their day.

Ask about the teachers and their qualifications. A high turnover rate may indicate internal problems. Preschool teachers should have at least two years of college and ideally have a background in early-childhood development. Every teacher should know how to perform CPR on toddlers and have a complete background check.

Check out the playground. Do the swings and jungle gyms look well maintained and secure? Toys and equipment should be in good condition.

BRING CHILD TO VISIT

Once you've chosen a favorite, visit the school again and bring your child. See how she interacts with the teachers and whether she seems comfortable there. Are the teachers welcoming?

"The minute we got to the school I knew this one was it,'' said Plantation mom Patty Kopelman, who sent her daughter to Temple Beth Emet's preschool. "I walked my daughter into the school, and she was as happy as could be. She loved the playground; it was clean, and she couldn't wait to let go of my hand and run and play. We had visited another preschool and my daughter was miserable. Bottom line, your child must feel comfortable at the school.''

HAVE A BACKUP

Apply to your top two or three choices, in case you don't get into the first.

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