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Just when we’ve mastered the challenges of infancy and got used to the quirks of toddlers, here’s a big scary word thrown at us – PRESCHOOL! Early education is considered critical today, but it wasn’t such a big deal in our days, some 25-odd years ago when Aunty Chopra’s spare room with wooden peg puzzles and Noddy posters was as good a playschool as any. So when do we start and where ….and how do we choose?
Well, it is bound to be a bit daunting at first, this is probably the first major ‘life-impacting’ decision we make for our kids. This is where we step in to make it a little less intimidating for you by giving you all the information you need about preschools in your area and tips on how to go about selecting the right one for your child.
What is Preschool and why is it important?
Preschools are educational institutions for children too young for primary schools. Preschools provide an environment to discover and explore freely within the various areas of development and are recommended as a supplement to learning at home.
Now accepted as being necessary to provide a child the building blocks for their academic journey, preschools also introduce important social skills -- learning how to follow directions, interact with others, work in a group or part of a team and to relate to grownups who aren't their parents.
Preschools usually take in children from 2+, though each school has a different policy regarding this. Some preschools also have parent and child sessions separate from their regular programmes for children younger than 2. Also, most preschools graduate their students when they are around 4 years of age and ready to enter ‘big’ school in the Nursery (lower KG) level. There are some preschools however which have their own Nursery and Kindergarten levels and graduate students at age 5 or 6 years.
How to choose the right preschool?
With a playschool mushrooming in every nook and corner of the city, how do we know which one is right for our child? Well, there’s no single answer for that, no fixed formula that will please all since each parent looks for a different order of priorities when evaluating a preschool. What’s right for the Sharmas may not be appropriate for the Aggarwals. But whatever your priorities, there are some critical points that must not be overlooked during your selection process.
A good way to start is to talk with your friends and neighbours about preschools in your area. You can learn about schools with fine reputations and see what kind of experiences their children have had at them.
The people factor
The promoters, teachers and teacher’s aides - these are the people who will introduce your child to life outside the comfortable safe and secure environment of home. More than an imposing building and bright colourful classrooms, you need to be impressed by the people who run the school and those who will teach your child. Start by checking if the teacher-student ratio is suitable to provide each child appropriate attention. Are the teachers qualified to deal with children of this age or are they just bored housewives passing time with a convenient job? As critical as their experience and qualification is their approach towards the children and whether they share a similar wavelength with you.
The school's philosophy
Different preschools follow different philosophies of education. Many are based on the ‘playway’ methodology or ‘learning by doing’. Many others are based on the works of Italian educator Maria Montessori, many are so-called traditional preschools, and so on. First, be advised that there's only so much you can learn by a school's label—for instance the term "Montessori" means many different things to different administrators and teachers. However impressive sounding the label may be, always ask the school to spell out their individual philosophy and teaching methods for you. For example:
To what extent are children allowed to make choices about what they learn and when? How much of the activity is teacher-directed versus child-directed?
Is learning regimented or are children given a chance to express their creativity and learn independence.
How holistic is the school in its educational ideas? That is, does it take children's social and emotional growth and developing values as seriously as it takes the Three R's?
Ask how the school deals with discipline and conflict – do they believe children should work things out themselves? Do they believe in "time outs"? It's important that you agree with a school's disciplinary approach and trust their judgment – small children have a hard time with mixed messages.
Environment, infrastructure and Safety
It is critical to gauge if the environment, people and activities seem pleasing to you, and will they suit your child's personality? Even if you don’t care for snazzy play areas and expensive gizmos, it is a good idea to get a feel of the teaching aids and play equipment that the school employs. Does the environment of the school support the philosophy of the school, by stimulating their minds and supporting creative expression? Also the quality of play equipment, its location and layout will also give an indication of how the school ensures student safety. Another critical safety concern is how the school keeps track of students at drop and dispersal time.
Depending on how actively involved in the school you want to be, you may want to find out how actively does the school seek out parents' ideas as well as their help? Some schools have an open door policy for parents while some are very strict about parent visits, restricting them to set days for observation. But most importantly, find out how the school plans to keep you updated about your child’s progress and what their policy for interaction with teachers is.
Proximity to your residence
Transportation is another important real-world consideration. A child who has to spend an hour in the car or on a bus to get to a really great preschool might arrive too tired out or antsy to learn. Going to school close to home can also make it easy to continue friendships after school and on weekends. However, for those children who go to school near where their parents work, time spent in the car with their parents can be turned into quality time, and it's often easier for parents to be readily available in the event that they are needed. Whatever your situation may be, transportation considerations should be factored into your decision.
Most preschool programs are for 3 hours only. In order to accommodate families where both parents work outside the home, some preschools offer day care facilities as well i.e. extended hours where time is set aside for more home-like activities (snacks in morning and afternoon, an afternoon nap, quiet playing, lots of free play later in the day). Work out your time requirement before making your shortlist.
Plan a visit
Trust your instinct – that first gut feel when you walk into a school. Does the atmosphere seem warm and joyful? Ask for a tour of the facilities and observe carefully to get answers to all your questions. Even pictures hanging on the notice boards can give some clues to the school’s philosophy - do all the drawings look to perfect to be made by preschoolers, do they support imagination etc.