Ask “Mommy Manders”: What should I look for in a pre-school?

What should I look for in a pre-school?…How do I choose a good Mother’s Day Out for my baby?”
I’ve been asked this question several times recently, and I LOVE to share my advice on this important question. When you are in the midst of making the “pre-school” decision it can feel overwhelming! With my changing work schedule and circumstances over the years, I have had to make this decision several times over the years for my children. Seems like every January, I’m thinking about it for the next fall. Of course, it’s best if you can find and keep your child in a place that everyone is happy with for several years, but children are quite resilient, and can certainly handle changes if you offer your loving guidance through transitions. BOTTOM LINE: if your child is happy and loved, and if it is convenient and affordable to you, then the rest doesn’t really matter that much! But do keep in mind that research shows that a child’s first school experience MUST be a GOOD experience. This is when they form the lasting impression of whether they are “good” in school, whether they are “liked” by teachers in school, and this impression sticks with them and shapes their entire academic career. If your child is unhappy in a school situation, make a change.
When you visit a school, here is what to look for…
  • Do the teachers’ eyes light up? Unfortunately, too many teachers forget to do this when students arrive, but it is key to a successful day for the class and a successful path for the child. (Look for a loving, kind, supportive environment – period. Nothing else matters as much.)
  • Look at the kids: Are the children smiling? laughing? having fun? engaged? focused?
  • Play-based/ multi-sensory learning : A lot of pre-schools now are focusing on “kindergarten readiness” in the WRONG way developmentally for children: that is, they are teaching letters, sight words, numbers, counting, even reading, etc… The correct understanding of “kindergarten readiness” is that a child’s brain is wired and ready to learn. That happens by playing with dirt! Literally, those proper connections/ pathways are made in a child’s brain when he/ she has plenty of time for free play that engages all of their senses – time for sand boxes, dress-up and pretend play, blocks, coloring, play-do, water play, etc.
  • NO “computer/ technology” class – kids get enough of this, and it comes as second nature to them – they don’t need to be taught – they should be playing in the dirt! Also, make sure they do NOT show the children TV/ movies. School is not a babysitter; save the “screen time” for home when you need it!
  • Speaking of dirt, look for outdoor play-time.
  • music/ movement – I know I’m biased, but of all the “specials”/ “fine arts”, this one is the most important and natural one for learning and development in young kids. Better yet, the classroom teachers themselves should be singing throughout the day!
  • Lots of Reading – I think all pre-schools should have not only read-aloud time (when the teacher reads), but silent reading time when the kids “read” to themselves, but most don’t…so look for access to books.
  • Down-time/ Rest time: If you have a younger child,  a good long nap-time is crucial, and this is when a longer day is good. (A school day that ends at 2:00 only gives enough time for a minimal nap. If this is the case, consider picking up your child to bring home for a longer nap. I have done this at a couple of schools because I know how important sleep is to little brains and to better evening behavior!) If you have an older child, the down-time/ quiet time is still crucial for brain development. A child’s brain actually needs more down-time than stimulation to process everything and make lasting brain connections. Make sure the school “schedules” in this kind of time for older kids. If they don’t, then you need to provide it at home after school.
  • How do they handle discipline? Do they use it as an opportunity to teach and not to punish or shame? Do they give the children necessary tools for working out problems on their own? Do they offer viable positive solutions in guiding the children?
  • What is the curriculum? Does it follow a theme? letter? seasons? No right answer, just find out if they have a plan, and if it leaves enough room for play and exploration. And then, it’s always fun to expand the learning at home when you know what is happening…
  • on that note, how do they communicate with parents about what is happening in the classroom? Do parents walk kids to door, newsletters? When can parents talk with teachers? e-mail, etc? I personally prefer the system of parents delivering and picking up children at the classroom instead of through carpool. It might be less convenient for you, but it provides more connection with the teacher, the other families, and gives you more of an insight into what is happening at the school.
If you see something you don’t like, and you will because no school is perfect, offer some feedback, but also remember that you can fill in some of the blanks at home. YOU are your child’s first and best teacher.  AND tell them you know the most fabulous speaker who does training sessions/ continuing ed for pre-school teachers, and hook me up. I’ll do an inspiring, research-based presentation for them that will help improve their program for your children! info on my “Teach with Intention” seminars
Here are the programs my children have attended (all of which we have liked) in recent years:
  • HPPC Mother’s Co-op (for 2’s and 3’s) – when I taught at the Day School there
  • Zion Lutheran School (MJ did a semester and summer program there when he was 2)
  • Ridgewood Park Preschool and MDO (MJ was there at age 3 and 4)
  • St. James MDO – Montessori based (Ellie was there for 2 years)
  • and next year: Christian Child Development Center at Lake Highlands UMC (CCDC) – babies through age 5, Everyone but Daddy will be there! (Ellie in the 3’s, MJ in “Bridge”, and Mommy as the new music and chapel teacher)



  1. This list is very helpful. I am currently researching schools for when my daughter turns two later this year. I’ll keep an eye out for dirt time and other free play.