I can’t believe it is September and already parents have to think about where to enroll their child for preschool next fall. I was reminded of this yesterday when I had a wonderful reunion with a family I had worked with. This mom was sharing her experience of observing a possible preschool for her three-year-old. She got to the appointment early with her husband who suggested they wait in the car. She told him no, this was a great opportunity to observe what goes on at the playground. She watched the children file in after playtime and several children were crying. Now it is the beginning of the school year, but no one was comforting these children. Then when she went inside, it was obvious that this school was very structured and stressed academics. The children listened to a phonics tape in preparation for their lesson. This perceptive mom said to me, “If I am going to pay this much money for preschool, I want a person talking to my child, not a tape!” I had told her many times as I worked with her child that children learn through experience, not rote activities that aren’t meaningful to them.

Her husband was impressed with the stress on academics but she was not. She knows that Ben is learning numbers when she counts the steps he goes up or counts the stickers he gets when he goes potty. She carefully explains that he has three stickers and he needs two more to fill the boxes on his chart before he gets a prize. Gosh, that sounds like addition with meaning! Good for her.

She felt the absence of creative play and the flexibility to imagine. There is such pressure these days to have our children learn their letters, numbers and concepts earlier and earlier at the expense of free play. Countless studies show that creative, imaginative play leads to learners, great storytellers and interested readers. Look for a fun environment with props to create.

I have observed many preschools and on my first visit to one of my favorites, I walked into the room and couldn’t find the teacher! Then I realized that she was dressed up in a long skirt and boa, beads and a hat and was part of the play. She was so engaged with the kids (and on the small side I might add) that I missed her!

Look for engaged teachers that use every opportunity to share, explain and encourage. This may sound obvious but I was visiting a preschool recently and when it was snack time the teachers sat outside the kids circle and ate their snacks. Snack time is such a social opportunity to discuss wants, needs, exciting happenings in their lives and so on. These are all language lessons that expand on your child’s conversational skills.

Sometimes parents share with me that they don’t know how to pick a preschool for their child. I always say that when you visit you will know what fits your son or daughter. Some children thrive with lots of kids and several teachers. Others need a smaller group and one teacher. Some classes are more structured, others a little “looser” which fits certain kids’ needs. You will know which school is best for your child. Fast forward a few years and it is like choosing the right college. They will step on campus and say, “No way” or “This is it!”