What to Look for in a Preschool: 50 Characteristics of a High-Quality Early Childhood Education
Parents appreciate the importance of early childhood education but wonder: What are the characteristics of a high-quality preschool? As a former early childhood educator and mother of two, I've seen which practices benefit young children, which ones don't, and which ones are actually harmful to them (e.g. long Circle Times, teacher-directed craft projects, lengthy calendar activities, paper-pencil tasks in workbooks). One of my sons attended a non-profit parent-cooperative that strictly adhered to the teachings of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). My other son attended a privately owned preschool that came highly recommended but followed no road map other than the owner's whim. Based on these divergent experiences, I learned how important it is that a preschool has a strong identity, a sound philosophy, and a firm understanding of developmentally appropriate practices.
Looking for a Top-Notch Preschool?
Art Fosters Creativity, Independence, and Decision-Making
Open-ended art (painting, collage, clay, and printmaking) is emphasized, not teacher-directed craft projects.
The artistic process is more important than the finished product.
The teacher encourages children to do art but never coerces them.
Children paint at the easel every day.
There are no coloring books in the classroom.
The children explore with various materials. Each child's art is unique.
Art is simple. Students do not follow step-by-step directions to make specific cookie-cutter projects such as pipe cleaner spiders, pine-cone turkeys, or cotton ball snowmen.
There are no teacher samples to copy.
The teacher articulates to parents the benefits of doing open-ended art: It's soothing and empowering. It promotes creativity, independence, and decision-making.
Bulletin boards display a wide-variety of children's art.
Children May Paint at the Easel Every Day
Circle Time Is Short and Sweet
11. A 4-year-old's attention span is about 15 minutes. Therefore, Circle Time should not last longer than that.
12. The teacher doesn't use Circle Time as her primary means of instruction. Research shows young children learn more during small group activities and open-play periods.
13. The teacher involves the children. She doesn't use Circle Time as her personal stage, expecting the children to sit quietly and listen while she performs.
14. Circle Time includes music and movement.
15. The teacher articulates to parents the limitations of Circle Time and explains the benefits of small groups: Children do hands-on learning and exploration. They ask questions. They don't have to wait their turn. They learn from one another. They learn by doing.
- Why Circle Time Is Detrimental to Your Preschooler
Circle Time is a popular practice at preschools, but is it a beneficial one? A former preschool and kindergarten teacher explains how Circle Time has become too long, too frequent, and too unwieldy. Teachers are now using it as their primary platform
Phonological Awareness Is Taught in an Explicit Way
16. The teacher is knowledgeable about phonological awareness as a prerequisite for reading.
17. The teacher integrates phonological awareness into the day in a fun, playful way.
18. The teacher knows that phonological awareness is void of print so workbooks and worksheets are unnecessary. It involve hearing and manipulating the sounds inside words.
19. The teacher reads rhyming books, poems, nursery rhymes, and books that involve language play and alliteration.
20. The teacher plays children's music that contain rhymes and word play: Hap Palmer, Raffi, Dr, Jean, Joe Scruggs. The class sings rhyming songs, does finger plays, and recites poetry.
21. The teacher exaggerates words so each sound is heard: cat becomes kuh-aaa-tuh. She talks about beginning, middle, and ending sounds. The children clap the syllables in words: cat = 1, hamster = 2, Dalmatian = 3.
22. The teacher uses small group activities to teach about phonological awareness. Games are used.
23. The teacher knows that learning the letter sounds is more important for reading than learning the letter names.
24. The teacher goes through all the letter sounds each day. She does not use the popular but ineffective “letter of the week” approach.
25. The teacher explains to parents what phonological awareness is and why it's important.
Phonological Awareness Is a Prerequisite for Reading and Spelling
Math Is Hands-On!
26. Learning about math is enjoyable, meaningful, and hands-on.
27. The children explore and experiment with a wide-variety of math materials during small group activities and open-play periods. They learn by doing. The teacher guides them by asking questions.
28. The teacher integrates math into the day so it's seen by the children as part of the real world.
29. Math is play. Children learn math concepts during open-play periods: using the cash register at the store, stringing beads in patterns in the art area, sorting bugs at the science center, using measuring cups and spoons in the kitchen.
30. Blocks are always encouraged at open-play periods. They teach math concepts such as problem solving, adding, subtracting, grouping, and geometry.
31. Math manipulatives (pattern blocks, unifix cubes, counters, geoboards) are plentiful and the children have lots of time to play with them in many ways.
32. Children learn about measurement by playing with cups and spoons at the water and sand tables.
33. The class counts throughout the day with a purpose. They count the kids at school. They count the different foods at snack. They count the number of items brought for Show and Tell.
34. The teacher articulates to parents how children learn math in a developmentally appropriate way by moving from the concrete (manipulatives) to the abstract (numerals).
35. The teacher does not rely heavily on calendar activities to teach math concepts. Patterning, counting, and sequencing are better taught with hands-on activities in small groups. Children below first grade find calendar activities largely meaningless because their notion of time is not yet mature.
Outside Time Is A Priority
36. Children play outside every day. Outside time is never short-changed. It's never withheld as punishment.
37. Outside time is for unstructured play. The teacher encourages students to make up their own games and rules, set up obstacle courses, and use their imaginations. This time is not used for structured teacher-led games such as Duck-Duck-Goose and Red Light/Green Light.
38. The teacher articulates the value of outside time to parents: It promotes exercising, socializing, sharing, taking turns, cooperating, and problem solving.
39. Children wear casual clothes so they can move freely and get dirty.
40. The outdoor area has equipment for climbing, running, throwing, catching, and swinging.
Outside Play Is Never Neglected
Small Group Activities Are Where Real Learning Takes Place!
46. Most learning takes place during small group activities, not whole group Circle Time instruction.
47. Small group activities include cooperative learning projects as well as autonomous exploration. The children learn from one another. They learn by doing.
48. High-interest activities promote curiosity and exploration. The teacher acts as a facilitator. She asks lots of questions, especially ones that start with how: How can you make that bigger?How can you use that in a way it's not intended? How can you make that symmetrical?
49. The teacher adds materials and activities that appeal to the children's interests. If a child is interested in dinosaurs, she'll put out dinosaurs. If a child is interested in magnets, she'll put out magnets.
50. There are always materials and activities that promote small motor development so children will be ready to hold a pencil correctly when they begin elementary school: play-dough to squeeze, stickers and stamps for creating, beads to string, pegboards to decorate, and Legos to build.
- Preschool Learning: Less Is More
While getting their education, preschool teachers learn about Developmentally Appropriate Practices. Out in the real world, however, much of that learning goes out the window.
What is the most important role preschool plays in a child's life?See results without voting
More by this Author
A former preschool teacher explains what hands-on learning at preschool is and why it's so important. She urges parents to advocate for it because it's being devalued and minimized by those in power.
Circle Time is popular in early childhood education, but it's largely a waste of time. Research shows kids learn more with small group activities, kinesthetic learning, and hands-on exploration.
The author says we place unreasonable demands on children, forgetting where they're at developmentally. These include making them take standardized tests and labeling all mean behavior as "bullying."