Want to Find a Great Preschool? Ask These 5 Expert Questions

If you have a toddler at home, you may wonder how to begin selecting a preschool that’s a good match for her. What should you look for? Which factors matters most? What should you ask?

The best advice? Think of the tour as an interview — in which you’re the one asking questions.

Beyond the Basics

When you tour a preschool, it’s important to remember that the school administrator is getting to know you and your child from the moment you walk into the building. But as much as the professionals are assessing whether your family is a good fit, you should be equally direct and observant in your evaluation of their school community. Teachers, administrators, and staff are, after all, important partners with parents in children’s development during these critical years, and you want to learn whether the preschool community they’ve created will provide your child with opportunities to grow in important social-emotional ways.

At a preschool visit, you will typically hear answers to the same nuts-and-bolts questions: What are the educational credentials of staff members? What is the schedule each day? Does the preschool provide snacks and lunch? But parents often forget to ask about the types of interactions and expectations that shape a preschooler’s socialization skills and self-image.

Below are five questions that will help you get a sense of the principles and learning approaches that matter most in these early years of a child’s education.

1. How do you teach behavioral skills?

Be specific when you pose this question. For example, try asking, “If a child hits or pushes, how do you instruct about appropriate behavior?” One of the primary roles of early childhood education is to help children develop socialization skills — that is, to teach the ways in which preschoolers should interact with each other and what the rules of their school community are.

Disciplinary approaches ought to be instructive, never punitive. Preschool staff should not use isolation, deprivation of food, or lack of outdoor time as a way to punish misbehavior. Rather, they should sit with young students and talk to them about appropriate ways of expressing their feelings and handling conflicts, skills that form the basis of ongoing social-emotional development.

Educators need to explain why a particular action is or isn’t allowed, and in turn, impose consequences that are directly related to the problem. If a child hit a classmate in the block area, for example, she should be removed from this station for a short time. If she inappropriately expressed frustration by pushing a peer, her teacher ought to provide strategies to handle the situation differently in the future. Behavioral challenges are teaching opportunities — and the preschool should be communicating this point of view to prospective families.

2. How much time is spent outdoors and in what weather? What are the activities?

Preschoolers should be outside for at least 30 minutes if they attend on a half-day basis, or for two 30-minute sessions if they attend full-day. Children also need to be in nature because these settings offer excellent learning experiences. Parts of the curriculum ought to be geared toward activities that can be accomplished outdoors, such as learning to write in sand or doing science experiments with materials found in the park.

In addition, young kids need to exercise their gross motor muscles, which also helps to develop neurological pathways needed for future literacy and math skills. Most states have regulations for the minimum amount of time preschoolers should be outdoors and under what weather conditions. Generally, though, they should go outside when the temperature isn’t a health threat — and then spend as much time there as possible.

3. How much time do students spend in front of screens?

Electronic devices — computers, tablets, televisions — are a part of everyday life, but screens ought to be limited in preschool settings, where the focus needs to be on interactive play, pretend, hands-on learning, and navigating peer relationships. Sophisticated technology may look impressive, but it can cut into time spent strengthening social skills, fine and gross motor development, and person-to-person interactions that foster verbal and mathematical abilities. All of these are crucial. Children have plenty of time to master technology and, in fact, many hone these skills at home. But its use will not provide young children with the experiences they need to develop social skills and self-confidence.

4. Is all of the art child-created?

Emphasize the word all. Very young children may need help, particularly with cutting, but, in general, teachers should not pre-cut materials or coach their students as they glue. If much of the artwork on the walls looks alike — that is, if the cutting, placement, lines, and shapes are all perfect — then preschoolers are learning to follow directions. But they are not doing art.

Arts education offers children rich opportunites for self-expression. Preschoolers should do their best to cut, draw, and glue by relying on their own abilities and imagination. When a teacher intervenes in this process, not only is she compromising the creativity of your preschooler, this educator is then deprived of the chance to note your child’s developmental stage or unique view of the world.

5. What materials do you use to teach literacy skills?

Endless worksheets are not the best way to engage the interest of young children. Indeed, the younger the child, the less paper a teacher should use. Preschoolers should be using multi-sensory materials to learn to trace and write. When you visit, listen for descriptions of using sand, shaving cream, finger paints, songs, art, and more as part of the school’s reading and writing curriculum. Moreover, look for the dry erase boards that children love and dramatic play areas where preschoolers learn the magic of symbolism.

Nearly every lesson in early childhood has the potential to build literacy skills. When children pretend, they are storytelling. When they sing songs, they are learning the rhythm of their language. If a preschool’s only answer to a question about literacy development is to invoke workbooks or worksheets, be wary. Young children need to be happily engaged in learning, and worksheets rarely achieve this aim at such a young age.

When you tour preschools, don’t hesitate to ask lots of specific questions on a range of topics related to early learning. These are the years when your child is developing a sense of self-worth and confidence as she becomes a thinker and creator. You want to be sure the school’s approach will foster this growth — and the preschool should welcome your interest.

You can use the Noodle search tool to find top preschools near you, and register for a free account to save and share lists or ask questions of our community of Experts.

Want to learn more about preschools across the U.S.? Check out 17 Bizarre Preschool Rules You Won’t Believe Exist.