It’s a good idea to visit schools before you fill out your application. Most schools give tours. Beware of those that don’t. You want a school that’s welcoming to parents.
Close to home is best. Little kids tire easily, and a long commute to school will be difficult, particularly in the winter. Still, some parents find good programs near their work, or near a relative or babysitter who can pick up their children after school.
Look for signs of attention and care, and watch out for neglect— dusty shelves, torn books and dying plants. Is there a fenced-in playground and a front door greeter? Look for a bathroom in the room or no more than three doors away. Check for exposed extension cords and outlets. You can find information on safety and cleanliness by checking out the inspection history of pre-k sites online.
A good pre-k teacher should be talking to kids and listening to them, repeating back words and using full sentences—upping the ante when it comes to language. They should be able to maintain a predictable routine to help kids feel safe and secure. In pre-k, children need to learn to get along with other children and to follow classroom routines.
You can tell a lot from the moment you step inside a building. Does someone greet you? Is there information for parents on display, and a place to sit and wait? Parents should be invited to take part in the life of the school, whether it's attending an event, taking care of the class pet over the holiday or volunteering to read to the class.
You want someone who is approachable and easy-to-find, not hidden behind a door. A strong leader brings out the best in each member of the school community. The principal or director should either know something about early childhood or be in communication with an expert in the building.
Look for children's work on display, not decorations made by the teacher. Ideally, the work should show individual creativity. You don't want to see lots of fill-in-the-blank worksheets, but kids may be beginning to draw, write letters or sound out words and label their pictures. Are there science explorations—like drawings of leaves or a graph to show how many seeds are in an apple?
An exciting, orderly classroom
Good pre-k's have fun-to-read books and objects organized in baskets on shelves to help children investigate patterns, numbers and shapes. Look for classrooms with live animals, LEGOs, water tables, plants and fish tanks to spark curiosity. Tables and rugs give kids choices of where to work. Children this age need opportunities to talk to one another and to grown-ups--more than they need pencil and paper exercises. They should create their own stories in their own words in a dress-up corner or a play kitchen. They should learn words like “bigger” and “smaller” and “above” and “below” when they build towers in the block corner.
A well-balanced day
Often you will see a schedule of the day posted on the wall. Look for a routine with a mix of active and quiet activities. There should be a time to rest in full-day programs but not enforced naptime. Kids need time to play outside every day, and time to explore, often called "choice" or "center" time. All pre-k children eat lunch in the classroom, "family style," where they can chat with friends and practice good manners.
Opportunities to be independent
Good teachers foster independence. They help kids learn to hang up their own coats, prepare and serve breakfast or lunch, clean up after themselves, and put on their own shoes. Good pre-k's often label objects so kids can begin to pair objects and words, and provide them with step-by-step pictures for procedures like hand washing, to instill good habits and pride in accomplishment.