Picking a Preschool: Play-based vs. Structured is One Choice, But There are Many More

There are a lot more variables in preschools now than there used to be.

A lot can be written about finding the right school for your child – public vs. private, secular vs. religious, coop vs. traditional, and of course play-based vs. structured. There’s a wide spectrum in all of those areas plus other specialized programs, and where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, the variety of options can be overwhelming. But let’s say, for the sake of simplification that we’re searching for a largely play-based environment for our children during their early years. What then?

Before my husband and I decided to try for a baby, I naively scoffed at new parents fretting about where to send their kids to school; I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about – and why on earth was it such a big deal to get kids into “the right preschool”? Then a couple of years later, we made our decision to start a family, I soon became pregnant, and lo and behold, people were already warning me: “Have you gotten on any waiting lists yet?” They said, with obvious tension in their voices. I shrugged in reply. “You really should,” they responded.I didn’t know where to begin. I felt I might jinx things if I signed up for a parents’ club before the baby was born, but I did get on one waiting list at 3 months pregnant for a nearby coop preschool that I knew nothing about except it was close by and emphasized play. Fast forward a year, and I was ready to sign up for more. We assumed all along we would send our daughter to public schools since they have a good reputation where we live, so I thought all we needed was a decent preschool before she was eligible for kindergarten.

I don’t know if it’s the curse of having too much information available, some sort of pressure by proximity, or just natural parenting paranoia, but I decided there was no harm in exploring all of our options. I began touring local schools and trolling web sites trying to find the right place for my daughter and our family, where she will have the opportunity to thrive and learn in an environment most conducive to her personality as well as our wishes for her development and enjoyment. We got on three more waiting lists. Then I left it alone for a while and the past few months, I began to research it further as the schools began their admissions process. (Our daughter is now two.)

I’d rather not share specifics of what schools we applied to or where we’ve been offered spots, but I will say that the experience has been more challenging than I expected because there’s no obvious choice. Some programs are morning-only; some are afternoon-only. Some provide additional language instruction, but most do not. Some have religious instruction where others don’t acknowledge holidays or children’s birthdays. Some allow or encourage parent participation in the classroom, others don’t. Some are only for a couple of hours, and some go all day. Some have specific food restrictions where others allow everything. All of the programs we selected have safe, nurturing play environments for the children and they are all well-recommended from members of the community.

So let’s say our daughter starts at one of these schools that’s largely based on play, she thrives in that environment, and then it’s time for her to transition to kindergarten. At one of the tours I was on recently, a parent asked “what then?” How do the kids transition from a largely play-focused, self-directed environment to a more structured sit-down classroom setting? Of course the administrators at the school said the kids seem to do fine. Children adapt. It all works out. But what if it doesn’t?

I dug a bit farther, began asking other local parents what they thought about this. Some had actually found that their kids did better in structured environments after trying the play-based preschools, so they moved them. One parent said her son loved it, but her daughter did better elsewhere. Others loved the play-based schools so much that they chose a progressive, individualized private school for when their children transitioned into kindergarten through eighth grade. And yes, I’m getting way ahead of myself here, but then what? Then, it seems, the kids tend to do fine at the local public high school or secondary private schools, but half are split off from their friends. I’ve been researching gifted schools as well, and the same sort of issues apply there.

For readers who have lots of kids or who have already been through this process, it probably comes as no surprise that it all comes down to the child. Every kid is different, so some fit better in one environment than another, and it can be challenging to gauge how that child will do until they try out the school. Administrators and teachers at a good school will help you if your child doesn’t seem to be comfortable right away where s/he is, and they will suggest an environment that might work better. I think the best thing we can do as parents is observe and ask good questions of our children and the teachers to make sure nothing is being overlooked. And then we can keep watch in terms of the homework load (another big issue) – how much is too much? Do our kids still have time to play and learn on their own?

This experience of researching schools has put me back to thinking about my own education – whether I should have been at a private school instead of a public school, whether my preschool environment really made any difference, and other concerns that are related. Take school nutrition, for example. I began a poor eating regimen in junior high school that didn’t truly turn around until after I had suffered from several health problems over the ten years following.

I’ve concluded that our school choices as parents can make a huge difference. A lot of research suggests that play-based, individualized learning can help children become better problem-solvers and communicators, so I can only hope that beginning with that in mind, they will help us figure out the best course for their educations.

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