Preschool:  Why, When and Where?

The decision to send a child to preschool can be fraught with questions: when should I send them, where should I send them, what should look for, etc... Parents with younger children easily get swept up in the frenzy of feeling they need to make a decision often earlier than necessary. Not every child is ready for preschool at the same age. Nor is every family suited to the same type of programs. The issue of preschool has become unnecessarily stressful for parents of young children.

Why send children to preschool?

Parents send their children to preschool for various reasons. Generally children are sent to preschool for an opportunity to learn to share, follow instructions and begin the foundation for learning that will prepare them for kindergarten. Preschools generally provide young children with a variety of rich experiences and socialization that isn’t readily available in our homes. During the ages of 3-5, children thrive on being in social groups and enjoy working together collaboratively which facilitates a great deal of learning. The structure within the preschool environment, along with opportunity for play, free choice and socialization is the foundation for helping children become life-long learners. Preschools are great environments for helping children learn language and cognitive skills, develop curiosity, enhance their motor skills and boost their pre-math and literacy skills.

Although preschool is an important experience for a young child, the “when” and “where” is a very individual decision. Not every child benefits from a preschool experience at the same time. Most children begin preschool at 3 years of age, when they have naturally become less egocentric and more capable of group activities. Some very social and independent children may be ready for preschool sooner.

When do I send my child to preschool?

What are signs that a child is ready for preschool? A child ready for preschool will usually separate from their parent easily and enjoys socializing with other children. A child ready for preschool usually has enough language skills to communicate his/her needs and desires and is able to take direction from another adult. A child ready for preschool has moved beyond the egocentricity of a toddler and is able to somewhat relate to others, interested in others and able to give and take. Lastly a child ready for preschool is interest in a variety of activities and can attend to a task for a reasonable amount of time, Attention span is still short in preschool, but has definitely grown from toddler hood. With these skills a child can be successful in most school environments with or without their parents.

Where do I send my child to preschool?

If you feel you and your child are ready for preschool it is important to consider your families needs as well as your child’s temperament in making the decision of “where.” We are so fortunate to have such an incredible variety of options. Start by having a conversation with your partner about your goals and family needs. Next consider your child’s temperament. Children who are very middle of road in their temperament traits may adapt well to a variety of programs, but more extreme temperament traits should be carefully considered when choosing your child’s preschool. For example...children who are very sensitive and perhaps cautious and slow to warm, may do better in a quieter, more organized environment with fewer children. Children who are very high activity temperamentally will benefit from a program with a great outdoor area they are able to utilize often throughout the day. Children who find adapting to changes challenging may do better in an environment with limited transitions. With programs that support their temperament traits, they will gain confidence, feel good about themselves and naturally grow and learn more.

Good preschools provide children with rich experiences that give them skills, information and attitudes that prepare them for the primary grades and life. Early education and preparation for future school experiences should focus on stimulating curiosity, building responsibility, and encouraging social and problem solving skills. Preschool is generally not a place to learn academics. The importance of developmentally appropriate practice cannot be underestimated. In fact one long-term study comparing an academic program to a play-based or developmental program showed that children in the academic program actually did worse in school as they got older. The brain is “rigged” to learn things at certain times, and to build on these blocks as it matures. Pushing young children to memorize certain facts early does not mean they have committed these ideas to memory.

In this area, parents typically start investigating options about a year before they want their children to attend preschool. After talking with your spouse and considering your child as well as your daily circumstances, begin by contacting schools that fit your needs. Ask about fees, admission policy and philosophy and curriculum. Once you’ve narrowed down choices schedule your visits. Most preschools run open houses and/or visits during the winter with registration periods early spring. If possible visit schools you really like with your child and see how she responds to the classroom, the teacher and the activities.

Here in our area, we commonly choose between play-based programs, Montessori programs and/or coop type preschools. While all are somewhat different, they are equally beneficial. The key is visiting each program and evaluating for yourself whether it would be the right place for your child. It is beneficial to visit a variety of programs, and with your child in mind, get a feel for the program and where your child might feel most comfortable. An early childhood program should honor each child’s timetable for growth in each of these areas: physical, emotional, social and cognitive. Preschool should be a place for children to learn how to be with other children and adults and to gain some basic school-routines, such as sitting in circle time, cooperating with others to work on a task and moving from one activity to another. Most importantly, it should be a place to continue working on social, emotional and problem solving skills.

If you are feeling your child is not quite ready, or you are not ready for this move consider some other options. It’s important to swim against the tide of societal pressure to put your child into preschool earlier and earlier, just because every one else might be! Research has proven that pushing children can be detrimental. Many of the skills learned at preschool can be learned by making sure your child is getting opportunities for socialization and play by participating in a regular playgroup, going on different types of outings and taking art, music or gym classes. Often our children are over-scheduled out of a desire to make sure they don’t fall behind. They actually benefit more from time with you and one or two activities a week. One of the reasons many parents choose to do a second or third year at Little Wonders is that it offers the child the opportunity for socialization and play, while allowing the child time to participate perhaps in another activity during the week. The other valuable component for the parents is the continuing parent education and support during the particularly challenging “trying twos".  We continually get feedback from our parents about how valuable our parent education is. Parents love having this extended community, continuing to build friendships and building their toolbox of parenting tips! Experiences during the 2 year old year are different those the first year. Children benefit from a variety of art and other materials that enhance their creativity. They also benefit from science and games. Possibly the biggest change is in their friendships. Although the majority of children continue parallel play, you’ll often see friendships begin to bud. Children will come to school wanting to play with a specific friend. The classroom and overall experience is very different the second year and can be just what the child needs to build their confidence and social skills for subsequent successful preschool years! If you have any doubts talk to any Little Wonders parent who has returned for the second year!

There are many wonderful alternatives that provide your children opportunity for socialization as well as fostering other interests. Below is just a short list:

  • Local parks and recreation programs

  • Tiny Treks

  • Scribble Me Happy

  • Music Classes

  • Gymnastics

  • Coyote Point Toddler Tuesdays

  • Discovery Museum

  • Palo Alto Junior Museum

  • Swimming

  • Consistent small playgroups

If you do feel your child is ready for preschool here is a list of some local preschools. Most of these have Open Houses starting in November through February.

Parent Participation
(limited participation rather than coop)

A Child’s Way in Burlingame
The Children’s School HUMC in San Mateo
Trinity Presbyterian Nursery School in San Carlos

Montessori Schools

Centennial in San Mateo
Bayview Montessori in San Mateo
Beresford Montessori in San Mateo
Morning Glory Montessori in Burlingame

Waldorf Schools

Waldorf School of the Peninsula

Reggio Schools

Chai Jewish preschool in Foster City

Language Immersion programs

Universe of Colors San Mateo
Paso a Paso Burlingame
Welcome Amigos San Mateo



St. Pauls in Burlingame
San Mateo Parents Nursery School in San Mateo
UMC in Burlingame
Bunker Hill in San Mateo
Carlmont Parents Nursery School in Belmont
Sequoia Parents Nursery School in Redwood City
Redwood Parents Nursery School in Redwood City

Drop Off Programs

Stella Piccolo in San Mateo
Gazelle in San Mateo
Peninsula Temple Shalom in Burlingame
Transfiguration in San Mateo
Serendipity in San Mateo
Park Preschool in San Mateo
Tiny Tots in Hillsborough
First Presbyterian in Burlingame
Our Lady of Angels preschool in Burlingame
Nurture and Nature in Millbrae
Sequoia Preschool in Redwood City
Learning links in Burlingame
PJCC in Foster City

Full day preschool and daycare

Busy Doodle Bugs in Burlingame
Full of Wonder in San Mateo

In the end, whatever decision you make, make it for You and Your child!! Make an informed choice and don’t be afraid to change your mind if it ends up not working as well as you’d expected.

Recommended Reading:

Miseducation, Preschoolers at Risk, David Elkind

The Hurried Child , David Elkind

Emotional Intelligence, David Goleman

Endangered Minds, Jane M. Healy

The Essential Montessori, The Introduction to the Woman, Writings, the Method and the Movement,Elizabeth G. Hainstock

Preschool for Parents, Diane Trister Dodge and Toni S. Bickart