What makes for the best preschool?
Choosing the right preschool for your child: factors to consider
- Most three year olds are ready for preschool. It helps if they’re independent, interested in early learning, and enjoy interacting with other kids.
- There are certain “must-haves” for any preschool in Canada. If they have children below the age of 6, they must be licensed by the provincial government. They should also have proper safety and discipline policies, a 1-to-8 child-to-staff ratio, and an open line of communication between staff and parents.
- When trying to find the right fit for your child, there are plenty of other factors to consider. These include location, cost, teaching and learning approach (for instance, play-based vs. academic), staff credentials, and the amount of play and outdoor time provided.
- Before choosing a preschool for your child, you should check out several of them. It helps to visit each preschool, talk to their staff and directors, view your child in their class environment, and ask lots of questions.
- There are lots of great resources to help you in your preschool search. These include preschool education guides, open house events, and private school expos.
Preschools prepare your child for the school years. The aim is to give them a strong start in kindergarten, one that provides a great basis for elementary school and beyond.
Most preschools are intended for children between the ages of three and five. Many preschools, though, have programs for infants (birth to 18 months) and toddlers (18 months to 3 years).
Readiness for preschool
Most three year olds (and some kids as young as two) are ready for a preschool or nursery program (or a daycare with some focus on early learning). Of course, not all kids are ready at this age, as they mature at different rates. And it may be the case that some kids may not be a good fit for preschool (or certain preschools) at any age.
Most children are ready for preschool education by age three (and some younger). And while not all children are the right fit, many are.
How do you know if your child is ready for preschool? Your child should be at least three (unless an infant or toddler preschool is offered). They should also be meeting developmental milestones and not have any severe special need(s) (unless it’s a preschool supporting the special need(s) in question). It’s also a plus if they seek independence and are comfortable when separated from you and their home (although some separation anxiety is normal).
Here are some other helpful traits for preschool. Keep in mind, many kids won’t have them before preschool, but develop them during it.
- Showing an interest in early learning.
- Preferring structure and routine.
- Having a good concentration and attention span.
- Enjoying interacting and learning with other kids.
Choosing a preschool: general factors
Assuming your child is ready for preschool, you’ll want to find the best one. You should look at several preschools and choose one that’s the right fit for you, your family, and your child.
Choosing the best preschool is no small task. First, you should consider general factors. These relate to a school’s overall suitability, for any child. They include the following:
- Licensing: Is it licensed or accredited by an appropriate federal or provincial institution in Canada? For instance, in Ontario, most preschools (those with children under 4 years old) must be licensed by the provincial government.
- Safety: Does it have a safe environment with proper supervision? What policies are in place and precautions used to ensure your child’s well being? Make sure these meet legal requirements and your own expectations.
- Discipline: How does it deal with behaviour issues? Are kids disciplined in any ways, and if so, how? Will you be informed if your child is disciplined? Make sure the preschool has a consistent, well thought out, and reasonable disciplining policy.
- Class size and teacher-to-student ratio: How large is the class? What is the staff-to-child ratio? In Ontario, for kids between 30 months and less than 6 years, preschools must have a maximum of 16 children per class, and at least 1 staff member for every 8 children.
- Hours: What time does preschool begin and end? Are before and/or after care offered? Is preschool open during holidays and/or summers?
- Communication: Is there an open line of communication with directors and staff? Who do you go to with your questions or concerns?
- Daily schedule: What does a typical day look like? What subjects, lessons, and activities are offered? Is there a good combination of structured and unstructured activities, and indoor and outdoor time?
- Food provision: What food is provided for your child? Are they provided with meals and snacks? What kind of meals and snacks are provided? Many preschools offer a meal and snack schedule for all parents.
- Toilet training: Does your child need to be toilet trained or partly toilet trained? If so, at what age? This is especially important if you’re considering an early years program for a three year old or younger child.
- Sleep: Is there nap or rest time each day? If so, at what time(s) and for how long? And how is nap time run and supervised? This is especially important if you’re considering an early years program for a three year old or younger child.
Stacy Paton, ECE program manager of Queen Margaret’s School, in Duncan, BC agrees with the importance of first looking at a preschool’s safety and discipline policies. She also stresses the importance of meeting licensing requirements, and having qualified staff and engaging materials. Here’s her list of a preschool’s must-haves:
- The centre maintains compliance with all provincial and licensing requirements
- There is a discipline policy (and that you agree with it)
- The physical location and centre layout are safe and adhere to governing acts
- Staff are certified and well-practiced (this includes possessing valid first aid)
- Materials offered encourage growth of the whole child and the acceptance of diversity
- The centre has a safe enclosed outdoor area for play
- Emergency procedure policies are in place and available upon request
Choosing a preschool: individual factors
Besides general factors, you should also consider factors specific to you. You’ll want to find a preschool that’s the right fit for you, your child, and your family. While preschools have pros and cons, the best preschool will be consistent with your family’s values, philosophies, and beliefs. It will also meet a wide range of your practical needs.
Finding the right preschool depends on a wide range of factors.
- Location: What city is it in? How close to you is it? Is it easily accessible by car and public transportation? Is it located in a school, community centre, church, synagogue, or somewhere else? Location is a big factor in finding the right program. Luckily, there are great preschools across Canada, including in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Mississauga, Oakville, Vaughan, Scarborough, and Brampton. Find a preschool near you.
- Cost: How much does it cost, and what does this cost include? Is it affordable for your family? Are financial aid, subsidies, or sibling discounts offered?
- Values: What are the main values it aims to promote? Does it promote diversity, family, community, social justice, religion, or any other values? How does it aim to promote these values? Do they match your family’s values?
- Environment: What type of learning environment is used? Are their different areas or stations of the classroom? Does this change throughout the year? What kinds of materials are in the classroom? When are they used and how often?
- Teaching approach: What is the teaching and learning approach? Does it offer more academic or play-based learning (or an equal combination of both)? Does it follow a specific teaching philosophy? For instance, is it a Montessori, Waldorf, or Reggio Emilia preschool?
- Specialized learning: Does it offer individualized learning? Does it tailor teaching to specific students, where appropriate? Or is teaching more on the “one-size-fits-all” model?
- Special needs: Does it offer support for kids with special needs? If so, which special needs (for instance, learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, giftedness, behavioural issues, physical disabilities, etc.)? And how does it support children with special needs?
- Staff/teacher credentials: How old are the staff members (in Ontario, they must be at least 18 years-old)? Do they have proper experience and training? Are some of them Registered Early Childhood Educators (RECE)? Do they have university degrees or college diplomas? Do they have teachers’ college certificates?
- Parent involvement: In what ways are parents involved in education? Are they required to volunteer on a regular basis (as in a community preschool)? In what other ways are they required, encouraged, or permitted to get involved?
- Play time: Does the preschool offer some free-play time each day? If so, for how long and how often?
- Outdoor time: Weather permitting, are kids given outdoor time each day? If so, how often and how much?
- Motor skills: How are gross motor skills (using arms and legs) developed? Through sports or other physical activities? Are these required activities? How are fine motor skills (using the fingers) developed? Through writing, drawing, and arts and crafts? Are these required activities?
Making the decision
You need to decide whether your child is suitable for preschool. If they are, you then need to choose the right program for them. These are big decisions: neither should be taken lightly.
In fact, we suggest breaking these decisions down into four different stages. Determining whether you child is ready for preschool, doing basic research, narrowing your choices down, and making the final decision. You should go through these stages in order. Don’t move to the next one until you’ve completed the preceding one.
- Determine whether your child is ready: Are they old enough? Are they mature and independent enough? Do they enjoy early learning, interacting, and socializing?
- Do basic research: Check out at what’s included in typical preschool programs. Compare preschool programming to that offered by nursery schools, daycare, child care centres, and other early care options. Look for preschools using our advanced search tool, and comb through private preschool listings throughout Ontario, BC, Alberta, Quebec, and across Canada.
- Narrow down your choices: Visit preschool open houses, arrange tours, meet with teachers, and sit in on classes. Ask lots of questions (there’s no such thing as a bad question). Bring your child for a visit and watch them interact with other kids. See how they like the learning environment and teachers. It’s best to do this more than once, on different days of the week.
- Make the final decision: When you’re making for final choice, trust your instincts. You’ve done the research. You’ve visited schools and talked with staff, and you may have viewed your child in the classroom. This should give you a strong sense for whether the preschool is the right fit. After all, you know your child better than anyone!
Selecting a preschool for your child can be a daunting task. You want to give them a headstart in life and a great foundation for the school years. And preschool can be one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle.
Luckily, there are lots of great resources to help you in your preschool search.
- Preschool, ECE, and early learning websites: There are some great websites to aid you in your search for the right preschool. We recommend the following sites: National Association for the Education of Young Children, National Institute for Early Education Research, Early Childhood Research and Practice, and Early Childhood Today.
- Open house events: Attending open houses is a great way to learn more about schools in general (and preschools in particular). For general advice on open house visits (much of which applies to preschools), check out our guide on school visits.
- Choosing school guides: There are some great guides to choosing schools in Canada (and throughout the world). To learn more about choosing private schools (including private preschools), read our choosing guide on OurKids.net (and our guide on questions to ask private schools). If you’re interested in Montessori preschools, check out our Montessori choosing guide. If you're looking for a special needs school, check out our special needs school choosing guide.
- Private school expos: Private school expos are a great way to find out about the best preschools near you. We have annual expos across Canada: in Toronto, Halton-peel, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary. At these expos, you can meet with lots of private preschools, ask them questions, and learn whether they might be right for your child.
- Preschool guides: OurKids.net is the premier site for researching, comparing, and discussing private schools in Canada. To learn more about different kinds of private schools and preschools, check out our comprehensive guides. Our guides to Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia schools provide the most in-depth online coverage of these school approaches in Canada. We also have articles on Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia preschools. Finally, check out our comparison of Montessori to Waldorf, Waldorf to Reggio Emilia, Montessori to Reggio Emilia, academic to play-based, Montessori to play-based, and Montessori to academic preschools.
- Parent discussion forum: Another great resource in your preschool search is the Our Kids parent discussion forum. The forum is the ideal place to discuss preschools (and other types of schools) with other parents, education experts, and school officials.
Answers to the question “What makes for a great preschool?” from educational consultants and school officials
“The best way to determine whether a preschool is a good fit is by visiting on more than one occasion. The program on one day might be different from the program on another day. Additionally, it is important to visit several schools, in order to have a basis of comparison. Even if you are sure of one preschool, visit others to be sure.” Ann Wolff, educational consultant at Wolff Education Services, in Toronto, Ontario
“It’s best if children are offered a balance of activities and quiet times. A child who has happy and successful learning experiences will likely be motivated to keep learning in those areas. No two children are exactly alike, and so the ‘fit’ will vary from one preschool environment to another, and parents will have to see what best suits their particular child, while keeping in mind that interests and development will take different directions over time.” Joanne Foster, educational specialist, and co-author (with Dona Matthews) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids
“Selecting a preschool that is a good fit for your child can be exciting as well as overwhelming. As a parent, you want to be confident that you decide on the right program for your little one, but how do you make the best choice? Always inquire about practical matters first. When visiting preschools, evaluate practical issues specific to your family’s needs. These include the school's hours, proximity to your home or work, available transportation, after-hours options, cost, class size, and staff-to-child ratio. Be sure to ask about the application and admission procedures and the timeline for these. Start considering programs early and get information to make sure you don’t miss any deadlines.
Some important questions to ask:
- What is the educational philosophy of the preschool?
- What is the educational background and experience of the teachers and staff?
- Are there active play opportunities to develop gross and fine motor skills?
- Do the children nap regularly?
- Are meals and snacks provided?
- Is potty training required?
- How is discipline handled?
- Will the school provide references?” Lee Venditti, director of J. Addison, a Montessori school in Markham, Ontario
“What should parents look for? We encourage parents to visit the licensed physical location of the program that interests them. Parents should look for qualified instructors who offer the ‘whole child’ experience. It is important that families choose a centre that matches their goals, personal philosophies, their child’s needs/personality, and above all receive confirmation that the staff are committed to the safety and well-being of the children at all times.
When visiting preschools, it is important for parents to watch the physical interaction between educator and child. This is to ensure that the children are respected, nurtured, and age-appropriately challenged. This balance is important for establishing a healthy educational relationship between preschools and families.” Stacy Paton, ECE program manager of Queen Margaret’s School, in Duncan, British Columbia
“Visit the preschool and ask for a tour of the entire facility. Make sure to spend time observing the children interacting with the teachers and the physical space. A warm nurturing teaching staff with experience is vital. High teacher retention is key (low staff turnover), as this is a sign of an effectively managed preschool.
The curriculum should be engaging, child-centred, and should address the needs of the whole child—social, emotional, physical and academic. Ask about the schedule: a good preschool should have a well-developed schedule that fits the developmental needs of the children’s specific ages with appropriate time allotted for nutrition, rest, and outdoor play/exploration.” Kate Meadowcroft, teacher at Elmwood School (the early years program), in Ottawa, Ontario
“A visit to a school will give you a sense of the environment. It’s a good idea to carefully observe the classroom. Do the children look happy? Are they engaged in a wide variety of activities? How are they interacting with each other and the teacher? All of this information will help determine if the school is the right fit for you and your family.” Corina Gill, assistant head of the lower school at Bayview Glen Independent School, in Toronto, Ontario
“When choosing a preschool, it is ultimately up to each parent to decide on the best learning environment that would best suit their child. The school that they choose should fit their individual needs and provide quality teachers and resources. If the child feels safe and happy, and they are showing progression, then it is the right fit.” Debbie Keough, teacher at Prestige School, a gifted school, in Richmond Hill, Ontario