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The Preschool Search: The Time to Start Looking is Now

January doesn’t intuitively seem like the time to start looking for preschools, but in fact, it really is.

A lot of Indianapolis preschools open their doors after the holidays for open houses and tours, so the time to start making your preschool plans is now. Here are some important things to consider as you research schools and make the rounds visiting the classrooms.

The Signs of a Quality Preschool

When beginning your search for a preschool, Kate Vaulter — corporate communications manager at Early Learning Indiana — suggests visiting Indiana’s Child Care Finder website: in.gov/fssa/childcarefinder. There, you can search schools and centers by name to make sure their licensure is up-to-date and see if the school is accredited, among other things.

Staff credentials are important, too. “The director [should have] an early childhood background to allow for understanding of young children,” says Gail Hacker, co-director of Polly Panda Preschool in Indianapolis. “The parent should observe the teachers interacting and enjoying the children. The children should be engaged in hands-on, developmentally appropriate activities.”

Also important is to pay attention to the kids in the classroom. “Pay close attention to the children as you tour,” says James Layne, marketing and public relations at The Orchard School and a former preschool teacher. “If you’re noticing a lot of independence, confidence, joy and an overall comfortable vibe from the students, then you’re in the right place.”

Evaluating the School

Susan Michal, director of early childhood education at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, advises that parents evaluate themselves first and figure out what they want for their children from the preschool.

“I tell parents to think through their top goals for their child’s school,” says Michal, who also oversees the preschool program that is offered at The Children’s Museum. “Are they most interested in high achievement and grades, social emotional support, character development, a traditional or progressive education model, community involvement both within the school and in the neighboring area? Parents should follow their gut instinct and notice how they feel when they are walking the halls of a school.”

Hacker adds that parents should ask what type of program the school offers. “The philosophy of the program needs to match with the parents’ expectations,” Hacker says. “Some programs are play-based, while others are more structured.”

Look for Red Flags

As you tour the classroom, if you notice that the students are not engaged, the learning space is cluttered or sterile, or there is a high turn-over rate with staff, that should set off some warning bells. Ideally, what you want to see is “happy children actively engaged, teachers immersed in children’s activity, a clean space, children’s work and documentation up in classroom, a calm and welcoming environment, and sense of a calm order,” Michel says.

Layne adds that at The Orchard School, they believe in the research supporting nature as teacher. “So, if outdoor play or learning isn’t incorporated, even at a basic level, that could be concerning,” Layne says. “Research shows that being outdoors, especially at an early age, can have such a positive impact on a child.” If something is important to you in a school — such as lots of outdoor time, lots of free-play time, etc. — make sure you keep that at the forefront of your mind when touring the school.

Why Touring is Important

“Visiting [a school in person] allows parents to get a sense of the culture and if it fits with their preferences,” says Erin Kissling, vice president of research and policy initiatives at Early Learning Indiana. “That’s not something you can do on a website or through referrals from friends or relatives.”

Kisslings says that the encourage families interested in enrolling in one of their nine Day Early Learning centers to take a tour and use their senses. “What do they see, hear and smell?” she says. “Are there age-appropriate books and toys in the classroom? What is the interaction like between teachers and the children in their classrooms? All of these observations can help guide parents in choosing a high-quality environment for their child and give them additional confidence that they’ve made the right decision.”

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