Q: We're looking for a preschool for our 3-year-old, Leon. My sister says, "Preschool is the new kindergarten, so prepare him for structure." Leon can hardly sit still! How can we find one that doesn't push him too fast?
A: While some preschools have a stronger academic focus than a decade ago, you can still find programs that match the preschool experience to a child's developmental level.
The educators who direct these programs know that the best starting point is where the child is, not what's in a workbook. Most 3-year-olds need to explore and play; they need time to wiggle, build, sing and shout.
David Elkind, a Tufts University child development expert, says too many preschools today hurry children with inappropriate expectations.
"While some children may be ready for academics," he says, "the vast majority of human brains aren't developed enough to truly learn reading or math concepts until they've reached the age of reason, typically at age 5 or 6."
When we push kids who aren't ready, "we risk killing their motivation for learning, for schooling and for respecting teachers," says Elkind, author of "The Hurried Child" (Da Capo Press, 2006) and "The Power of Play" (Da Capo Press, 2007).
Let your values and knowledge of your son guide you, says California-based early childhood educator Karen Hill Scott. To find a good match, review checklists for quality preschools.
"While a checklist won't make your decision for you, it's helpful to know what quality indicators to look for and how programs are defined," she says. "The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (www.naccrra.org) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (www.naeyc.org) are useful resources."
Next, make a list of schools to visit. "Concentrate on the Three P's -- People, Program and Place," says Hill Scott. "Meet the director. The quality of the program rises or falls based on a director's competence. Can you relate to him or her? If the preschool were your workplace, would you want to deal with this person every day? Ask about the staff. What is their background? How long have they worked at the center?"
Any high-quality program, whether developmental or academic, should have a curriculum and a purposeful daily plan, says Hill Scott.
"During your visit, look for a clear connection between the activities and the curriculum goals," she says. "Do the activities encourage children to develop creativity, curiosity and problem-solving? Social and emotional skills? Are there abundant books, materials and play equipment? Will you receive regular communications about Leon's progress?"
Finally, consider the physical place. "The room has to feel right to you," says Hill Scott. "Cutesy architectural doodads are less important than having the sink near the bathroom so hands get washed, or creating a quiet corner so kids can curl up with a book. Look for the relationship of the space to safety and flow of activity."
After your visits, rank the programs in terms of the three P's. Then consider location, fees and hours of operation.
"You may not find perfection, but thanks to your homework, you'll find the best fit," says Hill Scott.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)