Moms Talk: Choosing A Preschool

Parents weigh in on things to consider when enrolling children in school for the first time

Moms Talk is part of a Vienna Patch initiative to reach out to moms, parents and families in Vienna.

Grab a cup of coffee and settle in as we start the conversation today with a topic that has been popular on Vienna Patch in the past week: choosing a preschool.

From Moms Council member Chandra Keller-Allen:

High quality early childhood education has been demonstrated through a great deal of research to provide lasting cognitive and social benefits to children. Choosing a preschool for your three- or four-year old child can be a challenging process because there are so many options to consider and each family’s needs are different. There are things to know about, things to do, and things to consider as you look at possible preschools to ensure that you find a place that is a good fit for your child’s needs, your budget, and your overall needs as a family.

Things to Know About—Educational Philosophies

Most preschools are driven by a type of educational philosophy, whether implicit or explicit. The majority of preschools describe their programs as “play-based.” This type of atmosphere generally encourages children to learn and explore through playing, while providing a caring and supportive environment. There may be group activities such as circle time for read-aloud stories, calendar time, and educational songs and games. All of these experiences will provide opportunities for preschoolers to develop socially and learn how to function in a group; these are key skills for being successful in elementary school and beyond. These schools also likely include academically-oriented themes and activities such as exploring numbers, the alphabet, colors, shapes, and other basic concepts and skills. Class sizes typically range from 10 to 16 with two adults and meet for two, three, or four mornings a week.

Montessori is an educational philosophy that is based on the work of Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. This philosophy respects the uniqueness of each child and provides a prepared environment that encourages self-directed development. Children are grouped in multi-age classrooms (ages 3-5) to provide opportunities for learning from peers as well as the teacher. Montessori classrooms provide specific materials and activities in the areas of practical life, language, math, and sensorial; each “work” or task thoughtfully builds on previous activities to provide the skills and knowledge necessary for later tasks. The child progresses through increasingly challenging tasks at their own pace, with guidance and lessons from the teacher. The environment allows for children who are ready and interested in progressing academically to do so. A Montessori teacher is specifically trained in the Montessori method (note that there are multiple Montessori teacher-training schools and organizations so ask which one the preschool subscribes to). Montessori class sizes tend to be larger than the typical preschool class with two adults and often meet five mornings per week.

The Reggio Emilia philosophy shares many things in common with Montessori. This approach also respects the uniqueness and natural development of each child and encourages this development through sensorial experiences with the environment. Parents are viewed as a critical component of the Reggio Emilia approach and are collaborators in their child’s education, often extending the philosophy and educational experiences at home.

Another type of preschool, although it is more of an operating structure rather than an educational philosophy, is a co-operative preschool. Co-op preschools generally emphasize the importance of parent involvement in a child’s education. As a requirement of acceptance to such a preschool, the parent agrees to volunteer a specific amount of hours in the classroom as a teacher’s assistant (and sometimes doing administrative, supplying the class snack, or other activities). This can be a wonderful option for your family if 1) you have the time to do the required volunteering; 2) you feel a little nervous about your child going to preschool and you want to “check in” on the environment and how he or she is doing every so often; and 3) you want to be a part of a larger community where the teachers, parents, and children all get to know each other. One benefit of co-op preschool is that because they rely on parent volunteers to a great extent, they generally cost less.

Things to Do—How do you find a preschool?

One of the best ways to find a preschool that is right for your family is to talk to people in your community. Talk to friends, neighbors, co-workers, and acquaintances and ask for their experiences, recommendations, and thoughts. You can gain much more of an impression about a school from someone who has personally experienced it versus reading about the school on a website. Once you’ve identified a handful of preschools you think you might be interested in, the best thing to do is visit. Look at the learning environment, observe a class in action, and meet and speak with the teachers and director. Most preschools have open houses for prospective families and a procedure for tours. The application process is different for every school but preschools in this area generally begin accepting applications for the following school year between January and March. In general, it’s a good idea to start thinking about your child’s preschool at least one year before he or she will be ready to attend.

Things to Consider—How do you feel?

As you learn about specific schools and visit them, there are many things to ask yourself. First and foremost is a general sense that you get as you walk around—how does the school make you feel? Are you comfortable envisioning your child there? If you have any kind of negative gut feeling or reservations, it’s best to identify what those are and then probably admit it might not be the best place for your family. I once toured a preschool and met a wonderful director, engaged and caring teachers, and generally happy kids but something kept nagging at me. The school was located in the basement of an office building—on the same level as the parking garage—and the classrooms were small, “cold” feeling, and windowless. I knew I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving my child there and we turned it down despite the other aspects of the school that “fit” (location, price, curriculum, schedule, etc.).

Other things to consider are 1) teacher quality—what is the minimum level of education of all the teachers and their years of experience; 2) class size—the National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends a maximum staff-to-child ratio of 1:10 for 3- and 4-year-olds with class sizes of fewer than 20 children; 3) the schedule—most preschools meet a few mornings a week, some may include lunchtime, and a few have options to stay for a full day; 4) the physical environment—are there windows, is the space adequate, does it look bright and well-kept, is there an outdoor play space, etc.; and 5) what is the educational philosophy that drives the school—the staff should be able to tell you in a few sentences the beliefs that guide decisions about the environment, behavior management, and curriculum.

If your child has food allergies or a disability, your family is already well-aware of the special considerations you might need to make in selecting a preschool that is safe and appropriate for your child. Be sure to discuss these issues with the teachers and director before applying to any schools to ensure that they are willing and able to be a partner with you in meeting your child’s individual needs. If your child has a diagnosed disability (or you suspect a disability and you want to have him or her evaluated), early childhood educational services are available through the Fairfax County Early Childhood Special Education Preschool Program.

What if you don’t think you can afford preschool?

There are options for families who may not be able to afford preschool for their child. The Virginia Preschool Initiative is a state-run program that offers preschool to four-year olds who meet eligibility requirements located in public schools or private preschools throughout Fairfax County. Head Start also provides early childhood education and care for children up to age five who meet federal income eligibility requirements. Head Start provides parenting support and a focus on health and nutrition in addition to center-based educational programs.

Finding the Right Fit

My husband and I have a four-year old son who is a unique and interesting character, as all children are. Early on we noticed two things about him: 1) he is incredibly inquisitive, quick, and eager to learn new information and 2) he experiences his emotions in a “big” way. We knew we needed to find an environment that would allow him to be cognitively challenged while also supporting his ability to manage his own temperament appropriately; Montessori seemed like the right fit for us. He is now half-way through his first year at a Montessori preschool and it has been a positive experience for all of us. He has been exposed to new concepts and content, all while being supported in developing the skills he needs in order to progress. The focus of the Montessori philosophy on respecting each child’s uniqueness (implemented brilliantly by his patient, knowledgeable, and caring teacher) has helped him to progress behaviorally in ways that I know we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish alone.




Guide to Choosing a Preschool or Childcare Center

Savvy Source

Great Schools

Comparison of Educational Philosophies

Fairfax County VPI

Fairfax County Head Start

Fairfax County Early Childhood Special Education Preschool Program

Key Research Findings about High Quality Early Childhood Education

Area Co-Op Preschools




Area Montessori Schools




Area Reggio Emilia Schools



Katherine H. March 23, 2011 at 10:13 PM
Terrific summary, Chandra, thank you! One thing I would add is that many, if not most, of the churches in Vienna have preschools, either run by the church itself or as a tenant in the classrooms that go unused during the week. Both of my children went to Holy Comforter Episcopal Preschool (my son, who is now a college sophomore, was in the inaugural class!). Because Holy Comforter is our church, they felt wonderfully comfortable and at-home there from day one., which made the transition so much easier on all of us. I would encourage parents to start their search with their own church, if they have one. If not, perhaps start with the denomination you or your spouse grew up with, so that you have a familiarity and comfort level with the teachings that your children will be exposed to (most church-based preschools do include some simple worship, grace before snacks, etc.).
Chandra March 23, 2011 at 10:24 PM
Angela--I had that same issue in some ways because although I work part time, I work two to three full days a week instead of half days. Check out any of the three schools at preschoolmontessori.com, Fiore Montessori, and the Fairfax Jewish Community Center (you don't have to be Jewish to join). They all have extended day options.
Chandra March 23, 2011 at 10:27 PM
Katherine--thanks for clarifying that. I meant to note that there are many church-based preschools in the area that mostly fall into the first category of play-based environments. My son went to the mother's day out program at Andrew's Chapel for two years and it was a warm and caring atmosphere.
Christine Neff March 24, 2011 at 05:33 PM
This is really great information, Chandra. Thanks!
J Anderson March 24, 2011 at 05:46 PM
Our three children all attended Emmanuel Lutheran Preschool in Vienna. It is both church-based AND play based. All three children (now in 4/2/K) enjoyed their 3 years there very much and were well prepared for Kindergarten. Given we were there 7 years we became regulars. It was very open, teachers were always willing to talk about one's child, parents were encouraged to participate in events and our kids made lasting friends who ended up going to other schools. I think the most important thing other than cost and convenience is fit - do you feel comfortable with the environment and does your child. We personally don't see the need for kids in the first 2 years to be mastering anything of note...but getting exposure to lots of things. Certainly in the year before Kindergarten you want your child to count, to know the alphabet etc....but that can also be drilled in at home ... Oh and those 7 years went by very fast.....


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