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Choosing the Best Early Childhood Education Program for Your Child and Family

By: Stephanie Agnew, Parents Place on the Peninsula

The results are in. Children who participate in quality preschool programs do better academically, professionally, and personally. A strong preschool program focuses on learning and development, teaching academics as well as critical social and emotional skills. Even during this uncertain time of a global pandemic, young children need to interact with peers and learn to separate from family. To find the right environment for your child and family, begin with these initial questions:

  1. WHERE? Do I want my child in a home or school setting, full- or part-time? Home settings can be cozy, but caregiver credentials vary. The smaller group size and mixed aged can be more comforting for slow to warm or very young children. California licensing requires a child to caregiver ratio of no more than 4:1 for infants, 6:1 for 2-year-olds, and 12:1 for 3- and 4-year olds in school settings. In home settings, the maximum group size is 12, and there must be at least two caregivers for settings of more than six children. Center-based programs offer more social variety and a larger environment to explore. Cost will vary depending on the type of program and number of hours of care. You will also want to consider the distance from home or your work to the school.
  2. WHEN? Are both parents returning to work? Are there socialization concerns or separation issues? Is the at-home parent ready for time alone? Is the child ready for kindergarten? Some families need care after a few weeks or months, while others may only need the pre-K experience before beginning formal elementary school. Children should have at least one year—but preferably two years—of a quality group experience before starting kindergarten.
  3. WHO? Think about your child. Will your active child be restless in a program with limited outdoor time? Are children encouraged to sample a variety of indoor and outdoor activities? How do children learn conflict resolution skills and develop resiliency? Is your sensitive child easily overwhelmed in a large crowd? Also think about yourself. Does the school have a community that you can become part of? Will you feel supported by teachers, administrators, and other parents? Are there opportunities for you to be involved in ways that work with your time constraints and interests?

Now that you’ve thought about the basic questions, let’s find out what type of preschool best meets your child and family needs. Here are some popular teaching philosophies to consider when choosing an early learning program:

  • Developmental: A developmentally appropriate, play-based program supports learning in all five areas of development, including gross-motor and fine-motor skills, language and cognitive development, and social and emotional learning. Classrooms are teacher-directed or child-centered, depending on the school orientation. Includes free play time, as well as more structured circle times or group activities.
  • Montessori (Maria Montessori, 1870-1952): Classrooms are structured, with children moving from activity to activity at their own pace. Many Montessori programs incorporate three principles: observation of the child, personal liberty, and preparation of the environment. Special materials emphasize the use of all the senses. Children are self-directed and encouraged to work independently, often in multi-age classrooms.
  • Parent Cooperative: Parent participation is required, either in the classroom, at home, or by serving on a parent board that operates the school. The basic philosophy is that children and parents go to school together with guidance from a qualified teacher. The focus is on child development. There is often a parent education component either during the day or in evening meetings.
  • Reggio Emilia (Loris Malaguzzi, 1920-1994): Evolved from the parent cooperative movement, these programs involve the community in the world of the child. Emphasis is on relationships with peers and adults, creative thinking skills, and project work. Each project lasts from a few weeks to more than a month. Children’s progress is documented through posters or portfolios that capture a child’s learning process. The curriculum emerges from the children’s interests.
  • Language Immersion: Children are taught in a foreign language. The classrooms and teachers may follow any of these teaching philosophies. Many language immersion programs adopt the Montessori philosophy.
  • Waldorf (Rudolf Steiner, 1861-1925): Develops a child’s intellectual powers in harmony with his or her nature. Waldorf schools incorporate imaginative play, a multi-sensorial approach, and stress “learning by doing.” Programs may include a lot of creative activity and natural materials in the classroom. Teachers receive specialized training, lead many group activities, and often remain with the same set of children for several years.
  • Religious: Usually affiliated with a church, synagogue, or other religious organization, these programs may incorporate a lot, a little, or no religious training and may follow any of these teaching philosophies.
  • University (or lab) Schools: These programs are vehicles for teacher training and ongoing child development research. The staff is usually required to have a higher learning degree, and there may be several student-researchers in the classroom at any one time. Children may benefit from the latest research in the child development field and are expected to be active participants in student research studies.
  • Academic: Academic programs stress preparation for kindergarten and elementary school, with early reading or formal reading readiness activities, an introduction to paper-and-pencil mathematics, and a focus on achievement. The preschool day is structured, often with separate times for “work” and “play.”
  • Outdoor/Nature Programs: These programs are usually oriented toward spending most or all of the time outside exploring nature. Most of these programs involve daily field trips to different locations at which the children explore the nature of the location with the guidance of a teacher who plans activities that apply to the place. Some of the programs include parents; some do not.

Once you’ve found an early learning environment that supports your child and family needs, be sure to communicate your enthusiasm for your child’s first school experience. For many children, this is the beginning of a new, special relationship with another trusted adult. Be supportive, confident, and patient as your child learns to navigate the world outside the home. Become friendly with the teachers, caregivers, and parents, and always focus on your child’s strengths. Your child will benefit from the gift of an early start.

Parents Place Evaluation Checklist for Early Childhood Programs

Physical Environment

  • Does the classroom have a variety of developmental, age-appropriate play materials?
  • Are shelves crowded, or can children clearly see and choose materials?
  • Are there tables or rug space for playing with materials?
  • Does the classroom look warm, inviting, clean, and well-cared for?
  • Are there adequate space and time for group and individual activities?
  • Are the indoor and outdoor play areas big enough for the number of children enrolled?
  • Is there a variety of outdoor play options? (including activities such as gardening, biking, sand, pets, big blocks, painting, water play?) Is there shade?

Interpersonal Environment

  • Are you and your child warmly welcomed?
  • Do the children look happy, calm, and engaged? Does the teacher appear to be as well?
  • Is the environment calm enough that the teacher can observe or participate as needed?
  • Do teachers respect and support children’s differing learning styles and temperaments?
  • Do children feel safe with one another? How are peer conflicts handled?
  • Are teachers using positive forms of redirection and discipline?
  • Are the adults good models for behavior and healthy attitudes? Are there a lot of ‘no’s?
  • Do staff members share the children’s daily experiences with parents? How?


  • Is there a balance of indoor and outdoor play?
  • Are children free to choose their activities?
  • Is there a variety of basic visual art media and opportunities for dramatic play?
  • Is musical play encouraged? Singing, dancing, instruments?
  • Is language stimulation varied? (reading books, indoor/outdoor games)?
  • Is there a quiet, cozy spot for calm play?
  • Are age-appropriate self-help skills encouraged?
  • Are children encouraged (not forced) to participate in circle time?
  • Do teachers have time to read a story to the group and one-on-one daily?


  • Do teachers adapt the schedule to meet children’s needs (more time for art if children are engaged; more outdoor time if needed to work off excess energy)?
  • Are there long periods of time for uninterrupted play and free choice of activities?
  • How are transitions between activities handled? Do teachers allow enough time to transition, and how do they support children who need extra help?

Staff Concerns

  • Is there a high turnover of teachers? What motivates teachers to stay in this early care environment (ongoing professional development, a supportive administration, etc.)?
  • Is the staff knowledgeable about early childhood development and the correlation between play and learning?
  • How much experience, education, and training are required to teach at the school?

Stephanie Barry Agnew is the Assistant Director of Parents Place in The Center for Children and Youth. She works with parents in groups and individually to help them through a wide variety of parenting issues, including discipline and school choices. She can be reached at 650-931-1841 or To schedule an individual consultation call 650-688-3046.

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