Think about choosing a preschool the same way you would think about finding a new job or a new pediatrician for your child. In either situation you would expect to invest lots of time and energy in making the right decision. You would ask around, go on interviews, and seek the advice of others. The same goes for preschool.
Because so much is riding on your choice — after all, you want your child to spend her days in an enjoyable and nurturing environment — you'll need to do your research. That means checking out local parenting magazines, the Internet, and word-of-mouth recommendations. Ask for referrals from other families; most people won't recommend a place unless they're truly pleased with it. If your child attends daycare, the caregivers may have suggestions for you.
Once you zero in on a few choices based on cost, distance from your home or work, and other basic factors, call each school and see whether you can whittle down your list to a select few by asking questions. You should also ask about the teacher-to-student ratio (the fewer children a teacher has to be responsible for, the better for your child since she'll receive more attention). A teacher, no matter how good she is, can't really effectively run a classroom and give the children the attention they deserve if she has to care for more than 10.
But that's not all. One thing we think is very important is finding out the school's philosophy on educating toddlers. Whatever its leanings, it's important that the preschool have a plan in mind for how to teach and care for its students. A school with some ideological foundation is better than one whose philosophy is so indistinct it's mediocre.
When you have your short list, schedule visits to the schools that made the cut. You'll need to meet the preschool manager in-person and observe the teachers with the children. They are the ones your child will interact with most, so it's important that you find warm people with lots of experience caring for preschoolers. You also might ask the school for the names of some parents you could speak to — a staff that's proud of their school's success will be happy to connect you with fellow parents.
Next, bring your child along for a visit. See how she responds to the school and the teachers. Do they seem interested in getting to know her? Are the activities ones she'll enjoy? By watching how she reacts you'll have a better idea whether a preschool is a good fit.
Most important, trust your instincts. It's essential that you feel comfortable with the school's management, who run the establishment, and sets guidelines for your child and with whom you'll be interacting should issues or questions come up in the future. You should also feel secure and pleased with the teachers, who will be spending many hours with your child day in and day out. At its best, this will be a long and productive partnership.