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How to Choose a Preschool: A Complete Guide

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By: Shannon Kaiser   |   October 4, 2023

Terra Mandarin Preschool

Preschool, also known as Nursery School or Pre-K, is an early education program that provides care and supervision for children in a commercial, non-home, school setting. Children are commonly grouped by age in different classrooms, though some schools (Montessori) may also have multi-age classrooms. The majority include a curriculum and are staffed by individuals with training and education in early childhood development.


Preschool is aimed at children between the ages of 2-5 years old. In California, preschool is not mandatory and most preschools are private businesses for which parents pay tuition. (There are also public preschools with sliding scales based on income.) All preschools must be licensed but each can vary based on philosophy, schedule, location, or accreditation.


Finding the right preschool that matches your child’s needs is important. You want your child’s first school experience to be a positive one that leads to success. Many factors need to be considered when you're looking for a quality preschool, and it takes time to find the right one.


Remember: there are no right or wrong choices. By touring preschools, reading up on different philosophies, talking to directors and chatting with families, you will find the school that works for your child.

At what age should kids start preschool?

When you start your child in preschool depends on the type of license a preschool holds, which varies depending on the program. Some schools admit kids at two years old, others at two years nine months, others once they are fully potty trained.


Generally speaking, three years old is when children begin to benefit the most from being a part of a group. This is when kids begin to engage more in reciprocal play and show less separation anxiety.

Chronos Academy

When should parents apply?

In Marin, there are so many wonderful and varied preschool programs. The competition isn’t as intense as in San Francisco where some parents rush home from the hospital after giving birth to submit their preschool application.


Though some families have found schools that they love just days before the first day of preschool, we recommend starting your homework around your baby's first birthday. This should put you in good shape as preschools, especially reputable ones, may have long waiting lists and it is the early bird that often gets the worm.


So, if you are planning to send your child to preschool in September 2023, tour schools in the fall of 2022. Most deadlines for application are in January and then schools let parents know if their child has been admitted, placed on the waitlist, or declined by mid-March.


Usually there are a few weeks to make a decision, sign the contract and pay the (oftentimes non-refundable) deposit. Different schools may have different timelines and policies so be sure to check each preschool's deadlines and requirements.


How much does preschool cost?

Preschool cost varies by type and location. Private preschools, which make up most of the preschool choices, tend to be quite expensive. Here in Marin, private preschools can cost from $1,200 to over $3,000 per month.


Co-op preschools are run by parent volunteers and can be less expensive but more time intensive.


There are often grants or scholarships available at schools or through the Marin Child Care Council.

Language in Action

What preschool philosophy is right for my child?

There are so many different preschool philosophies, and different schools may interpret educational approaches or philosophies in different ways. The bottom line is: there is no right or wrong choice for your child.


Read each school’s mission statement carefully, speak with and ask questions of the school directors, and talk with other families to learn about their experiences. Choosing a preschool is individualized and personal, and the goal is to find the best fit for your child and family.


Common preschool philosophies include:



Developmental preschool philosophy, also known as “play-based,” is the most common in the United States. Play-based schools believe that children learn best through play. Play builds confidence, creativity and a love for school while kids learn in an age-appropriate way.


In play-based schools, stations are set up around the classroom, such as a reading corner, a dramatic play area and a puzzle table. Teachers facilitate learning while children play and explore.


Developmental schools place a strong emphasis on fostering social skills and getting along with others by sharing, taking turns and resolving conflicts with words instead of crying or hitting. Teachers nurture these skills by helping kids negotiate who gets to play with a toy or which role each child gets to assume in make-believe play.



Academic schools are more traditional and based on the goal of preparing children for rigorous demands of elementary school. Children learn letters, numbers and work on projects. Play may be involved along with free time but the learning component is done in a traditional academic setting.



Montessori is both a philosophy and a method of educating children created by Maria Montessori, the first female physician in Italy. The underlying idea of Montessori is that children are individual learners with teachers as guides. Children participate in a variety of hands-on activities. Play materials are designed for specific purposes, which guide the child’s playtime.


Montessori fosters personal responsibility by encouraging children to take care of their own personal needs and belongings, such as preparing their own snacks and cleaning up their toys. A wide range of ages may learn together in one classroom and children are encouraged to help each other learn.


Montessori instructors graduate from a special training program. Schools have the option to affiliate with the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI or AMI-USA) or the American Montessori Society (AMS) but be aware that a school may use the Montessori name without being affiliated with a Montessori organization. Be careful to check the mission statement and curriculum of your Montessori school.



Waldorf programs strive to stimulate kids' bodies, spirits, and souls with a nurturing, homelike environment that engages all five senses. Rudolf Steiner, who founded the first Waldorf school in Germany in 1919, believed that small children learn best by imitation and their physical surroundings.


Play is at the heart of the Waldorf Early Childhood program. Children develop the capacity for creative thinking, problem-solving abilities and social skills through their free imaginative play. Simple, natural materials — pieces of wood, seashells, beeswax and handcrafted toys — encourage children to form their own games and stories.


Reggio Emilia

The Reggio Emilia Approach to education was started by the schools of Reggio Emilia, a city in Italy, after World War II and has become renowned as one of the best educational systems in the world. This approach places emphasis on the arts as children’s symbolic language and an engaging learning environment.


The concept of equal collaboration is very important to the success of Reggio Emilia Schools. In these schools, teachers, parents, and children, along with the community are seen as co-constructors of knowledge. In Reggio Schools, parents are considered equal partners with teachers in their children’s education. They are respected and valued, and are expected to be involved with both the school and the classroom.


Cognitive Based Philosophy

In a cognitive-based program, children learn through active exploration in an environment that is rich in materials and opportunities to converse, socialize, work, play and negotiate with others. The classrooms are planned to encourage curiosity, exploration and problem solving in an atmosphere of warmth, affection and respect for each child.


Teachers plan experiences based on children’s interests and appropriate educational concepts. Children may work individually or collaboratively, and may choose whether or not to participate in a project.


Children are actively involved in experiences which include foundations of math, science, social studies, creative art, language arts, music, movement and dramatic play. All interrelated aspects of the child’s growth and development are considered — intellectual, social, emotional, physical and creative.


Cooperative or Co-Op Preschools

Co-op preschools are run by parents, who do everything from assisting in the classroom and editing the newsletter to managing the school’s finances and washing windows. There is typically a paid, professional teacher who leads the classroom and sometimes acts as the director. Everything else is done by the parents. For parents with flexible schedules, a co-op can be a great and affordable option as the sweat equity keeps the tuition cost low. These preschools are usually child-centered and play-based, and operate on a part-time schedule.


Religious-Affiliated Preschools

If you are looking for your child to receive age-appropriate religious instruction in preschool, explore schools affiliated with a church, synagogue or other religious organization. A religious-affiliated program incorporates some degree of religious content through stories, songs and class time. Most schools welcome students from all backgrounds, though some give strong preference to children within that particular faith and whose families are members of the congregation.


Language Immersion or Bilingual Preschools

In a language immersion or bilingual preschool, the class is conducted partly or entirely in a foreign language. You can find preschools that teach French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Italian and Japanese, among others. As children learn languages easily at a young age, these preschools take advantage of that window. The teacher speaks a dominant language and rarely, if ever, translates, though they may demonstrate what they mean when speaking. At a bilingual school, English and the other language may each be spoken about half the time either throughout the day or on certain days of the week.


Emergent Schools

Emergent schools combine a number of philosophies. The director picks and chooses what aspects of the major philosophies they like and create a hybrid. They may use Montessori for the work period, Waldorf for serving lunch and Reggio Emilia for art.

Honey Bee Hearth Preschool


When searching for a preschool that is a good fit for your child and family it is important to look for a “high quality preschool” as the quality of care is correlated with future learning. There are so many schools out there and they are not all created equal.


Here are some things to look for:

  1. Teachers should have formal post-high school training. Studies find that higher teacher education predicts higher quality of care. Look for teachers who have formal post-high school training such as a 4-year college degree in child development, early education or a related field that addresses developmental needs of preschool children.
  2. Look for schools that compensate their teachers well for advanced education and offer benefits such as health insurance and ongoing training.
  3. When observing, look for teachers who are positive and caring. Positive teachers are happy and excited to be there. They are upbeat, helpful and smile often at the kids. They are nurturing and sensitive to the child's needs. They get down on the child’s level rather than speaking down at the children and never engage in negative interactions such as scolding or yelling at children.
  4. There should be daily opportunities for children to develop motor, social, language and cognitive skills through activities and play in a safe and supportive environment.
  5. The classroom should appear neat and orderly and the environment should be well-maintained and set up for children. Try and show up unannounced to see what the environment and staff look like when you are unexpected.

What questions should I ask when touring a preschool?

Download SMMC’s Preschool Checklist

  • What is the school schedule?
  • What are the fees and admission policies?
  • What is the education philosophy of the school?
  • What would a typical day be like for my child?
  • How many children are cared for at the school/in the classroom at a given time?
  • How do you help children feel secure and comfortable when they first begin with your program or when they are sad?
  • What items may be brought from home? (lunch, snacks, change of clothes, toys, etc)
  • Is there a plan for disaster preparedness, response and family reunification?
  • How are medical issues handled?
  • What is the sick child policy?
  • What training do teachers and staff hold?
  • What forms of discipline are used in the classroom?
  • How do teachers resolve conflict?
  • What are the napping and rest arrangements?
  • Do you help with toilet training?
  • Is parent involvement encouraged or required?
  • Does the school have a high or low rate of staff and family turnover?
  • Is the facilities license up to date?

Remember that as parents in Marin we are lucky to live in such a successful area. We have access to the best education. Almost any school that you choose will be wonderful and your child will succeed and thrive. Listen to your heart and go with the school that speaks to you, works with your schedule, is conveniently located and it will be the right choice for your child. You are doing a great job!



California Child Care Guide


Marin Child Care Council


Marin Schools




First 5 California


American Montessori


Association Montessori International


Association of Waldorf Education


Reggio Emilia Approach


Shannon Kaiser lives in Tiburon with her husband, Rolf; four kids, Will (10), Isla (8), Luke (6) and Dylan (baby); and a crazy dog, Teddy. When Shannon is not busy volunteering or chauffeuring her kids around she enjoys getting out on the water sailing, reading, napping, and drinking wine, while enjoying the beauty of life in Marin. You can reach Shannon at
More from this issue:

Championing Imagination in Our Children’s Lives and Our Own HERE >> 

From Homeless to Homeward Bound of Marin HERE >> 

How to Choose a Preschool: A Complete Guide HERE >> 

My Inner Anauraliac HERE >>

October is for ADHD! HERE >>

So Do You HERE >>

The Power of an Early Start HERE >>