Choosing a Preschool: A Parent’s Primer

The process of finding a preschool is enough to make any parent’s head spin. Play-based or Montessori? Church-based or secular? How long is the wait list… and how much will it cost?

Experts agree that a preschool program is good to prepare children in the couple of years before kindergarten, but which one? Whether your child has been home with you or in another type of care up until this point, it can be a daunting task to choose the preschool that fits your family’s needs.

Before you even start, sit down and make a list of what you’re looking for.

“The first question you have to answer is, ‘What do I want to experience?’” says Michelle Mattalino, owner and creative director at The Olive Tree Learning Center. She stresses that parents need to consider not only the experience the child will have, but how they will interact with the school as well.

Will your child do best in a small environment with plenty of individual attention, or will he thrive in a busy, active place with many children? Do you want a school with an active parent community? How close does it need to be to your home or work? How much involvement do you want as a parent? Do you prefer an academic curriculum based on preparing her for kindergarten, or are you more comfortable with a play-based program that allows her to learn at her own pace? Think of this as your “wish list” — you may have to compromise on a few items based on your budget and what is available, but it’s good to have a starting point to focus what you are looking for.


Once you have narrowed down what you want in a school, you’ll want to see what is out there. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any one comprehensive resource out there (and we looked pretty hard), but here are a few that should give you a complete picture together.

Savvy Source. This is the most comprehensive guide we found to preschools. Some schools have parent reviews, and the guide is organized to give you a good feel for philosophy. This is a great first stop.

Great Schools Austin. This site a useful tool, though the sorting features seem a little buggy. Some schools have parent reviews.

AltEd Austin. Though not a comprehensive listing of all preschools in and around Austin, AltEd Austin provides a curated list of preschools vetted and approved by parents and educators in their community. The preschools included are all “child-centered, play-based learning communities that emphasize outdoor time and are committed to letting children learn naturally,” according to the website.

Yelp. Even good ol’ Yelp can give you a starting place, but reviews are spotty, and tend to be either raves or rants.

Word of mouth. Last but not least, ask your friends and neighbors where they send their kids to preschool. This is probably the most valuable resource you have. Have a neighborhood listserv or a mom’s group? Ask them! Some answers might not be right for you philosophically or geographically, but you just might find that gem you couldn’t locate using other resources.

Visiting Preschools

Once you have your “short list” of preschools that reasonably match your wish list, it’s go time. Set up some visits and see what’s out there. Here are some factors to guide you in evaluating the schools you visit.

Educational Philosophy. Most preschools fall into one of the following categories, with some overlap: Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio-Emilia or play-based. For an excellent summary of each of these philosophies, check out this PBS guide. Mattalino suggests visiting at least four schools, each with a different educational philosophy, to get a feel for what they’re like.

“Keep in mind what kind of education you’re looking for and what kind of environment you’re looking for for your child,” says Amy Braden, owner of Plug & Play, a preschool and co-working space in North Austin.

Think about how your child might react to each of the environments, and which might be best for him. Visiting preschools is important, says Mattalino, “to make sure your expectations match up with the school’s vision.”

Staff. It’s important to feel comfortable with the teacher who would be teaching your child, as well as the other staff in a preschool. Keep in mind that, though you may love the teacher this year, your child may move up to a new class next year and the teacher will be an unknown quantity again. So, make sure that you choose a preschool that you love, regardless of the individual teacher.

“How the front desk staff greets you is an indication of how they are going to communicate,” says Braden. She emphasizes that communication between parents and staff is of paramount importance.


“The director is the hub of a preschool,” says Mattalino, who stresses the importance of a connection between parents and the director of a school. “They set the tone for the school, and they hire the teachers.” She also suggests thinking about the director interacts with the staff and how comfortable the staff seems in the classroom.

Convenience. The location of a preschool, and how convenient it will be for you and/or your partner to drop off and pick up your child, shouldn’t be discounted. This will be a part of your daily routine, and no matter how good the school is, an hour commute isn’t going to be good for anyone in the long run. Also consider whether both parents will be able to share drop-off and pick-up duties, or if, based on location, the task will fall on one parent more often.

Vibe. It’s that indescribable quality that just tells you that you’ve found the place for your child.

Braden recommends visiting preschool classrooms to “get a feel for the vibe, and for the teacher.” She adds that some schools will let you sit in on a class to observe without your child being there. “That’s the best way to get an undisturbed look at what the class is like,” she says.

“The big thing is being able to go in and see how the teacher is interacting with the children and seeing if they are happy,” says Mattalino. “If someone is having a hard time, maybe feeling a little bit tender, how are they being cared for? How are people reacting to it?”

Getting In

Your perfect preschool just may have a wait list, though, so be sure to start your search well in advance.

“In Austin, there are not a lot of preschools, so I would suggest [starting] as soon as possible,” says Mattalino. “For my school this is the time of year to be looking for 2015. That’s what makes looking for a preschool so hard, especially if you’re a first-time parent.”

She suggests getting on multiple wait lists so that you have options when your child is ready to enter preschool and are able to choose the right fit for them.

Don’t panic if you didn’t get your little one on that most-coveted wait list while she was still in the womb, though — it’s not too late. There are plenty of good preschools with either immediate availability or a shorter wait list.

“Just because a school doesn’t have a wait list, don’t discount it,” says Mattalino. “Check in with your neighborhood schools, and sometimes churches will have space available for the fall.”

Even if you have your heart set on a sought-after school with a long wait list, Mattalino encourages you not to lose hope. She suggests taking advantage of the “first-choice” designation some preschools offer, and keeping in contact with the director.

“You are not bothering the director just to send an email,” she says. “It may take them awhile to get back to you, but if somebody moves or transfers and those spots come up, they’ll know you definitely want to come in.”

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info] Lauren Walz is a freelance writer and editor and mama to a two-year-old girl. While she’s quick to brag about being a fifth-generation Texan, Lauren moved to Northern California in 2004 after graduating from UT Law and lived in the Silicon Valley area until last spring, when she and her family were drawn back to Austin. Lauren is busy getting re-acquainted with her old stomping grounds and is astonished by how the food and wine scene has changed in Austin in the past 8 years. Lauren also blogs about cooking and parenthood on[/author_info] [/author]


Catherine Prystup
About Catherine Prystup 2157 Articles
Catherine Prystup founded out of a desire to build a better community for Austin-area moms. She has three children, ages seventeen, eight and three years old.

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