Which Preschool is Right for my Child?
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Choosing the right preschool for your child can be an overwhelming decision. Preschools subscribe to different theories and philosophies of education. 

Each school may interpret the philosophies a little differently. What's most important is finding one that's a good match with your child - one that makes his/her first school experience a positive one that inspires a lifelong love of learning.
Montessori

Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator, developed her innovative ideas on teaching young children in the early part of the 20th century. Today, many preschools (and elementary schools) still bear her name and follow the "Montessori method."

This philosophy emphasizes the individual child's initiative and independence, allowing him or her to progress through an orderly series of structured learning activities at his own pace. Special materials which emphasize the use of all the senses in learning are employed. (The "manipulatives" that are used in many preschools and elementary schools today owe a debt to these Montessori materials.)

To a visitor, a Montessori setting may seem remarkably calm and quiet for a preschool, and the children poised and self-assured.
Montessori teachers receive specialized training; usually two trained teachers are assigned to each classroom.

Montessori schools and their staff members may be affiliated with any of several professional organizations.

The Association of Montessori Internationale (AMI) is the oldest of these groups and adheres to the traditional Montessori program most closely.

The American Montessori Society (AMS) has incorporated more recent materials and methods into the programs.

The International Montessori Council also has a large number of member schools and publishes the magazine Tomorrow's Child.

Be aware that since the word "Montessori" is not trademarked, anyone can use it.
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Waldorf

The Waldorf program is based on the principles developed by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and educator. It emphasizes developing the child's intellectual powers in harmony with the feeling and active aspects of his nature.

Waldorf schools try to create a "nurturing, home-like environment" that stimulates your children's "bodies, spirits and souls." Waldorf believes that creative play, imitation and teamwork and togetherness are the best tools to help your child learn.

Preschool-aged Waldorf students learn to concentrate, be interested, and love learning. They'll likely be singing, cooking, playing dress-up, doing lots of art projects, and have storytime. The natural environment is emphasized and media is heavily discouraged - Waldorf parents are usually asked to eliminate TV and computer use from their children's lives as much as possible, and will never see plastic toys in the preschool.

There are Waldorf-affiliated preschools in Sacramento, Davis, El Sobrante, San Rafael, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Los Altos.
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Parent Co-Ops

The history of parent participation preschools dates back to 1915, and these hands-on programs remain as popular as ever. Schools are structured as nonprofit cooperatives and usually hire an early childhood professional to direct the program. Parents are required to work regularly in the classroom and at a variety of other tasks, from building maintenance to preparing snacks. Co-op programs are normally part-time.

California Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools, Inc.
http://www.ccppns.org/
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Developmental

Also known as "developmentally appropriate," this is the underlying philosophy of many perhaps most preschools today.

Children are encouraged to learn through activities that are appropriate to their ages and individual stages of development. Kids can usually choose among several activities and can play alone or in small groups, while the whole group often comes together for songs, stories, or other "circle time" activities. Rote learning, worksheets, and early reading are not part of the program (although many reading readiness skills may be learned informally).

Today, kindergartens have become more academic and less just an introduction to the classroom. As a result, many developmental preschools feel parental pressure to "prep" children, and some have added more structured academics for pre-kindergarteners.
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Play-Based, Child-Centered

These terms don't necessarily mean "unstructured." Some early childhood educators use one or the other to mean a developmental approach.
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Head Start

Preschool is only part of the federally funded Head Start child development program. Programs are free and designed to serve low-income children and their families. Head Start is found in virtually all urban areas and in many suburban and rural communities as well. Local programs are administered by many different private, public, and non-profit agencies.
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Foreign Language

Bay Area residents can choose among many languages for preschool. There are programs that introduce or teach in Japanese, French, Spanish, Swedish, Chinese, and many other languages. Some programs, like La Casita Bilingüe Montessori in Pinole, combine a language with another specific preschool approach. Sunshine Preschool in Berkeley enrolls deaf and hearing children, using both English and sign language. 
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Religious

Many preschools are sponsored by churches, synagogues, and other religious organizations. They may incorporate much religious training or very little, and may follow one of the other preschool philosophies outlined here. It is important, of course, to have teachers who are trained in early childhood education as well as religious tenets.
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Academic

Academic programs stress serious preparation for elementary school, with early reading or formal reading readiness activities, an introduction to pencil-and-paper mathematics, and a general air of studiousness. The preschool day is quite structured, often with separate times for "work".
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High/Scope

The High/Scope Foundation is a nonprofit research and training organization founded in 1970. Its detailed program was originally used for teaching preschool-age children from low-income families, but today is found in other settings as well. It stresses learning through "active involvement with people, materials, events, and ideas."

Additional information: http://www.highscope.org/
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Bank Street

Say "Bank Street" and educators are likely to think "preschool education." New York's Bank Street College of Education has been a leader in early childhood education for more than 80 years, emphasizing a child-centered, developmental approach and learning through experience.

Additional information: http://www.bnkst.edu/
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Reggio Emilia

Like Montessori, this relatively new preschool philosophy originated in Italy. This whole-child system of early childhood education emphasizes art, creativity, and the child's environment and interests. 

Reggio Emilia has intrigued many educators in the United States, although there are few wholly Reggio-style preschools here. Here in the Bay Area, The Old Firehouse Schools in Lafayette and Mill Valley and several preschools operated by the San Francisco Jewish Community Center are influenced by the Reggio Emilia philosophy.
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Projects

The goal of these programs is to let children learn by experimentation, exploration, and collaboration. Teachers and their charges tie the work they do in the classroom to real-world experiences and lessons. They play with materials that inspire exploration and pretend play, such as blocks and art supplies, and take lots of community field trips.

By introducing children to extension activities related to their studies, the project approach looks to accomplish four kinds of learning goals:

  • to increase knowledge of fundamental concepts by making them interesting to learn about
  • to improve behavior by allowing children to learn independently and in cooperation with fellow students
  • to improve dispositions about learning
  • to discourage negative attitudes that might hinder the educational process

In a projects-based program, children work independently. The teacher serves as a guide, providing advice or help when needed but largely standing back and letting the children decide how to handle a problem themselves. The children negotiate with their teacher about the rules and directions for the project, and what they want to accomplish with it. They learn to apply the skills acquired earlier, and develop associations between those skills and how they can be used in the world outside the classroom. Children also tend to become more interested in a topic when they feel they can be actively involved in learning about it, instead of just being lectured on the subject.

Children also get a chance to showcase more of their unique skills and proficiencies than they would with more traditional instructional learning. These programs emphasize educating the "whole child," including physical, emotional, cognitive, and social growth.
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Ananda Marga

"Ananda Marga ("Path of Bliss") schools worldwide foster personal spiritual development, academic learning, artistic creation and community service." Ananda Marga is based on a yoga philosophy, and a quick reading of their social statements seems like a version of mystical, spiritual socialism. They believe that utilization of human resources, from the material to the spiritual, should be distributed according to the common good and the will of the "collective body" "for the prosperity of all."

Ananda Marga was developed in India in 1955 by Prabhat Rainjain Sarkar, known by his spiritual name of Shrii Shrii Anandamurtijii.
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Contra Costa Preschool Directory & Kindergartens