Finding the Right Preschool: 5 Educational Programs to Consider

Written by Education and Development Department of Bright Horizons featured in the August 2017 Issue of Boston Parents

Parents who are looking for preschool and child care programs have more choices in terms of educational philosophies than ever before, but all those options can be confusing. How do you know which curriculum model is right for your family? And how do you ensure you’re choosing a high quality program?

Philosophies and curriculum programs vary widely from one preschool to another. Look for a preschool curriculum that offers rich content, hands-on learning, and developmentally-appropriate play. Below you will learn more about five of the most common educational programs along with what to look for in a quality preschool:

  • Academic: Programs can be theme-based or led with direct instruction by teachers. These programs focus on learning discrete skills such as counting and letter recognition and may use worksheets, flashcards, or similar materials to guide learning. A pre-set curriculum and schedule help teachers implement lessons more quickly.
  • Emergent: In an emergent classroom, curriculum unfolds based on the interests of the children, teachers, and community. Academics may be addressed through structured activities, but they are also woven throughout the program. A focus is on inquiry, problem-solving, and collaboration. For example, if the children are interested in gardening after taking a field trip to a farmer’s market, they can plan a small garden in the school yard. They may learn about soil preparation, measure the garden area, plant the seeds, and eventually harvest the vegetables.
  • Montessori: Programs use an educational approach grounded in the belief that children learn best within an environment that respects their individual, unique potential. Classroom environments are thoughtfully prepared by specially trained teachers so that children can develop at their own pace through sequenced learning experiences. Children work individually with self-correcting materials, such as beaded math activities, slowly progressing as they master each material. They also gain practical life skills as they water plants, prepare snacks, and care for the classroom.
  • Reggio Emilia: Similar to emergent curriculum, programs use a project-based approach with an emphasis on constructive, creative exploration and discovery. In a Reggio Emilia environment, there is freedom for children to lead with a creative focus on social skills. Aesthetics are valued and Reggio classrooms are typically light, bright spaces that showcase children’s photos, work, and art.
  • Faith-Based: Programs use a variety of curriculum approaches, but all include a faith-based learning component. Parents are encouraged to ask about the education focus in addition to the faith based offering to understand more on how the day to day classroom operates. 

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that how schools interpret a particular educational philosophy can vary.  “Many programs do not fit neatly into these categories,” says Debbie Hoppy, Director of Education and Curriculum at Bright Horizons Family Solutions. “Many schools incorporate a blend of philosophies, even those that primarily identify as using one specific educational approach.”

After you have an understanding of the preschool program that best suits your child’s learning needs, start by considering your family's needs and budget. Do you need a full-day preschool program with extended care, or is a half-day preschool program sufficient?  Would your child be most successful in a center or a small home setting? Once you've articulated your wish list, you're ready to start actively looking.

What to Look for in a Preschool

  • Ask for referrals. Talk with your pediatrician or close friends to get their opinions. Ask them specific questions about a preschool program's philosophy, reputation, teaching staff, and curriculum. 
  • Pay attention to that first impression. Parents' intuition is usually right. How do you feel when you walk in the door? Is the space clean, bright, and inviting? Do you feel welcome?
  • Be informed about quality care and early childhood education. Quality care and education builds a foundation for children through play, focusing on the child as a whole.
  • Learn about accreditation programs. Many child care centers and preschools participate in voluntary accreditation programs, such as the one offered by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Not all high-quality preschools have the resources to go through these rigorous programs, but preschool accreditation does offer an added measure of reassurance.
  • Consider the preschool teachers' qualifications. What qualifications do the teachers have? Do they participate in ongoing trainings? How do they interact with the children? How do they handle guidance and discipline?
  • Visit the outdoor space. Outdoor play has taken a back seat to academics in recent years. This trend, which began in elementary schools, is trickling down to preschools. Yet, children's needs haven't changed and outdoor play is still as important as ever
  • Look for signs of community. Your family will probably spend a lot of time at your preschool; it will become a place of community, where parents, teachers, and children support each other. Does the preschool offer any events or programs to foster close relationships?

Bottom line: ask questions, trust your gut, and follow up. Even after you've chosen a high-quality preschool, it's important to stay involved. Listen to your child’s observations about school. Discuss any concerns promptly with your child’s teacher or the preschool director. Remember, you're making an investment in your child's well-being. Spend time thoughtfully choosing a preschool and build strong relationships with the center staff thereafter.

Written by the Education and Development Department at Bright Horizons Family Solutions® Inc.

For 30 years, Bright Horizons® early education centers and preschools have been helping children around the world develop confidence and a passion for learning. Bright Horizons is committed to the field of early education and to practices that guide each child’s social, physical, emotional, and cognitive development. Bright Horizons’ emergent curriculum approach is designed for this purpose, enabling teachers to tailor activities and projects for the specific interests and skills of each child in the class, with the goal of preparing students for success in school and in life. For more information on our curriculum, visit