Skip to main content

What Makes a Good Preschool: 50 Best Qualities, Characteristics, and Practices

Ms. Meyers is a long-time preschool and kindergarten teacher who writes about issues in early childhood education and advocates for play.

A top-notch preschool has teachers who understand the importance of open-ended art: painting, drawing, printmaking, collage making, and molding with clay.

A top-notch preschool has teachers who understand the importance of open-ended art: painting, drawing, printmaking, collage making, and molding with clay.

A Quality Program Is Child-Centered

  • Are you impressed by teachers who command the children's attention at circle time as they instruct about the calendar, the weather, and the days of the week?
  • Do you get thrilled when your child brings home adorable craft projects that you can proudly display: a turkey made from a hand-print, a crocodile created from an egg carton, and a spider twisted with pipe cleaners?
  • When kids are doing math and handwriting workbooks, do you interpret it as a positive sign that they're learning and making academic progress?
  • When youngsters are playing, do you think of it as largely a waste of time that could be better spent receiving instruction from the teacher?
  • Do you see preschool primarily as a means to prepare your child academically for kindergarten?

If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, you're off track in determining what constitutes a high-quality preschool. Like many parents today, you think an adult-centered classroom is superior to a child-centered one. What you interpret as signs of excellence are really the opposite of what most scholars in early childhood education recommend.

When choosing a preschool, moms and dads should focus on finding one that adheres to developmentally appropriate practices (DAP). In a DAP-inspired classroom, kids are allowed to be kids: playing, creating, pretending, and exploring. Their teacher is not front and center, filling them with knowledge, but rather is an inconspicuous facilitator encouraging their curiosity. Her long-range goal is for them to become critical thinkers, life-long learners, self-starters, and well-adjusted individuals.

Art: Initiative, Independence & Imagination

  1. Open-ended art reigns supreme. Painting, drawing, printmaking, creating collages, and sculpting with clay are emphasized because they promote the three i's: initiative, independence, and imagination. Teacher-directed craft projects are minimized because they do the opposite, encouraging duplication instead of originality.
  2. Process gets celebrated over product. The process of creating art is seen as far more important than the finished product. It's presented as a relaxing and joyful endeavor that benefits one's well-being. The goal is for it to be experienced as a satisfying and soothing pursuit that kids will turn to during their growing up years and throughout adulthood.
  3. Children are encouraged to create art but are never coerced. If they're engaged in another activity (building blocks, riding tricycles, putting on a puppet show), they're not forced to abandon that pursuit because the teacher calls them over to do an art project. Creating art is always a choice that the youngster makes.
  4. Youngsters can paint at an easel each day. It's one of the purest examples of open-ended art. Kids express themselves through their paintings at a time when their vocabulary and articulation are limited. Doing so, therefore, is profoundly empowering for them.
  5. Coloring books are forbidden. Crayons, paper, markers, colored pencils, and colored chalk, though, are always visible and available. Children are encouraged to draw whatever they like based on their own unlimited imaginations and not prescribed by a coloring book.
Many preschools today are decorated with teacher-directed art projects like the fish above. Everyone follows the sample and, sadly, they all wind up looking the same.

Many preschools today are decorated with teacher-directed art projects like the fish above. Everyone follows the sample and, sadly, they all wind up looking the same.

6. A wide variety of art supplies is available. Youngsters can explore collage materials, clay with tools, printmaking supplies, various paints, and a wide assortment of brushes.

7. The classroom art reflects the uniqueness of each child. Youngsters do not follow step-by-step directions to make cookie-cutter projects such as paper bag bunnies or cotton ball snowmen.

8. There are no teacher samples to copy. Children avoid the frustration that comes from their art not matching up to an adult standard. They don't have a preconceived idea of how their art should look. Instead, they use their mind's eye to create a one-of-a-kind creation.

9. Parents understand the benefits of open-ended art. The teacher educates them about the limitations of adult-led crafts. Therefore, they appreciate why their children won't be coming home with a plethora of cutesy projects. They're on-board about celebrating their kids' art as a reflection of their uniqueness.

10. Classroom bulletin boards display a wide-variety of open-ended art. They reflect the diversity, not the uniformity, of the group.

Open-ended art is having no expectations about the product; it’s all about the process. The focus then is not trying to achieve a predetermined outcome, but instead exploring materials and experimenting with the process of creation. The final outcome might be based on an idea or it might be abstract. Open ended art is all about free choice, discovery, problem solving and imagination!

— Lina Pugsley, blogger and open-ended art enthusiast

Circle Time: Short and Sweet

11. The teacher keeps it brief. A four-year-old's attention span is about 15 minutes so circle time doesn't last longer than that.

12. It's not the primary means of instruction. Research shows young children learn more during small group activities and free play than they do at circle time.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Wehavekids

13. It's not the teacher's personal stage. Children shouldn't be expected to sit quietly and listen while she performs. She should involve them.

14. It's child-centered. Circle time should be lively with the youngsters singing, dancing, and playing.

15. Parents know why small groups are superior to circle time. The teacher articulates the limitations of whole group learning. Moreover, she makes it clear why small-group instruction and hands-on exploration are far superior.

Education is a natural process carried out by the child and not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.

— Dr. Maria Montessori

Phonological Awareness: Taught Organically

16. The teacher is knowledgeable about phonological awareness. She understands that children who can hear and identify the sounds in words are much more likely to become competent readers.

17. It's integrated throughout the day. The teacher presents it in a fun, playful, and organic way with poetry, songs, nursery rhymes, and games.

18. It's not taught with workbooks. The teacher knows that phonological awareness is void of print so worksheets are unnecessary. It involves hearing and manipulating the sounds inside words. Therefore, speaking and listening are key.

19. The teacher reads rhyming books, poems, and nursery rhymes. She introduces the children to literature that involves language play and alliteration.

20. Children's music is played in the classroom. The teacher plays favorite artists who emphasize rhyme and wordplay such as Hap Palmer, Raffi, Dr. Jean, and Joe Scruggs. The class sings rhyming songs, does finger plays, and recites poetry.

Preschoolers shouldn't be doing paper-pencil work. They should be doing activities that promote fine motor skills and dexterity: molding clay, stringing beads, and doing puzzles.

Preschoolers shouldn't be doing paper-pencil work. They should be doing activities that promote fine motor skills and dexterity: molding clay, stringing beads, and doing puzzles.

21. The teacher exaggerates words so each sound is heard. For example, she makes cat become kuh-aaa-tuh. She talks about beginning, middle, and ending sounds. The children clap the syllables in words: cat = 1, hamster = 2, Dalmatian = 3.

22. The teacher uses small group activities to teach about phonological awareness. Games are used.

23. Letter sounds are more important than letter names. The teacher knows that learning the letter sounds is far more crucial for reading skills than learning the letter names.

24. The teacher goes through all the letter sounds each day. She doesn't use the popular but ineffective “letter of the week” approach.

25. The teacher explains to parents the importance of phonological awareness. They understand that it's key to building strong readers. They know how to promote it at home.

Although phonological awareness is taught when a child enters the school system, research shows that the more a child knows before he or she enters school, the faster they are able to learn to read, write, and spell. In fact, these fundamental skills are strong predictors of literacy performance in subsequent years. Many researchers believe that phonological awareness in early childhood is more important to literacy than other variables such as socioeconomic status or intelligence.

— Jason Carr, blogger and educator

Math: Hands-On With Manipulatives

26. It's experiential. Learning about math is enjoyable, meaningful, and hands-on.

27. Kids learn math by exploring. There is a wide-variety of math materials in the classroom that kids can easily access. They have plenty of opportunities to use them during small group activities and free play periods. The teacher guides their learning by asking questions.

28. Math is integrated throughout the day.Therefore, it's seen by the children as a meaningful part of the real world.

29. Math is play. Children learn concepts during free play periods as they use the cash register at the store, string beads in patterns in the art area, sort bugs at the science center, and use measuring cups and spoons in the kitchen.

30. Blocks are always encouraged during free play periods. They teach math concepts such as problem solving, adding, subtracting, grouping, counting, comparing, and measuring.

In this video, parents learn why playing with blocks is so crucial to a child's understanding of math concepts and why they need long periods of time to explore with them.

31. There is an abundance of math manipulatives. It should include pattern blocks, unifix cubes, counters, and geoboards.

32. Children discover concepts of measurement through free play. They learn about it by using cups and spoons at the water and sand tables and by building with blocks on the floor.

33. The students count throughout the day with a purpose. They count the kids at school. They count the different foods at snack. They count the number of items brought for Show and Tell.

34. The teacher articulates to parents how children should learn math in a developmentally appropriate way. This involves moving from the concrete (manipulatives) to the abstract (numerals).

35. The teacher does not rely heavily on calendar activities to teach math concepts. Patterning, counting, and sequencing are better taught with hands-on activities in small groups. Children below first grade find calendar activities largely meaningless because their notion of time hasn't matured.

Social Skills: Teacher and Peer Interactions

36. The teacher is a role model for pro-social behavior. Her actions speak louder than words when she demonstrates kindness, patience, compassion, and helpfulness.

37. The teacher circulates throughout the classroom during free play time. Instead of doing a project with a small group of students, she's available to the whole group. She helps the children build pro-social behaviors: using words to settle conflicts, working together as a team to build and create, and sharing toys and materials.

38. The teacher helps children understand what non-verbal communication is. She informs them how we convey our thoughts with facial expressions and body language as well as words.

39. The teacher understands child development. She knows that youngsters are making a huge transition from parallel play to cooperative play. She gives them an hour or more of uninterrupted free play each day to promote social skills.

40. The teacher educates parents about the development of social skills in children. She communicates to them that building pro-social behaviors takes time and practice. Most children don't appreciate the true value of sharing until they're 5 or 6. Until that age, they do it largely because adults tell them to do so.

It is in the outdoors that children are likely to burn the most calories, which helps prevent obesity, a heart disease risk factor that has doubled in the past decade. With studies showing that as many as half of American children are not getting enough exercise-- and that risk factors like hypertension and arteriosclerosis are showing up at age 5-- parents and teachers need to give serious consideration to ways in which to prevent such health problems.

— Rae Pica, professor and movement education consultant

Outside Time: A High Priority

41. Children play outside every day. Outside time is never short-changed. It's never withheld as punishment.

42. Outside time is for free play. The teacher encourages students to make up their own games and rules, set up obstacle courses, and use their imaginations. This time is not used for structured teacher-led games such as Duck-Duck-Goose and Red Light/Green Light.

Dr. Peter Gray details the importance of free play in a book that I highly recommend for preschool parents. It's entitled Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. I used it as my guide when establishing the daily routine for my play-based preschool program and for developing a philosophy in rearing my own two sons. In his book, Dr. Gray explains that youngsters today aren't getting nearly enough free play (activities that they choose and aren't guided by adults). He argues that insufficient amounts of free play have led to many ills that we see today among children and teens such as higher rates of depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide.

43. The teacher articulates the value of outside time to parents. She communicates its importance in promoting exercising, socializing, sharing, taking turns, cooperating, confidence-building, and problem solving.

44. The school's dress code mandates that kids wear play clothes and tennis shoes. Children wear casual clothes so they can move freely and get dirty.

45. The outdoor area is large with ample open space. It has equipment for climbing, running, throwing, catching, and swinging.

During outdoor time, kids build confidence in their physical skills, take reasonable risks, and enjoy the innumerable benefits of uninterrupted free play.

During outdoor time, kids build confidence in their physical skills, take reasonable risks, and enjoy the innumerable benefits of uninterrupted free play.

Small Groups: Superior to Whole Group

46. Most learning takes place during small group activities. The teacher is aware that whole group instruction has limitations and should be brief.

47. Small group activities include cooperative learning projects as well as autonomous exploration. The children learn from one another, and they learn by doing.

48. High-interest activities promote curiosity and exploration. The teacher acts as a facilitator. She asks lots of questions, especially ones that start with how: How can you make that bigger? How can you use that in a way it's not intended? How can you make that symmetrical?

49. The teacher adds materials and activities that appeal to the children's unique interests. If a child is interested in dinosaurs, she'll put out dinosaurs. If a child is interested in magnets, she'll put out magnets.

50. There are always materials and activities that promote small motor development. Therefore, children will be ready to hold a pencil correctly when they begin elementary school. There's play-dough to squeeze, stickers and stamps for creating, beads to string, pegboards to decorate, and Legos to build.

© 2015 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on July 11, 2018:

Hina, I'm glad you found a preschool that has so many of these qualities. They're very hard to find here in the US as preschools become more focused on preparing children for kindergarten and less about playing, exploring, and socializing. However, there is a trend here toward "outdoor schools" and "forest schools" where kids spend most of their time in nature. It's a step in the right direction. Enjoy your boy!

Hina Adeel on July 10, 2018:

100% agreed, I have personally admitted my son in Nordic International School and so far I am happy with the progress. They possess most of the above mentioned qualities. Its run directly by Swedish faculty and it is one of the best pre school in Lahore, Pakistan in my opinion.

anitabooks888 on September 19, 2016:

Yes I agree a warm and loving teacher makes all the difference to the child.

McKenna Meyers (author) on August 09, 2016:

You're so right, Pathways Preschool. A warm, loving, and inspiring teacher makes all the difference. However, the school's program must allow her to shine. If the adult to student ratio is too high or if the owner demands too many structured activities, she'll become frustrated and defeated. There's a huge turnover rate for preschool teachers because of the lack of respect and low wages. Parents may choose a school because of a certain teacher, but there's no guarantee she'll stay around.

Pathways Preschool on August 09, 2016:

This article puts little emphasis on the role of the teacher and the relationship they have with the children, which many studies have shown to be the biggest indicator for high quality early childhood education. There is some great info here but it seems this article is missing a big point.

Related Articles