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How to Spot a Bad Preschool: 10 Warning Signs Parents Must Know

The author is a former preschool and kindergarten teacher with a master's degree in special education. She advocates for kids to play more.

Parents should be wary of paper-pencil tasks, long circle times, computers, and an academic focus.

Parents should be wary of paper-pencil tasks, long circle times, computers, and an academic focus.

10 Warning Signs of a Bad Preschool:

1. A teacher with no degree (or units) in early childhood education

2. An academic focus

3. No philosophy

4. Computers in the classroom

5. Workbooks and other paper-pencil tasks

6. A high student-to-teacher ratio

7. An owner who treats her teachers poorly

8. Long circle times

9. A small classroom

10. No dramatic play areas or too few

Do No Harm

First, to do no harm is a maxim taught to aspiring doctors at medical school. It cautions them that it's often better to do nothing for a patient than to intervene and risk greater damage. While visiting dozens of preschools each year for my job, I've become convinced that this slogan should now be adopted in early childhood education as well. That's because the youngsters I observe would often be better off with no formal education at all than the one that they're getting.

Unfortunately, academic preparation for kindergarten is what's in vogue at preschools today in the US (countries with top-notch schools follow the research that shows early academics are not beneficial and even detrimental). Developmentally appropriate practices, once the hallmark of early childhood education, have largely been abandoned. As a result of this earlier is better mindset, imaginative play gets sidelined, curiosity gets stifled, social skills get marginalized, and kids get turned off to learning.

What are developmentally appropriate practices at preschool?

They embrace research-based methods for teaching young children. They're shaped by decades of knowledge in the fields of child development and child psychology. They're built on the precept that preschoolers learn best by doing, by playing, by interacting with one another, and by exploring their surroundings. They're formed by the belief that teachers should focus on the needs and interests of their students, not on a predetermined academic curriculum.

Choose Wisely

Many preschools today are just the bottom rung of a long academic ladder with the goal of prepping little kids for kindergarten. Play has decreased while teacher-directed lessons have increased. As a result, youngsters must sit still and listen at a time when their brains are wired to explore, their bodies are eager to move, and their verbal skills are ready to be unleashed. Tragically, the very things that many uninformed parents desire in a preschool are the very things that are most harmful to their kids.

1. A Teacher With No Early Childhood Degree

There's a troubling trend in early childhood education today with elementary school teachers getting hired to work at preschools, especially so-called transitional kindergartens. Some parents see this as beneficial, thinking these educators are better-equipped to prepare youngsters for the academic rigors at kindergarten and beyond. They're discounting, however, the profound differences in early childhood education versus elementary.

Those with early childhood education (ECE) units have studied how young children learn best through play, hands-on exploration, social interaction, and sensory experiences. They know how to provide activities that engage preschoolers in fun, age-appropriate ways without pushing them to do things that cause stress, frustration, and self-doubt. A preschool teacher without a degree or units in early childhood education is a warning sign of a bad preschool and, most certainly, shouldn't be viewed as a positive.

Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.

— Jean Piaget

2. An Academic Focus

The current obsession with preparing kids academically for kindergarten ignores the vast majority of research in early childhood education that shows it's detrimental. The acclaimed Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, observed how youngsters learned and saw that it was very different from how adults acquire information. He saw that kids gain knowledge through their experiences rather than having it spoon-fed to them by an adult.

The best preschool teachers, therefore, act as guides who encourage exploration and discovery. They provide rich hands-on learning opportunities and stimulate deeper understanding by asking probing questions. Teachers who act as the source of all knowledge are a warning sign of a bad preschool that should definitely alarm parents.

3. No Philosophy

A well-articulated and executed philosophy shapes the culture of a preschool. It puts everyone—teachers, parents, and kids—on the same page. It guides every decision made on matters such as curriculum, discipline, field trips, and nutrition.

My son attended a co-op preschool with the philosophy that children learn best through play. Its motto was together we're better since moms and dads were required to volunteer in the classroom on a regular basis. Parents also attended monthly meetings conducted by the director who spoke to us about childhood development and parenting. A shared philosophy created a strong community of like-minded individuals who were wholly committed to play-based learning.

Having no philosophy is a warning sign of a bad preschool that should certainly give parents pause. A director or teacher who can't articulate the school's philosophy is another red flag. Saying simply that they "seek to prepare students for kindergarten" is not a philosophy at all and indicates an adult-centered experience, not a child-centered one.

4. Computers in the Classroom

Having computers in a preschool classroom is a sure sign that teachers don't appreciate how precious that time is for kids to play, socialize, and explore. It indicates they're not familiar with the research that shows young children on average spend a whopping seven hours a day watching screens. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends just one hour for two to five-year-old youngsters. Any respectable preschool owner knows kids need to spend less time with technology, not more. Letting preschoolers watch screens is lazy, irresponsible, and one of the most glaring signs of a bad preschool.

5. Workbooks and Other Paper-Pencil Tasks

Writing activities at preschool put the cart before the horse. Rather than doing paper-pencil tasks, which are developmentally inappropriate, youngsters should be engaged in fun activities that strengthen their hand muscles and build dexterity. These include pounding, squeezing, and molding play-dough, doing puzzles, coloring, painting at the easel, stringing beads, playing with stickers, squirting water bottles, and squeezing sponges.

When preschoolers pick up items such as paintbrushes and crayons between their thumbs and index fingers, they're developing their pincer grasp. Then, when they're at elementary school, they'll be ready to hold a pencil in their hand comfortably and correctly. Conversely, children writing in workbooks is a warning sign of a bad preschool. It exposes teachers as being woefully ignorant of developmentally appropriate practices. By pushing paper-pencil tasks too early, these educators risk turning off kids to writing for years to come.

6. A High Student-to-Teacher Ratio

For optimal learning (as well as safety), a preschool classroom of four and five-year-olds should have a student-teacher ratio of no more than ten children per adult. Otherwise, the needs of the youngsters will not be met, teachers will get frazzled, and discipline problems will manifest. Moreover, when there are children in the class with special needs (autism, Down Syndrome, ADHD, physical, mental, and emotional issues), another teacher should be added. If this doesn't occur, all the youngsters will suffer and the high turnover rate among teachers in early childhood education will continue. Exceeding the student-to-teacher ratio is a significant warning sign of a bad preschool and of a director who's okay with cutting corners.

There should never be more than 10 children per adult at preschool. That number should be reduced when there are students with special needs in the group.

There should never be more than 10 children per adult at preschool. That number should be reduced when there are students with special needs in the group.

7. An Owner Who Treats Her Teachers Poorly

The high turnover rate among preschool teachers is due to their measly pay, low status in society, and the poor way they're treated by their employers. While it would make sense that outstanding preschool teachers get treated like gold by their bosses, this is often not the case. The dirty little secret in early childhood education is how beloved teachers, who are held in high esteem by parents and students, are made to mop, vacuum, and clean the bathrooms after class.

They also put in numerous unpaid hours writing lesson plans, planning field trips and projects, and returning phone calls from moms and dads. If the owner of the preschool doesn't value her teachers, this is a good indication of her poor character and callous attitude. When a director puts profits before people, this is a warning sign of a bad preschool and a bad environment for teachers and kids.

The greatest sign of success for a to be able to say, "The children are now working as if I did not exist."

— Maria Montessori

8. Long Circle Times

Over many years of visiting preschools, I've seen circle times get longer and longer, stretching to 45 minutes and even an hour. The sad truth, though, is that children's attention spans haven't changed at all, staying steady at approximately 15 minutes. When circle time first began, it was a way to establish a sense of community. There were songs to sing, stories to read, games to play, and dances to do. Everybody was engaged, happy, and felt a sense of belonging.

Circle time today, however, has moved far away from its original intent. It's now a platform for teachers to fill children with information—most of which is meaningless to them and developmentally inappropriate. There are the days of the week, the concept of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the calendar, the weather, patterns, counting, and numeral recognition.

If children get bored, frustrated, and can't sit still, they're sent to time-out as punishment. Then teachers tell mom and dad that their youngster is “immature” and “disruptive” even though the behavior is totally normal for preschoolers. Long, unwieldy circle times are a warning sign of a bad preschool that, sadly, has become all too common.

9. A Small Classroom

When it comes to early childhood education, size counts. No matter how preschool owners spin it (like calling a tiny classroom “cozy"), they know better than most that youngsters benefit from lots of space. They need wide open areas to move their bodies. They need lots of interesting spaces to explore in their environment. They need plenty of materials to investigate.

Preschoolers build self-confidence by trying new physical feats—running, skipping, climbing, balancing, and dancing—and should be encouraged to do so. In a space that's inadequate, teachers are forced to limit movement because someone might get hurt or property might get damaged. A large classroom and a large outdoor area are essential for exploring, playing, and pretending. Wide open areas are necessary to develop strong, healthy bodies and self-assured spirits who are willing to take risks and practice new skills.

Play is the highest kind of research.

— Albert Einstein

10. No Dramatic Play Areas (or Too Few)

The cornerstone of a quality preschool program involves multiple dramatic play areas: a kitchen where kids pretend to be chefs, a veterinary clinic where they treat sick pets, a puppet theater where they imagine being different characters while putting on a show. A teacher who understands the importance of promoting imagination in preschoolers is someone who knows what early childhood education is all about and is willing to advocate for kids. This is especially commendable today when it's easier to just surrender to parental demands for academics. Not celebrating children's imaginations with multiple dramatic play areas is a warning sign of a bad preschool that should cause us all great distress.

Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige has written a book that I highly recommend for parents of preschoolers entitled, Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids. In it, she argues that kids need time and space for creative play in order to ensure their healthy development. Unfortunately, though, we've moved in the opposite direction, giving children fewer and fewer opportunities for unstructured play both at home and at school. As a result, we have young people who are less empathetic, less innovative, more depressed and more anxious. As a long-time preschool teacher, I back Carlsson-Paige's effort to restore childhood to what it once was for the benefit of kids and our whole society.

In this video, Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige advocates for play and pretend at preschool as they're key to children's emotional, social, and cognitive development.

What do you think?

Questions & Answers

Question: How do you get your principal to understand the importance of play when she's pressured from the top for kids to be ready for kindergarten which has a lot of formal testing?

Answer: That’s the predicament that so many early childhood educators and concerned, informed parents face today. Because of legislation such as No Child Left Behind and Common Core, our preschools and kindergartens have been negatively impacted and unstructured play has been decimated. Principals are now under enormous pressure for their students to perform well on standardized tests and ongoing assessments.

Early childhood educators who know the value of play have largely been silenced. However, Defending the Early Years has a wonderful website with articles that you can share with the principal. It’s important to keep in mind that some administrators have little or no experience with early childhood education and have no idea what developmentally appropriate practices are.

I also suggest that you read my article entitled: “33 Reasons to Choose a Play-Based Preschool, Not an Academic One.”

It includes a video with Dr. Peter Gray, who explores the importance of play from an evolutionary perspective. It’s a video that every parent and principal should watch. Dr. Gray argues that the decline in play that we’ve witnessed in the past 50-70 years is hugely responsible for the increase in depression, anxiety, narcissism, and suicide among children and teens.

You face an uphill battle in today’s climate. We have a shortsighted approach now to early childhood education: getting kids academically ready for the next school year instead of preparing them for life. I admire your willingness to advocate for what our youngest learners need. Good luck!

© 2018 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on January 04, 2020:

Thanks, Dominique. I've read that Canada moved back to a strong emphasis on play-based preschools after experimenting with academic ones. I hope that we'll do the same in the US. At this time, though, many preschools here are about preparing kids academically for kindergarten. Sadly, this is especially true at publicly funded ones where kids get turned off to learning at an early age.

Dominique Cantin-Meaney from Montreal, Canada on January 04, 2020:

These make so much sense. These are definitely things that parents should keep in mind.

McKenna Meyers (author) on June 30, 2018:

Bill, you're always so supportive of my articles even though you're not in the market for a preschool! Thanks!

McKenna Meyers (author) on June 30, 2018:

That's so true, Venkatachari. What you said (working together, exploring ideas, looking for solutions) are the skills employers want today but often can't find. They're the things we used to encourage in preschool and kindergarten before the current push for academic rigor.

McKenna Meyers (author) on June 30, 2018:

Thanks, Patricia. What I wouldn't do to have the imagination and curiosity of a preschooler! You're so right; we shouldn't do anything to stifle that.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 30, 2018:

I am so grateful those days are behind me. I'm not strong enough to raise a toddler at this point in my life. Having said that, these suggestions are right on. It is so important that your child have a quality experience at that age. It can determine the quality of their learning for years to come.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on June 30, 2018:

Very true. Small children need more play and social activity than formal education. They should be taught to mingle with each other and develop a group mentality so that they can become accustomed to collective participation in exploring or solving things that develop practical abilities and leadership skills in the future. Thanks for bringing this awareness.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on June 30, 2018:

Absolutely...little ones are curious and excited about new experiences until they are drowned in the expectations that are now put upon them even in preschool. Hoping that many read your article and heed your suggestions. Angels are on the way ps