This is a handy checklist of things to think about when choosing a Preschool for your child. Each item on the list can be clicked for a more in depth explanation. (You will not be taken away from this page.)

From speaking to staff, current parents of the school or reading the prospectus you should get a feel for the school and the work they do. Your gut feeling when you chat to teachers or walk around should not be ignored.

Level 5 and 6 are usually courses of seven months duration and limited topics/theories are covered. Level 8 is a University Degree for 3 or 4 years duration. Level 9 is a Master’s Degree and can be from 1 to 3 years duration usually with some unique research undertaken.

A mud kitchen is preferable to plastic toys such as slides and cars as it provides more stimulation, more play, more language use, more sensory experience and more creativity.

Happy staff with good relationships are a positive sign for any service – but do expect some level of staff turnover as staff explore various settings, ethos and locations.

Brightly coloured walls strewn with cartoon characters and multi-coloured jigsaw themed flooring might be attractive to parents but it is over-stimulating and stressful for children. Add other children and the resulting high noise levels to the mix and you can cause sensory overload – no child can learn when under stress so a calm environment is a must. Too many plastic toys are also not a good sign as these are usually too prescriptive in use; a plastic pizza is always a pizza to a child – whereas a pine cone could be a sausage one day and a telescope the next day. Plastic provides little sensory feedback – whereas natural materials will vary in weight/texture/temperature and so on.

Is snack time flexible? Is a drink available when a child requires it? Can children go outdoors when they like? Can they paint when they like? Children should be able to play with the items they wish. For example 9-10 should not be “table-top time” and 10-11 should not be “art” or “construction” time. Children should be able to paint in the morning if that’s what they want to do, while others around play with cars or blocks or in the home corner. It can look like chaos at first but children learn much faster when they have the responsibility to organise their own activity – find an apron, a sheet of paper, a paintbrush, pour some paint and water, tidy up their own spills and so on. Some activities might be group activities, for example teacher may suggest reading a story or playing instruments but joining this should be optional. Children should not be made to sit at circle time if their body is telling them to move around.

Rocks, pine cones, wood, boxes, shells, fabric, string, straws, pegs and so on should be available indoors and outdoors.

Children live in the moment and are all about the process of arts and crafts rather than the product. In the early stages of creativity they are exploring how things move and how they react with each other. A big page of brown strokes (with a giant hole in the centre) is a far better sign of the child’s creativity at work than twenty perfect handprints turned into Rudolf (by teacher). Using templates or a notice board of identical artwork is not creativity in action and actually hinders the development of artistic qualities. It makes children think they need teachers “help” so lowers confidence and independence too.

Joining the dots, tracing numbers and matching pictures are not suitable for pre-schoolers. They might be ok for a seven year old but have no place in a preschool (just as we don’t encourage a 4 month old to walk, we don’t encourage primary school activities in preschool). Gross motor skills are NECESSARY before fine motor should be attempted. So a child’s ability to write/draw in the later years are dependent on his/her experience NOW of running, jumping, pulling, crawling, digging, manipulating heavy rocks/spades/logs and rough and tumble play. Fine motor control is developed through using playdough, peg boards, jigsaw puzzles and blocks. These activities are much more physically stimulating and emotionally satisfying for a four year old (and a 7 year old) than a page of 9s to copy with a pencil.

Time out is a form of behaviourism which is thankfully on the way out in Ireland. Rewards and punishments (star charts and time out) are not appropriate for this (or any) age group. There are more positive and holistic methods of encouraging positive behaviour in children which will strengthen your relationship with them and extend their intellect rather than “controlling” their behaviour. Behaviour should be dealt with immediately and the child should swiftly move on to play again. Bear in mind when teachers let you know of any negative behaviour at collection time – it should be discussed discretely and parents should not bring up behaviour from the past as it can result in a negative self-image in the child’s mind. Asking a four year old child why they did something two hours earlier is like asking yourself where you were January 27th, 1998. Making them feel bad for their behaviour “two whole hours ago” really is futile.