I realize that “traumatized” may be a little dramatic. But hunting for preschools for our kids was still a bit of a nightmare.

If you’re anything like me, you start the preschool search by jumping online. Only now, I would advise against that. The internet is completely horrifying in its unequivocal assertion that choosing the right preschool will make or break your child’s future. No pressure!

Does the preschool your child attends matter?

Six years ago, none of our immediate friends had a preschool-aged child. We had no recommendations to steer us in the right direction. Location seemed like a good place to start, because all the internet did was give me a mile-long checklist of how to find the “best” preschool.

This included things like:

  • beginning our search a year before we were ready to enroll (we’d blown this by a good nine months, oops)
  • attending preschool fairs (say what?)
  • being current on organic, vegetarian, and gluten-free trends and our personal stance
  • finding a curriculum that would teach our 4-year-old Mandarin

Armed with this understanding and a vague notion that the whole point of preschool was the opportunities it would give our son to spend time with other people his own height, we arranged three tours at three separate preschools. Two had been around since my husband was in elementary school in the same town. The other was brand new.

The preschool elite

The first preschool, the brand new one, was impressive from the second we pulled up. The facility was beautiful, with large, fenced-in play areas off of all of the classrooms. There was brand-new play equipment and child-sized garden plots, plus a lush grassy area.

Inside, a cheerful lobby allowed coded access only to the interior, where hand-painted murals led the way to various classrooms. Each was outfitted with sweet cubbies and child-sized tables, chairs, and potties. Cheerful alphabet banners and brightly colored posters and signs bedecked the walls. It was completely perfect.

And I fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.

The director was all efficient handshakes, smiles, and talking points. Her teachers had graduate degrees in education and bubbly personalities. They were responsible for developing their own academic-based curriculums. We would be constantly in the loop, thanks to daily emails sharing highlights of our child’s day.

For two half days every week, we’d pay $315 monthly. This was a steal of a deal offered because the school was still so new. I was ready to cough up the $150 annual registration fee right then and there, but my husband’s side eye stopped me. We told the director we’d be in touch, and then continued to the second tour we had lined up.

The old preschool standby

The next preschool we toured was much older. A woman greeted us in the lobby, walked us through to what would be our son’s classroom, and left us standing in the doorway. A much younger woman in pajamas sat on the floor, with kids in various sleepwear scattered around the room.

The teacher eventually noticed us hovering by the door and stood up. While she explained about pajama day, I looked around at the setup: little chairs and tables, cubbies, and an alphabet banner on the wall. It was the same general idea as the fancier school, just shabbier. The teacher rushed through her general curriculum, giving us a handout with the weekly theme. Pajama day I could overlook, but the typos riddling this handout I could not. We thanked her and hightailed it out of there.

Sure, we’d save around $65 a month for the twice weekly half days here, but this glorified day care wasn’t cutting it. We moved on. The third school was a rerun of the second with religious overtones and a high price tag. That cemented our decision. Preschool number one it was.

What really matters when choosing a preschool?

Our daughter attended the same school two years later. Graciously, the director extended the same price point. Fast forward another two years, and the price has skyrocketed to $525 a month for two half days a week.

We still toured it with our son, pointing out the cubbies that his older brother and sister once had. But he didn’t seem nearly as impressed as we had been. And quite suddenly, we weren’t either. The director was still there, but the staff turnover had been high since we started there years ago. And just like that, the beautifully appointed facilities and master’s degrees stopped mattering. Instead, our real priorities crystallized, and they don’t necessarily include language arts.

In the fall, we want our son to attend a preschool with a curriculum that covers the basics. It should give him lots of time to play and interact with peers in a welcoming environment, for a reasonable price.

We polled friends who’ve been there, done that, and found a preschool for less than $300 a month that ticks all those boxes.

Above all, our son was thrilled with the tour, so much so that we went back for a second look and then registered him on the spot while he explored his future classroom.

The takeaway

My son won’t get to plant tomatoes in his own preschool garden, but we can make that happen at home. And really, I don’t think he’s going to miss anything. He’ll be just as prepared for kindergarten as his older brother and sister, and that’s what really matters.

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