It’s one of the hardest decisions a parent can make — is my child ready for preschool? When your little one hits age four or five, depending on when their birthday falls, it’s time to start considering what the best option will be for your child. What kind of environment are you looking for, and do you think your child could benefit from the educational head start that preschool provides? Here are a few well-tested tips and tricks to help you decide whether daycare or preschool is the right choice for your toddler.

What Kind of Environment Am I Looking For?

Would your toddler benefit from a more structured classroom setting, or would they thrive better in a more informal daycare setting? This is one question you will have to answer yourself — you know your child better than anyone.

A preschool is a good option if you’re looking for something to give your kids a bit of a head start when they finally start kindergarten. Many preschool programs have even started teaching students the basic skills they will need to succeed in kindergarten such as reading, writing and basic mathematics.

A toddler daycare program may still teach some reading and writing skills, but it won’t generally be the primary focus. Daycares can be a great environment to teach things like socialization, teamwork and sharing in a less structured environment.

How Many Students Are in the Class?

Preprimary programs have been growing in popularity for the better part of the last 30 years. While they’re not required by state or federal attendance laws, by 2014, upwards of 69% of toddlers aged three to five were enrolled in some form of preprimary program.

When you’re considering a daycare or preschool program, it’s important to consider the classroom size and the student-to-teacher ratio. A low student-to-teacher ratio allows the teacher to better manage their classroom and provide more one-on-one attention to each individual student. A low student-teacher ratio is ideal for preprimary programs — we all know how rambunctious a group of toddlers can be!

Spend Some Time Observing

Before you commit to any preprimary program, spend some time observing the school and the students while class is in session. This can give you a good idea whether or not it’s a good environment for your child. What should you be looking for?

  • The facility itself — Does it look clean? Is it a warm and welcoming environment? Does the equipment look new or, if not new, at least well maintained?
  • The students — Do the students look happy and excited to be there? You can get a really good sense of whether your child will thrive in this environment by simply watching the other children. If they’re unhappy or seem like they’re dreading coming to class or daycare, it might be time to look for a different facility.
  • The staff — Do the teachers and/or staff seem as excited as the students, or do they look bored or indifferent? You definitely want to find a place where the teachers are excited to be there. If they’re just there for a paycheck, they’re not going to provide the type of care and education your child needs. Also, ask what the staff turnover rate is — a place that is changing out teachers or instructors every other semester isn’t terribly stable and might not be good for your child.
  • Playtime — Free playtime is just as important for small children as learning is. Not only does it help the kids burn off some of their extra energy, but it also encourages the development of leadership skills and other necessary traits.

The school or daycare facility isn’t the only source of information, though.

Talk to Other Parents

Chances are, if you’ve got friends who have kids, you’ve probably heard some recommendations from them about their favorite preschool, daycare or other preprimary program. If not, talk to the administrators and see if you can get the contact information of other parents who have their children enrolled in the program.

Talking to other parents is a great way to get unbiased opinions. Teachers might tell you their program is great when it isn’t, just to get more butts in the seats. A parent isn’t going to have that sort of compunction — in most cases, they’ll tell you their actual and honest opinions on a school or daycare program. They may rave about it, have complaints about it or downright hate it, but they won’t sugar coat it for you and they won’t lie to you about it.

Ask About Communication

The teachers or program leaders may be more than willing to answer your questions while you’re there, but what happens when your child is enrolled? How is communication between teacher and parent handled? Do they text? Do they email? Will they keep you apprised of your child’s development, or will it take paperwork in triplicate and an act of God to get any answers out of them?

Communication is an important part of the relationship between teacher and parent, and it becomes essential if the child in question is having problems with classwork or other students. Make sure the teachers are willing to communicate with you at all times.

When it comes down to it, you’re the only one who can determine what will benefit your child more. If you think they could benefit from an extra year of preparation and schooling, then look into preschool programs in your area. Make sure you start looking early — the slots fill up fast, and you might not be able to find a traditional preschool program if you wait until the last minute.

If your child would benefit more from unstructured play and socialization, a daycare program might be the best option for you. You may be able to find daycare programs that offer some instruction in basic reading and writing, but these things won’t be the focus of the program.