Choosing the right nursery school to fit each child

After a cross-country move with two preschool children, I began the search for a nursery school and found several good ones. But which was right for my children?

Robin loved working puzzles, while Justin took just the characters' heads out of the puzzles so he could use them to tell a story. Justin hadn't even picked up a pencil or crayon yet, but Robin had papered our kitchen walls with her drawings and paintings.

The cashier at the supermarket had nicknamed Justin "Fingers," but I could take Robin into the china department of the local department store without worrying about buying something that had to be taken home in pieces.

Uncertainty dissolved when I began to see two different children and to look for schools that could meet their needs.

Although I began my search by finding names and locations of nursery schools in the Yellow Pages, from our real estate agent, and by talking to neighbors and other mothers I had met, the greatest help was a resource file at the public library which contained information supplied by the directors of the local nursery schools. I found schedules, fees, and curriculum and scholarship information.

Using this file, I made a list of a few schools and began visiting each to observe the teacher and children and to interview the director.

As a former teacher, I knew that I wanted a warm, loving atmosphere, guidance to trained teachers, and a small class so that each child would have personal attention.

Most schools had plenty of blocks, cars and trucks, puzzles and games, a housekeeping corner, art materials, dolls and puppets, a record player, and books. I rejected one school because the room was too small. Another didn't have enough toys and games. On the other hand, one school had a play kitchen with three toy sinks and dozens of cars and trucks. So many toys seemed to overwhelm and confuse the children.

On one of my visits, the scene was one of independent and happy industry. The teacher was helping two children who were eager to print their own names. Others were building an apartment house out of blocks. One very active and occasionally disruptive boy was patiently but firmly helped by the assistant teacher to find an activity he would enjoy.

While paints and collage materials were available. It was up to the child whether to participated in an art activity, except for an occasional project related to a holiday or class activity. Justin's interest in art activities was minimal at this point, but he did need a little practice in cutting, tracing, and coloring to prepare for kindergarten. So I knew this would be a good balance for him.

When the director led me into the gym, I was sure I had found the school for my son. A small group of children played on some large wooden climbing equipment. Two or three boys wearing superhero capes improvised from bath towels were leaping from sturdy boxes, with appropriate sound effects. A couple of others rode tricycles. Overseeing the entire scene was a teach who was at once serene and in control. As I watched the vigorous activity and spontaneity I found, I knew that this was Justin's place.

But this was't exactly right for Robin, who loved directed activity. She wanted to know "how" -- hot to tie her shoes, how to make her bed, how to read. At the school I chose for her, the emphasis was on cognitive skills and group participation. The children played a group participation. The children played a circle game, helped by the teacher to learn and follow the rules and to make sure everyone had a chance to be "it."

LAter they had a short lesson on the letter "m," which concludes with a marshmallow for each child. The classroom bulleting board boasted neat art displays of the children's daily projects. In a weekly movement class the children learned basic tumbling skills. A daily schedule provided periods of independent and group activities. I pictured Robin here, loving the busy-ness and orderliness of it, enjoying the special art and music classes.

Choosing different schools was good for the kids, but it had disadvantages for me. The main drawback was spending a year as taxi driver. Because one school session met in the morning and one in the afternoon, I never had a free minute. Justin's school had a weak music program, so I tried to provide musical activities at home. We listened to everything from "Sing a Song of Sixpence" to Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." Because the play yard at Robin's school was so exposed to the wind, the children could not play outside during the winter. This meant long afternoons spent building snowmen and sledding at the park.

However, I knew I had made the right decision. Each child had some quiet time to himself every day. The child at home and I baked cakes, visited the library, and ate lunch with Daddy. And both Robin and Justin were happy and secure in schools right for them.

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