The Obsessive Parents’ Guide to Preschool

This step-by-step guide will help you find a school with a philosophy and location that suits your own; explain what you need to get in; and offer myriad alternative plans—because, hey, in the end, it’s just preschool, right?

Edited by Kara Baskin

massachusetts preschools guide

Photograph by Mariel Tenney

Many an urbane parent will confess that diving into the fiercely competitive world of preschools is almost as important as choosing your child’s name. It’s your little one’s first classroom experience, and if you do it right, the theory goes, the preschool years will lead to a lifetime of learning. “Parents who are ambitious and highly invested in their child’s education may see the preschool years as paramount to their child’s long-term success,” says educational consultant Carol Kinlan, of the Back Bay’s McMillan, Howland & Spence. “The new ‘learning and the brain’ research does point out how available a young child’s brain is to learning language, memorizing words, letters, et cetera. Thus, making best use of this unique window of opportunity can make parents feel anxious.”

But don’t panic. This step-by-step guide will help you find a school with a philosophy and location that suits your own; explain what you need to get in; and offer myriad alternative plans—because, hey, in the end, it’s just preschool, right?



Match Your Child to a Preschool Philosophy

What kind of learning environment will take your adorable tot from bundle of love to polished kindergartner? Mary Watson Avery, senior program director at Wheelock College’s Aspire Institute, pairs kid-personality types with the prevailing teaching styles. —K.B.

massachusetts preschools guide


YOU WANT: At Montessori schools, kids from ages two years and nine months to six years interact in a single classroom. Each day, teachers lay out specific play materials and give children plenty of time to explore. Self-directed and quiet play is encouraged, helping foster kids’ innate sense of curiosity in a structured setting.

SO TRY THIS: Wildflower Montessori


YOU WANT: Reggio Emilia programs take a child-centered, play-based approach. Often, teachers work with the class’s interests rather than delivering a preset curriculum, and they’re big on documenting classroom activities in journals and photos. It’s a great environment for self-starters.

SO TRY THIS: Charlestown Nursery School


YOU WANT: Waldorf schools focus on community, offering group activities like baking, cooking, and gardening. Kids make a purposeful connection with the natural world, so you won’t find any flashy toys here (and media is often avoided).

SO TRY THIS: Waldorf School of Lexington


YOU WANT: In a co-op program, families get more involved than at a typical school, helping in the classroom and on the administrative side. Preschoolers often love seeing their parents during the day, and really, wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall for their first classroom foray?

SO TRY THIS: Newtowne School



Case the Joint

Wizened preschool warriors may scare you with tales of three-year-long waitlists and brutal, legacy-driven admissions. Reality is much kinder. Below, eight tips for a successful search. —K.B.

massachusetts preschools guide

Be open. Don’t waste energy trying to figure out which schools are the most prestigious. “Remember that the ‘right school’ is the one that fits your child’s profile and your family’s values, regardless of so-called reputation,” says educational consultant Don McMillan, of McMillan, Howland & Spence.

Map it. You don’t want to be stuck in gridlock while your child languishes at a fee of $1 per minute late.

Visit. During open houses, check the schools’ walls. Are there letters, words, numbers, and pictures? Do they seem interesting or overwhelming?

Do your homework. Confirm teacher training and experience, how a typical day unfolds, and when you’ll hear about a decision.

Connect. Call admissions departments at two to four schools to schedule appointments and interviews. Avoid overbooking.

Don’t hover. Schools may ask for a “play group” or home visit. Don’t over-prep, Kinlan warns. “You’re dealing with very seasoned people at these schools who have seen everything.”

Engage. But do it gracefully. “The best [interviewees] have a low-key, flexible attitude and show that they want to be part of the community,” Kinlan says.

Be patient. Decisions are sent from December through March, and families typically have one month to send in a deposit. “Be clear with admissions that you may need until mid-March to make a decision,” Kinlan says.