by Kate Hilpern, Contributing Editor, The Good Schools Guide
Whether you go for pre-prep or nursery, the right preschool setting will be one in which your child can thrive, flourish and develop - socially, cognitively, emotionally, physically. But there are no hard and fast rules about which is best, so try not to have too many preconceived ideas and explore all options so you make the right decision for you.
Consider cost and practicalities such as timing and travel. And don't be put off by what others say, or by your own dim, distant memories. Visit, look at the other children; can you envisage your child there?
Nurseries come in all shapes and sizes including tiny village nurseries, larger commercial enterprises, standalone nurseries and those attached to schools. While some nurseries are very much an integral part of the school, others maintain their own powerful identity. Some are housed in bright, modern purpose-built buildings; others sit in yesteryear splendour.
But the setting alone does not determine the teaching styles - these can vary considerably too. Of one nursery attached to a school on the South coast, The Good Schools Guide says, ‘A big nursery, in spacious purpose-built classrooms….[There are] trips to the beach, yoga and dance, and a role play room which transforms into pet shop, café or realm of snow and ice, depending on the theme.’ Meanwhile, of a London pre-prep, The Good Schools Guide says: ‘A firm believer in the great outdoors, [this school] has its own forest school. Each session has a theme and activities can range from mini beast hunting to fire building and cooking outdoors. With a school that states boldly in its prospectus, ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’, you better be sure your little darlings have a healthy interest in outdoor pursuits.’
For parents after more rigorous teaching, smaller class sizes and/or a better chance of getting into a prep school, a pre-prep may be a more sensible choice. Your child can go there for longer too – from the age of three or four up until they move to (hopefully) a prep school at age seven or eight. Many pre-preps and preps are seamlessly linked schools with a guaranteed transition between them, although with others be warned there’s no such guarantee and the pressure can start as early as year 1 with practice papers.
The breadth of opportunity on offer at pre-preps is usually relished by children. From choir to den building, yoga and mini rugby, there is bound to be something to spark your child’s interest. And there are often clubs to support working parents who may struggle for childcare. Many pre-preps are also set in idyllic rural locations and give children full opportunities to make the most of the local countryside.
Whichever pre-school setting you opt for, remember that some children thrive in busy purposeful environments with plenty of bustle, while others prefer calm, ordered environments. Some parents firmly believe their children should be free to explore, experiment and lead their learning, others feel young children need routine, boundaries and rules.
What to look for
Whatever your thoughts, when entrusting the care of your child to others, you should look to find a nursery or pre-prep that will work with you and listen to your child; work from your child's current development stage and needs, not from preconceived notions of what a 2, 3 or 4 year-old should do; seek to develop your child's confidence; encourage good behaviour and cooperation; develop an awareness of, and sensitivity to, others and their feelings; and be interested in the personal, social and emotional development of your child.