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Preschool Primer | How panicking parents can make it through the search. | By Carolyn von Behren

The thick blue directory of East Bay preschools stared at me from my tiny kitchen table. Like many other first-time parents, I had purchased this volume at Rockridge Kids in Oakland, sure that the comprehensive list of over 100 schools would be just the thing to help me locate a program for my 2-year old, Zachary. Now, though, I found myself overwhelmed by the wealth of options. Identifying and then thoroughly investigating the five most promising programs, I decided, was the sanity-saving way to go.

My strategy was systematic, but it certainly wasn’t speedy. Calls led to more calls, and weeks of admission tours, applications, interviews, and second visits—no small undertaking for two parents who worked full-time. But eventually, we found a great preschool for our quiet, independent-minded son.

Six years, three more kids, and several years of preschool later, I found myself embroiled in yet another complex and daunting search last spring, when our third child’s beloved preschool became too costly for our budget. It wasn’t just a matter of finding a good school—there is no shortage of excellent programs in our area. But preschools these days are far from one-size-fits-all, and a perfect match for one child may be all wrong for her sibling or best friend. It’s kind of like dinner: your kid will either like the mac and cheese with cherry tomatoes, or they won’t, regardless of your opinion about how wholesome and nutritious it is, or how hard you worked to prepare it. So if you, too, are embarking on the preschool journey, come equipped with time, energy, and foremost, patience.

The Beginning

First of all, parents should know that not all children attend preschool. For reasons ranging from cost to personal philosophy, some families opt to keep their children at home. Some hook up with neighborhood babysitting co-ops, hire nannies, or take care of the little ones all by themselves. Most parents in our area, though, choose to send their kids to preschool. For working parents, it’s usually the most viable childcare option. And many parents believe that preschool provides the best environment for learning social skills.

Whether you are a first-time parent or a veteran, identifying a compatible preschool program for you and your child involves issues ranging from nitty-gritty (e.g., can we even afford this place? Does he meet the minimum age-requirement?) to psychological (will she freak out if it’s too noisy?) to more esoteric (what’s the real purpose of preschool, anyway?).

First things first: consider your child’s needs. According to Alexis Wachtel of Berkeley, a stay-at-home parent of three young children and stepmother to a teenage girl, “You know how your child is. You know what your child will gravitate to.” You, in other words, are more qualified than any expert to select a school that’s right for your unique child. Ask yourself questions: Does my child need a lot of outdoor space? Prefer freedom to explore over a more structured schedule? Enjoy working on specific projects? Feel more comfortable in a small group than a large one? Thrive in the company of children of various ages?

For Zachary, a balance between group activities and individual time was important. As a toddler, he had disliked music classes and play groups with set agendas, crying beforehand and begging to leave throughout. So I was only interested in preschools that would allow him to spend part of his time alone in unstructured play, looking at a book, perhaps, or drawing, or putting together a puzzle. In a more rigid environment, I knew, he would have felt emotionally overwhelmed, and unhappy that he was not allowed the solo exploration he craved.

Wachtel, on the other hand, mostly paid attention to teachers’ personalities and their interactions with children. For her, a school’s stated learning philosophy wasn’t so important—but “creating a [strong] classroom community was a high priority,” she says. Ultimately, both of her sons attended the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay Preschool, where Wachtel felt the teachers helped children build solid friendships.

After you’ve determined your child’s needs, start figuring out your own: how much tuition your budget allows (a half-day preschool program five days a week can cost $700 to $1,200 per month), how far you are willing to commute, and whether you will need before-school or after-school care in addition to the regular program. Before you make a single appointment for a tour or interview, compile a list of these bottom-line questions: How much is the monthly tuition? What is the additional cost for childcare before or after school? What is the school’s teaching philosophy? How much parent participation is expected?

You’ll also want to include questions about issues that are deal-breakers for you and your family: What is the diversity of the parent and student community? How many one-parent households are represented? How many lesbian or gay households? How does the school handle conflict between children?

Finally, consider these additional issues:

Minimum age requirements: Some preschools will accept children who have just passed their second birthdays; others don’t accept those younger than 3.

Potty training: Some preschools require children to be fully toilet trained before entering. This issue presents a major barrier for some families, so check on the policy early on.

Volunteer requirements: Preschools may require a certain number of family volunteer hours each school year in the form of fund-raising, driving on field trips, or other classroom help (laundry duty for dirty blankets, keeping the spare clothes drawer organized, supplying snacks for certain occasions, and so on).

Application deadlines: Some highly sought-after schools advise applying an entire year ahead of time and will not accept applications after a certain date, while other schools are more flexible.

The Philosophies

Understanding some core educational philosophies is a key component to the preschool search process for many parents. It can also be baffling: when I first read through curriculum descriptions, I felt like I was drowning in unfamiliar terminology. What the heck was “emergent” curriculum? What did it mean if a preschool was “academic?” And how did all this beautifully scripted educational language translate to an actual preschool setting?

The Developmental Model

Volumes have been written describing developmental educational philosophy. All you really need to know, however, is that the developmental approach—immensely popular in today’s preschools—focuses on teaching skills based on what a particular child is prepared for emotionally, physically, and cognitively. It’s a philosophy of meeting the child where she is, rather than expecting her to conform to a more rigid expectation of where she should be at her age or grade.

Many local developmental preschools in our area follow what educators call a “play-based” curriculum. “Play is the way that children learn to speak up for what they want, test the limits of their environments, and realize what is possible and what is not,” says Betsy Nachman, director and teacher at the play-based Griffin Nursery School in Berkeley. Children also learn about friendships—and conflicts—by playing with one another. The day I visit Griffin, for instance, three 4-year-olds—two girls and a boy—are chatting giddily while munching on their snacks. As children often do, they soon segue from eating to playing with their food. But when the boy starts throwing his cheese and crackers at his friends, the girls draw the line: “Stop doing that! We don’t like it!” The boy does, in fact, immediately stop throwing food—and then shyly asks if he can play with them again.

Other developmental preschools, such as Duck’s Nest Preschool, with campuses in Oakland and Berkeley, are noted for adding what’s known as “emergent” curriculum to the play-based model. In other words, they present activities based on the keen interests expressed by—or emerging from—the particular children in their classrooms. For example, one little boy I know created a mummy in his preschool class: overhearing frequent conversations among the kids about camels and pyramids, his teachers realized the time was ripe to explore the world of ancient Egypt.

You’ll also hear frequent references in developmental preschools to Reggio Emilia curriculum. Reggio Emilia (developed in Italy shortly after World War II) takes children’s emerging interests into account, but also emphasizes art, collaboration, and extensive project work among children and teachers.

Developmental programs, play-based or not, take different approaches to the balance between so-called structured time and unstructured time. At Griffin, as at many other developmental preschools, there is an emphasis on unstructured time, meaning that each child determines what activities they will participate in each day, with limited teacher direction. One child may hula hoop for a bit, head inside to grab a quick snack from his cubby, and then move on to the swings, while another may spend the entire morning painting.

In contrast, numerous other play-based programs, such as the one at Temple Sinai Preschool in Oakland, adhere to a slightly less flexible agenda. While teachers encourage independence in moving from activity to activity, rituals such as opening and closing circles, snacks and lunch, and rest periods occur at set times, with all children participating together.

The Montessori Approach

Janet Stork, head of The Berkeley School (formerly Berkeley Montessori School), where the Montessori-inspired program extends from preschool through eighth grade, describes the Montessori environment as a place where children focus “on trying to make concrete what is abstract.” The kids move through a daily routine of self-directed activity centers, with each center targeting a particular skill—language, number sense and geometry, practical life (e.g., cooking or gardening), and so on.

Focus and purpose are exactly what I find at The Berkeley School as I watch about 15 children, ranging in age from 3 to 6, circulate through their centers in a tidy, light-filled room. A child may begin with slicing bananas for snack time, then move to a table to puzzle through a maze, and eventually conclude the morning with drawing a story. Each child chooses where to go when, but all must complete the full rotation daily. Teachers remain close at hand for support and guidance. Keren Stronach, whose child is a new enrollee at The Berkeley School this fall, describes the process as creating that “sense of great freedom within structure.”

Tools especially made for Montessori schools are also readily available for the children to use. For example, a series of hanging strings of colored beads helps the kids understand numbers, while tiered stacking blocks make it easier to visualize space.

Compared to a play-based program, where a child may play dress-up and dolls all day, if he chooses to do so, a traditional Montessori preschool may seem quite structured to a prospective parent. Stork notes, however, that some Montessori schools adhere more strictly than others to the curriculum developed by Italian educator Maria Montessori in the early 20th century. For example, The Berkeley School emphasizes long-term projects and discovery through art—not a traditional aspect of Montessori education. Parents should plan to visit more than one Montessori program to compare.

The Co-op  

For parents who seek a strong community and active involvement in their child’s daily experiences, a cooperative preschool is worth considering.

One of the longest running co-ops around—in fact, it’s the oldest west of the Mississippi—is Berkeley’s Children’s Community Center, founded in 1927. Just as at other co-ops in the area, Children’s Community Center parents collaborate with teachers in guiding the children and running the school, taking on jobs ranging from maintaining the school grounds to giving tours to serving on the board of directors.

On a typical morning at Childen’s Community Center, you’ll see children climbing, running, drawing, painting, snacking, and playing games, just as they do in schools of all different philosophies. What’s different here is a strong adult presence: interspersed among the giggling children are several parents reading stories, slicing fruit for snacks, supervising the outside play structure, or setting up the art table. Parents rotate their in-class participation duties, and therefore, the children interact with a different set of parents daily. Rikki Moreno, mother of Children’s Community Center grad Izak, as well as current enrollee Kai, says that the daily change in personnel can be a challenge for some kids who seek consistency in the classroom. But, she adds, exposure to different parents is also what defines a co-op experience. “A co-op is 100 percent about community,” she explains. “You need to be a person who wants community and is willing to invest a lot of time into the preschool.”

For those who choose the co-op route, the rewards can be substantial. Spending time around other people’s kids is often a reassuring experience, helping parents see that their own children are not the only ones who can be prone to quirky behavior. Another perk is training in how to negotiate typical issues that arise in groups of young children, and the best strategies to help kids resolve conflicts. Then there’s the financial piece: significant parent involvement translates into significantly lower tuitions. Local co-op preschools charge between $230 to $600 per month—about half the cost of other programs.

While co-ops are ideal for many families, those who are very busy should think carefully before signing on the dotted line. At El Cerrito Preschool Cooperative, for example, each family devotes approximately 30 hours per school year to an administrative or board job. In addition, parents participate once a week in the classroom, attend monthly membership meetings, show up for quarterly work parties to maintain the school grounds, and assist with fund-raising and publicity. Children’s Community Center, Oakland’s longtime Montclair Community Play Center, and other local co-ops have similar participation requirements.

The Religious Experience

Some parents have always planned to educate their children in a particular religious or cultural environment. For others, parenthood itself gives rise to a greater interest in religion and heritage. And many are attracted to what Michelle Tirella Green, director of the Temple Sinai Preschool, says is the tremendous “sense of community . . . that accompanies the religious school experience.”

At Temple Sinai, cultural identity—in this case, Jewish culture—is expressed especially through the celebration of Shabbat every Friday. As the children enthusiastically knead challah dough in preparation for the weekly ritual, the smell of yeast, flour, and sesame seeds intermingle, and the rich aroma of baking bread wafts through the rooms.

Many religious and cultural preschools draw on standard educational philosophies—Temple Sinai Preschool, for example, offers a play-based developmental program. But Jewish traditions are taught side-by-side with the more standard curriculum, and Tirella Green says that exposure to Jewish culture and traditions is certainly one of the primary reasons parents choose the school.

The Waldorf Life

For those looking for an earthy, low-tech preschool experience for their child, a Waldorf-inspired school just may fit the bill.

Guided by the philosophy that children should be educated from the “inside out,” Waldorf schools emphasize old-fashioned forms of creativity, while discouraging the use of TV and computers. Children engage in lots of imaginative play, often outdoors, and work with natural, organic materials like yarn, twine, and wooden branches. Teachers provide parents with guidance and resources on limiting access to media and technology.

Stepping into Children’s Sonnen House in El Cerrito, I am immediately overwhelmed by the sense of peace enveloping the quaint, home-based preschool. The walls are painted in soft, neutral colors; the lighting is warm. Rustic wood tables, chairs, and baskets, adorned by handmade coverings, furnish the rooms. A thick table, ideal for baking activities, occupies the kitchen, and a fairy-tale garden peeks just through its door. The home feels like two “hugging arms forming a beehive,” as teacher Wiebke Larson describes it.

I watch two little girls happily flitting around the front room as magical fairies. They use only wooden toys, couches, tables, and scraps of fabric in their play—no store-bought costumes, or even wands. Their voices, though animated, are soft and easy. “Less is more because it really nurtures innate human creativity,” Larson says, describing both the scenario at hand and the Waldorf ideal. When I note the lack of a play structure in the backyard, Larson explains that it’s not necessary—the imagination-based play and interaction with nature at Waldorf schools inevitably result in plenty of physical activity.

Waldorf preschools are typically home-based and small. At Sonnen House, Larson accepts a maximum of about five—yes, five—children. Only two other Waldorf preschools exist in the area—Margaret’s Garden and Redwood Garden, both in Berkeley.

Additional Options

Other types of preschools to consider:

Bilingual and cultural preschools: If you want to immerse your preschooler in another language and culture, there are numerous programs that fit the bill. Examples: Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley (French), Golestan Kids (Persian culture/Farsi, Berkeley), American International Montessori Bilingual School (Mandarin/Japanese, Berkeley), and Bay Area Kinder Stube (German, Albany).

Multi-age preschools: Some preschools offer mixed-age classrooms for children, on the theory that children of various ages have much to offer each other. Examples: The Berkeley School, Monteverde School, and The Mulberry School (all located in Berkeley).

Moving Forward

One rich local resource for preschool information is BANANAS, the well-known nonprofit childcare referral and support agency in Oakland. A wealth of information is contained in the archives at Berkeley Parents Network, an online forum where East Bay parents (not just Berkeleyites) post and respond to every imaginable variety of questions about parenting and education. Finally, it can be helpful to talk to friends and acquaintances who have been pleased with their preschool choices—or haven’t.

Ultimately, though, it’s not about the research—it’s about you, and your child. Systematically tackling that massive preschool guide six years ago, I never would have imagined that I would wind up making a gut-level decision. But when, for the first time ever, Zachary eagerly climbed down from my arms to play at a preschool, that was it. I had devoted countless hours to preschool research, I knew what all our options were—and I also knew, from that one spontaneous action, that we had found the right place for him.

Carolyn von Behren is a freelance writer who lives in Berkeley with her husband and four kids. She has four more years of preschool left before she graduates.

Preschool ABCs

Following is a partial list of East Bay preschools and resources.

Berkeley Parents Network;
BANANAS ChildCare Resource, 5232 Claremont Ave., Oakland, (510) 658-7353;
East Bay Independent School Association (EBISA), (510) 665-8800;
East Bay Moms Preschool Directory;
The Savvy Source;

Beacon Day School, 2101 Livingston St., Oakland, (510) 437-2311;
Berkeley Hills Nursery School, 1161 Sterling Ave., Berkeley, (510) 849-1216;
Duck’s Nest Preschool, 4498 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 428-0901; 1411 Fourth St., Berkeley, (510) 527-2331;
Griffin Nursery School, 2410 Prince St., Berkeley, (510) 845-2025;
Lakeview Preschool, 515 Glenview Ave., Oakland, (510) 444-1725;
Mills College Children’s School, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, (510) 430-2118;
Monteverde School (multi-age), 2727 College Ave., Berkeley, (510) 848-3313;
The Model School, 2330 Prince St., Berkeley, (510) 549-2711;
The Mulberry School (multi-age), 207 Alvarado Road, Berkeley, (510) 540-5778.
Park Day School, 370 43rd St., Oakland, (510) 653-0317;
Room to Grow Preschool, 5766 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 655-0300;
Sheffield Preschool, 2347 Stuart St., Berkeley, (510) 849-9352;
Step One School, 499 Spruce St., Berkeley, (510) 527-9021;
Woolly Mammoth Preschool, 2314 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, (510) 881-4882;
University of California at Berkeley, Early Childhood Education Program (children of U.C. Berkeley staff and faculty only), (510) 642-1827;

Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley (French), 1009 Heinz Ave., Berkeley, (510) 549-3867;
Escuela Bilingue Internacíonal (Spanish/English), 410 Alcatraz Ave., Oakland, (510) 653-3324;
Golestan Kids (Persian culture/Farsi), 1808 5th St., Berkeley, (510) 704-8541;
American International Montessori Bilingual School (Mandarin/Japanese), 3339 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley, (510) 868-1815;
Bay Area Kinder Stube (German), 842 Key Route Blvd., Albany, (510) 525-3105;

Albany Preschool, 850 Masonic Ave., Albany, (510) 527-6403;
Children’s Community Center, 1140 Walnut St., Berkeley, (510) 528-6975;
El Cerrito Preschool Cooperative, 7200 Moeser Lane, El Cerrito, (510) 526-1916;
Highlands Preschool, 400 Highland Ave., Piedmont, (510) 547-4242;
Montclair Community Play Center, 5815 Thornhill Drive, Oakland, (510) 810-0510;
Linda Beach Cooperative Preschool, 400 Highland Ave., Piedmont, (510) 547-4432;
Peter Pan Cooperative Nursery School, 4618 Allendale Ave., Oakland, (510) 261-5210;
Piedmont Play School, 401 Hampton Road, Piedmont, (510) 654-4371;
Sequoia Nursery School, 2666 Mountain Blvd., Oakland, (510) 531-8853;
Shimmy Shimmy Co-Co-op, Berkeley/Albany border, (510) 717-8446.
Skytown Parent Cooperative Preschool, 1 Lawson Road, Kensington, (510) 526-8481;

Applegarden Montessori, 5667 Thornhill Drive, Oakland, (510) 339-9666 or (510) 531-0416;
The Berkeley School (formerly Berkeley Montessori School), 2030 Francisco St., Berkeley, (510) 665-8800;
Children’s Garden Montessori, 2335 Tulare Ave., El Cerrito, (510) 232-3089.
Grand Lake Montessori, 466 Chetwood St., Oakland, (510) 836-4313;
Growing Light Montessori School, 4700 Lincoln Ave., Oakland, (510) 336-9897; 52 Arlington Ave., Kensington, (510) 527-1278; 1450 Moraga Road, Moraga, (925) 377-0407;
Hummingbird Montessori, 942 Cornell Ave., Albany, (510) 524-8007;
Montessori Family School, 1850 Scenic Ave., Berkeley, (510) 848-2322;
Nia House, 2234 9th St., Berkeley, (510) 845-6099.
Renaissance School, 3668 Dimond Ave., Oakland, (510) 531-8566;
Rockridge Montessori School, 5610 Broadway, Oakland (infant/toddler and part-day programs); 5633 Manila Ave., Oakland (full-day programs), (510) 652-7021;

Congregation Beth El Nursery School, 1301 Oxford St., Berkeley, (510) 848-9428;
Cornerstone Children’s Center, 2407 Dana St., Berkeley, (510) 848-6242;
Jewish Community Center of the East Bay Preschool, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley, (510) 848-0237;
Gan Mah Tov Preschool, Beth Jacob Congregation, 3778 Park Blvd., Oakland, (510) 530-2146.
Gan Shalom Preschool, 2230 Jefferson Ave., Berkeley, (510) 848-3298;
Little Pilgrims Preschool, 3900 35th Ave., Oakland, (510) 531-3715;
Netivot Shalom Preschool, 1316 University Ave., Berkeley, (510) 549-9447 x110,
Mustard Seed Preschool, 1640 Hopkins St., Berkeley, (510) 527-6627;
Seedlings Preschool, 49 Knox Drive, Lafayette, (925) 284-3870;
Temple Sinai Preschool, Merritt College Campus, 12500 Campus Drive, Oakland, (510) 451-3263;
Treehouse Preschool, 4000 Redwood Road, Oakland, (510) 531-0320;

East Bay Waldorf School, 3800 Clark Road, El Sobrante, (510) 223-3570;
Children’s Sonnen House, El Cerrito, (510) 204-9346.
Margaret’s Garden, Berkeley, (510) 528-8897;
Redwood Garden, Berkeley, (510) 524-4606.


Building blocks: Preschools around the East Bay help young children explore exciting new worlds with specially trained teachers as their guides. Photo by Kate Monakhova.















Different hats: Children at Bay Area Kinder Stube, one of the East Bay’s bilingual preschools, learn German. Photo courtesy Bay Area Kinder Stube.






Step by step: Children at Sheffield Preschool in Berkeley learn the robot dance together. Photo courtesy Sheffield Preschool.



For links to our partial list of East Bay preschools and resources visit our DIGITAL EDITION (click icon).