Written by Philip Selbie
English International School, Prague
For most families who arrive to settle in a city like Prague the prospect of putting very young children into a Pre-School might seem at best unnecessary and at worst a cruel nightmare. Many will argue that children as young as 2 years old are best left to play at home rather than suffer the rigours of school.
So is it really necessary to begin school at such a young age and if so what should parents look out for when making a decision about which Pre-School setting to choose from? Despite the understandable concerns that parents will have I would firmly recommend some form of early years provision for very young children for a number of good reasons.
First of all, where there are groups of young children there is usually a friendly and happy atmosphere. A Pre-School setting will invariably be a place where adults will find not only friends for their children but also friends for themselves and this is vital for a successful period of living overseas. However, from a more educational point of view, a happy child is a motivated child and it is now generally accepted that the younger a child starts to learn the better it is for them. Learning to socialise in an environment with other children of the same age is perhaps most important in this respect. For a Toddler, the skills of sharing, co-operating, following routines, listening to instructions and using gestures and early language simply can´t be developed so well on their own or with a sibling at home.
Naturally, international Pre-Schools will use different teaching programmes, however most of the quality settings following some of the best UK practice will be using Birth to Three Matters (0-3yrs) and Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage (3-5 yrs).
So having made the decision to consider the idea seriously, what should parents look for in order to ensure they find the best possible Pre-School for their particular needs? If possible, I would recommend having a look at several settings near to the area that you have decided to live. It is obviously vital to make a visit in person (preferably with your child) and at a time when the children are outside as well as in the classrooms. Here are a few questions to ask both yourself as well as the staff you meet on those introductory visits:
· Is the location within easy travelling distance of home or will the journey wear both child and parent out at the beginning and end of the session?
· How secure is the setting in relation to access to the site and general health and safety issues?
· What does the internal environment look like and is it stimulating for young children as well as appealing to adults?
· Is there plenty of space internally and is the external space well equipped and used by the children on a regular basis?
· Is there large play equipment available outside and are there a good variety of resources in the classrooms?
· What is the ratio of adults to children (especially for the under threes)?
· Do the staff interact positively with your child when you meet them and do they seem enthusiastic about their work?
· Are the staff experienced and qualified in working with very young children?
· What are the session times offered and how well do they fit with your family routine (especially if you have other children who need delivering and collecting from school)?
· How many sessions are offered during the week and does the setting expect parents to commit to a regular pattern of attendance for their child?
· Is there a requirement for parents to provide snacks and food or does the setting provide this for the children?
· Does the setting offer facilities that suit a young child who needs a rest or a sleep during the day?
Most quality settings will go out of their way to ensure that both the parent as well as the child is made to feel as comfortable as possible when the time comes for the parent to leave the child in the care of another adult. During my 12 years of working with very young children and their families, the beginning of the day is the most important time to get things right if the whole experience is going to be worthwhile for everyone involved.
Finally, some Pre-Schools organise Mother and Toddler sessions as a way to help new parents meet others who have been around for a while and at the same time give the parents a chance to get the feel of a setting before making a firm commitment to register for a place. So, at the end of your visit to each Pre-School (and as you prepare to extract your child who is eagerly playing with the toys) perhaps you might also consider asking ‘Do you know of any Mother and Toddler groups in this area?