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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 ones are best, so try not to have too many preconceived ideas and explore all options so you make the right decision for you. 

Is nursery school right for your child?

  • Social skills and interaction with others are key.  For some children, a pre-school is the perfect place for this; others may get plenty of opportunities for mixing and socialising with friends and at local parent/toddler groups and classes.
  • You may feel your child is independent enough to cope with a structured early years setting, that they would benefit from time away from you with other children, or that they are getting all they need at home.
  • Check out different settings - playgroups, nurseries, pre-schools, parents and tots - so you know you are making an informed decision.
  • Consider cost and practicalities such as timing and travel. If these pose a problem, speak to your health visitor or early years group: they may know ways to combat such difficulties.
  • 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?

Where to start

  • Think about your ideal location - close to home, family or work? If there is a good nursery on your doorstep, great; if not, weigh up the benefits of travelling further afield for a great setting, versus the extra effort this will require.
  • If you have your heart set on a particular junior school, speak to them. Find out if there are particular nurseries they recommend (and ask why). NB Admissions rules are such that attendance at any given nursery (including the school's own) usually has no bearing on getting a place at a particular state school.
  • Ask for recommendations from friends and family.
  • If possible, speak with current parents (better still arrive at a time when other parents are around so that you can strike up a casual conversation). Do their ideas and thoughts about the nursery match your aspirations?
  • Read the latest inspection reports – but bear in mind that Ofsted may mark a nursery down for aspects that don’t bother you.
  • Always visit before accepting a place. Even if your heart is set on a particular nursery, visit several so you can get a better understanding of what they offer and a clearer idea of what will best suit your child.

Different types of nurseries

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, such as that at Portsmouth Grammar School, maintain their own powerful identity. When we visited PGS nursery we noted,

'A big nursery, in spacious purpose built classrooms, with between 40-60 children and lots of staff: 15 working at a time means they are always well staffed. Trips to the beach (PGS has beach school status), yoga and dance, and a role play room which transforms into pet shop, café or realm of snow and ice, depending on the theme.'

Some, such as the nursery attached to St Christopher Junior School in Letchworth, have their own grounds:

'Nursery has more space than usual with plenty of outside play areas - grassed, soft surfaced and a covered 'outside classroom' with lots of equipment clearly being well used for learning. Children seen in wellingtons in the garden as well as in wonderful fairy dressing up clothes.'

The setting alone does not determine the teaching styles - these can vary considerably too. Of Michael Hall School, a Steiner school, we say,

'Kindergarten feels like a farmhouse kitchen, homey and calm. Earthy rather than bright colours are used in the decoration, pictures are wiped clean or taken home rather than being put up on the walls – children are encouraged to find their own level of creative play and imitate the adults with plenty of repetition and ritual'.

Of Grimsdell, Mill Hill Pre-Prep, we say:

‘A firm believer in the great outdoors, Grimsdell 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.

The nursery environment

Some children thrive in busy purposeful environments with plenty of bustle, 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.

Whatever your thoughts, when entrusting the care of your child to others, you should look to find a nursery that will:

  • Work with you and listen to your child. 
  • Work from your child's current development stage and needs, not from pre-conceived 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.
  • Be interested in the personal, social and emotional development of your child.

When to register

Much depends on where you live, the type of pre-school you require and how difficult it is to bag a place. If you will both be working, plan ahead. Sussing out placements before you have your baby can save a lot of leg work and hassle later, when tot will be in tow. Do revisit, though - nurseries can change very quickly, especially in areas with high staff turn-over, and keep an eye on inspection reports. 

Some early years provision is wonderfully flexible, operating on an almost drop-in basis, but if you are seeking out a pre-school, pre-prep or popular nursery you may have to plan well in advance, even during pregnancy. We say of the wonderfully named Ducks (Dulwich College Kindergarten), which takes babies from six months:

‘Priority throughout is given to the children of college staff and DUCKS siblings. We imagine the younger members of the college staff could keep the baby room next to filled. Given the small size, keen parents will want to register early.’

Girls move on elsewhere from DUCKS, often at 4; boys are not guaranteed a place at Dulwich College Junior School at 7, but must take the same exam as external candidates.

Shortage of places used to be a London-only concern but these days it has spread to other areas. Our Manchester editor warns against leaving things to the last minute

‘There is a forest school nursery in Manchester that is so popular you absolutely have to register during pregnancy. I know that’s been the case with nurseries in London for a long time.'

Be flexible

Don't feel you have to stick with your initial choice. Children change and may grow out of their original nursery. Your own ideas of what you want may change too. Top tip: don’t get too het up about how well pre-school will prepare your child for certain junior schools - if they are not happy there, they are unlikely to be confident and keen to learn at the next stage, so a gentler setting may be better.

  • Do the hours suit you and your child?
  • Are they flexible about pick-up and drop off times?
  • Can you sign up to different hours on different days? If not, does this matter to you?
  • Do you have to pay a retainer (or even full fees) for holidays?
  • What happens if your child is ill? What happens if other children are ill?
  • Do you want a structured learning environment, or the more relaxed Steiner or forest school type setting? If you are unsure, visit a selection before deciding.

What about children with special needs?

A good nursery will cater for a range of children, including those with special needs. However, the type, nature and severity of your child's special needs may determine the type of setting you want for your child; see Nurseries for special needs

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