Wondering what the co-op preschool experience is like from the perspective of a parent? How about one that’s not only new to Seattle but also new to the United States?! Nikki is one of the parents in our 3-5s Class, and she wrote two posts about her experience in our co-op preschool on her personal blog Spiralling Onwards. Here is the first of her two posts. The second can be found here. This article was reprinted with permission from Spiralling Onwards.
School starts at different ages in different places (with early years provision starting at 3 in the UK & Luxembourg, and elementary school at 5 in the US), but there’s one thing that seems universal: our son’s November birthday means that at some point he’s narrowly missed a place in each country. He wasn’t eligible for Kindergarten here this year because he hadn’t yet turned five, so one of my first jobs on arrival was to find a preschool for him. It soon became apparent that many Seattle preschools are shockingly expensive and have long waiting lists, so I was just beginning to despair when the perfect solution presented itself – a local preschool co-op with a place available. “What’s a preschool co-op?”, I hear you ask…
For those who haven’t come across them, the basic idea of a ‘co-operative preschool’ is simple: a group of parents collectively runs a part-time preschool, taking turns to assist a single hired teacher, which keeps costs low and eases the transition to school for the children, who get to see their parent (or other carer) in school once a week. In a twist which I believe is unique to Seattle, one of the conditions of entry for preschool co-ops here is registering for the Parent Education course at a local college, which gives the preschools the status of practical learning laboratories for the adult helpers, making them part of the college for regulation and insurance purposes.
On a typical day, our preschool starts with some time on a nearby playground (& as this is Seattle, they play outside even if it’s pouring with rain) before moving inside to split into small groups for short activities planned & led by the parents. After that it’s on to the main ‘free play’ session, which is a lot more structured than it sounds, since the space has always been carefully set up by our teacher to include a range of stations including an art activity, a sensory table, and frequently-changing construction toys. After an opportunity to eat a snack, and a quick tidy up (done mostly by the children) the session finishes with circle time, which might include singing (some in Spanish, or a silent verse with just sign language), a story, a short discussion on the week’s theme (next week’s is ‘construction’, involving using real tools!), and maybe some yoga or a show and tell session. We’re lucky to have a great teacher who makes the children feel valued and welcome at school, while giving them clear consistent messages about doing things for themselves and treating the other children with kindness. A Parent Educator employed by the college also spends time at the preschool getting to know the children, and can advise on their development and behaviour as required.
When we arrived in Seattle, there were lots of practical reasons to choose this preschool: it’s close to home and our daughter’s school, they had immediate availability, and the high parent involvement makes it a very affordable option. I was already impressed by & curious about the co-operative model after reading about another Seattle preschool on Teacher Tom’s blog – and (particularly after our experiences with Luxembourgish schools) I was keen to experience a true play-based setting. I’d sent a batch of email enquiries to various preschools, and the reply from a parent at our co-op stood out as by far the most friendly & responsive. Most importantly, this good impression was strongly reinforced when we toured the preschool and saw what was clearly a fun and welcoming environment, with plenty of stimulating toys and always-accessible art activities. As you might expect from a ‘co-op’ in ultra-liberal Seattle, the whole atmosphere is very calm and encouraging, and there’s a strong emphasis on offering the children choices (while also teaching them that this means living with the consequences).
Although I was briefly disappointed when I realised that our son wasn’t eligible for a Kindergarten place this year, a year of preschool has turned out to be a valuable opportunity for him. Although the emphasis on free play might sound light on ‘learning’, there’s plenty being taught here: the children get supportive guidance on playing with others (taking turns, impulse control, & managing their emotions when something goes wrong), which is especially valuable for our son who spent almost a year at ‘précoce’ in Luxembourg where the lack of a common language made it harder to pick up these skills. After seeing this approach in action – particularly after his birthday playdate where 3 little boys spent an afternoon playing calmly together, occasionally asking, “Can I have a turn with that when you’re done?” – I’m even more convinced of the benefits of a play-based & social learning curriculum at this age. Our son seems pretty happy too, even willingly going into preschool one day when I gave him the choice because he had a bit of a sniffle. We’ve also recently entered a new phase in our preschool experience: the oldest few children in the class have begun an extra weekly session to work on ‘Kindergarten-readiness’, including simple writing tasks and games that require focused attention, and he’s always full of excitement about it when he gets home.
My search for a preschool may have started as a way to fill a gap before our son was old enough for Kindergarten, but now that we’re part of it, I can already feel that we’re going to miss our preschool co-op when it’s time to say goodbye at the end of the year.