Early Childhood Education in the Bay Area: Preschools

The choices are great, and the waiting lists are long, what are we talking about? Early childhood education in the Bay Area of course.

If like Marta, you thought that people were joking about 1-2 year long waiting lists for preschools, we have some tips to ease your mind about early childhood education for your little one in the Bay Area.

I sat down with teacher Tracey this week to get an expert’s view on early childhood education in the Bay.

Early Childhood Education (ages 0-7), typically covers Preschool (ages 2-5) Kindergarten (ages 5-6) and 1st grade (ages 6-7). We will focus on Preschool in this article.

Early Childhood Education: Scrabble Letters

Preschool is not compulsory in the United States, and therefore not funded for all children by the state. (Some state funded programs are available for low-income families). Compulsory (free and public) education begins at Kindergarten. Typically a child must turn 5 before September 1st of the year they intend to join school; However, check with your district, as the ‘birthday deadline date’ can vary.

In California, most schools will start at the end of August/Early September, and finish early to mid-June. Registration for Kindergarten should be completed in the January (again, check with your district), preceding the September in which the child will start school.

Some preschools offer year round care, in which case, enrollment is offered on a rolling basis. Term based preschools – September to June – typically offer enrollment in February-April. However, don’t panic if you’re looking for a preschool place, and have missed these deadlines. If you find a school that you love, tell them. Waiting lists aren’t always as long as they seem; and the school may even have recommendations for other childcare options, in the interim.

Children typically join preschools between the ages of 2-3 and stay in the same school until they transition to Kindergarten. Some schools will require the child to be potty trained, others will not. (More on potty training later).


Early Childhood Education: What is preschool really all about?

Types of Preschool

Play-based: Focuses the early childhood education on hands on learning, directed by the child. Play Based learning promotes cooperation and social interaction. Learning happens through stimulation of all senses; feeling the texture or temperature of an object, smelling a scent, seeing what happens when two objects collide or interact. While some tout play based schools as glorified daycares, the play based learning philosophy is supported by neuroscience. When learning happens through multiple channels, it’s more likely to ‘stick’ or be retained by the child.

Early Childhood Education: Lego Bricks

Academic: Or skills-based learning focuses on numbers and letters. Here, teachers lead the learning with lessons, with the students learning passively as they sit and listen, or complete handouts. Desks are often arranged in rows and rely on kids sitting for longer periods of time. This type of learning prepares children for the academic challenges of kindergarten.

Here is a great article comparing Play-based vs Academic based preschools, if you want to learn more. 

Montessori: Was originally developed in the early 1900’s however it didn’t take off until the 1960’s Montessori relies upon children working independently with specific materials for uninterrupted periods of time. It’s creator Maria Montessori developed these methods while working with low income and special needs children in rural Italy. It recognizes learning as an individual process, in which each child learns at his or her own pace. This method places little focus on social interactions and cooperation between the children.

Co-op: You may also come across ‘co-op’ schools, meaning the school is a cooperative learning environment. These schools depend on and often require parental participation. For example, if your child attends 2 mornings a week; a parent will be expected to attend on one of those days to assist in the classroom. Each class may have one main teacher, additional assistance is provided by the parents on a rolling basis. Some schools will offer the option to ‘pay your way out’ of volunteering time. Most will allow you to bring a younger child with you during your volunteer time. In addition, these schools are typically non-profit organizations (more on that in a minute). A co-op can be a great option if you want to be more involved in your child’s learning. It provides a great community feel for you and your child; however, if both parents are working the time requirements can often be unmanageable.


For-profit vs. Nonprofit

This is something that I didn’t even consider when we were looking for schools a few years ago, but I should have. Did you know that some schools actually have an end goal of making profits? For profit schools, which are owner managed, can run the school as they wish, non-profit schools must reinvest all funds back into the school, and follow strict guidelines to maintain their 501 (c) (3) status – for example, maintaining an advisory board of trustees, and operating for the greater good of the community.

Potty Training

Many schools will require children to be potty trained before they start school, although I feel like I’m seeing this less and less. Teacher Tracey makes a good point saying that in her experience, parents would often just lie to get their kids in. Often once in these schools, the environment was less supportive or tolerant of children having accidents. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who has a fully potty trained 2-year-old, you can expect some regression (i.e. accidents) in their behaviors for the first 2-3 months as they transition into attending preschool.

Quiet time and Naps: Unexpected Rules and Regulations

The list of rules and regulations which daycares and preschools must adhere to is more than a mile long (and for good reason, you’re trusting them with your child), so it’s understandable if you haven’t read all of the regulations.

Early Childhood Education: Napping cat and dog


However, one regulation may have a significant knock on effect for your child and family, which most people are unaware of…Did you know that if a child is in care for a period of 6 hours or more, they must be given a rest period of a minimum of 30 minutes? Many times children will fall asleep during this period, even if they have stopped taking naps at home. The school typically sets up a nice quiet room, with soft light. The children will rest/sleep alongside their classmates, each with his or her own napping pad and blanket, and a cuddly toy, if they wish.

The impact of this midday nap, however, often results in a later bedtime for the child. So if your precious little one has dropped their nap, and peacefully goes to bed at 7pm every night, you might need to prepare yourself for some changes to your evening routine, like Marta experienced.

Dual language/immersion program preschools

This may be something you want to give some serious consideration to. More and more immersion preschools can now be found across the Bay Area. If you’re hoping to preserve your native language, in addition to exposing your child to English, this may be a great choice for your family. The level of language immersion varies greatly at each school, however, no matter the quantity of language your child is exposed to, any exposure at a young language can greatly improve the child’s ability to learn the language in greater depth later in life. Recently there has been a lot of research done on the effects of raising multilingual children. A great article, with more tips for raising multilingual kids, can be found here.

It is also something we have looked at before here.

There are other benefits which the child gains from learning more than one language, including more advanced reading and writing skills.

Still not sure about exposing your child to more than one language, or teaching your child your own native language? Teacher Tracey encourages parents to pass on their native language. Along with language acquisition, it allows children to maintain a special connection with their ancestral culture, extended family, and to more easily develop relationships with other children who share the common language.

What is the right school for my child?

So now you know what preschool is all about, how can you find the right preschool for your family?

  • Ask everyone and anyone you know, early childhood education is important! So, ask your colleagues, friends, strangers in the park or the grocery store. Ask on the ‘nextdoor’ app.
  • Walk around your neighborhood. If you pass a preschool, pop in and see if you can have a look. Teacher Tracey actually recommends showing up unannounced. It gives you a chance to see what the place is really like, rather than when they’ve had an opportunity to prepare for visitors. It may give you an opportunity to spot some ‘red flags’ or witness a brilliantly compassionate incident between teacher and child.
  • Search the web. Yelp has some useful reviews. You can also use the Department of Social Services site to pull up a comprehensive list of preschools in your city or county.
  • The National Association of Educators of Young Children also accredits learning institutions. You can search for Preschools in your area on their site.

The next step in Early childhood education: To find your local elementary school, have a look at the California Department of Education site. They include listings for all public, private, and charter schools as well as special needs schools.

 What to Avoid/Red Flags

The old saying ‘if it looks too good to be true, it probably is’ comes to mind. Trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, even if you can’t identify why trust that instinct. You’ll know when you find the right place.

If the classroom looks too rigid, or the school is hesitant to let you observe while school is in session, these could be red flags. A good school will let you, even encourage you to bring your child to visit. Watch how your child responds. Do they feel comfortable in the environment? Are the made to feel welcome? Watch the interactions that the teachers have with the children in the class? Are they aware of what’s going on?

Once, when I visited an in-home preschool with my enthusiastic, but very unstable one year old, I watched as a teacher moved him away from sitting next to an outdoor toy, and placed him on his feet. The woman didn’t wait to see if he was stable, and he fell over as soon as she let go. It was a red flag to me that they were too busy and distracted to notice a new child and assess his needs/level of development.

Another time, I visited a for-profit preschool. We arrived for the visit a few minutes early and were asked to wait in the hall. Upon entering the classroom (midday, with children present) we noticed that every item had a very precise place. The dump truck went on the bottom shelf, right on top of a photo of the item…To me, it said that the teachers were more interested in having everything look perfect than enjoying the time they had the children there. As an add on, our son stayed glued to our sides the whole time. (When we found the right place, he walked straight in and started playing.)



What do the teachers wish parents knew?

Teachers really do want what’s best for your child. While there may be a 2-3 month adjustment period while your child settles into a new environment, teachers are used to handling children who cry or have separation anxiety. A good teacher wants to work with you to make your child’s first schooling experience a positive one.

Early Childhood Education: Letters spell teach

Another useful article explaining preschools in CA.

Expert Bio

Teacher Tracey has worked in Early Childhood education in California for 20 years. Currently serving as the director of a non-profit play-based preschool in Millbrae. She began her career in Health Education, but transitioned into Early childhood and special education, with a focus on music, after becoming involved in her children’s co-op preschool. She is a passionate advocate for positive early learning experiences; working with children and families to ensure all children in her care have the best possible start in life.


What is your experience of early childhood education in the Bay Area?

About Michelle Laker

A California native; I spent 10 years living, studying, working, (and falling in love) in the United Kingdom. I returned to the Bay Area in 2011, with my British husband in tow. I am re-adjusting to life in the bay, feeling more like an expat than a local. I have spent my career working with international student & families. I love learning about other cultures, languages, and traditions. My desire to welcome newcomers, and help you make the most of your new life in the Bay Area comes from the unforgettable memories (and mistakes) I made during my time in the United Kingdom. If you've just arrived, and don't know where to start, email me (michelle-at-lifeinthebay.org). I am happy to help!

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2 thoughts on “Early Childhood Education in the Bay Area: Preschools

  • Sara

    I’m surprised you don’t even mention Reggio in this synopsis. Have you every heard of Charlotte Mason? That’s another interesting person/perspective to look into. Thanks for this.

    • Michelle Laker Post author

      Hi Sara, No, we haven’t ever heard of Reggio, but it sounds quite similar to play-based philosophy? Would you say they are similar, or not so much?
      Thanks for the extra info!
      – Michelle