10 Must-Haves in Choosing an Early Childhood Program

I’m not one of those moms who treats finding a school for her toddler like a college admissions process. But I do confess to being a bit of a critic when it comes to finding the right fit for my little one. My training as a school psychologist might have something to do with that. But these days, my mommy-sense roars louder than any voice of past grad school lectures or readings. When I walk into a potential school, my mommy-instincts kick into high gear and silent questions stream my brain . . .

“Will she be safe here? Will she be happy?

Will she learn here? Will she feel like she belongs?”

I’m just another mom who wants the best for her child – which alone probably qualifies the bulk of us as critics!


I’m going to share with you the checklist I wish I had going into my search for an early childhood program. The more schools I visited, the clearer my priorities became for what I wanted – (a few of which even surprised me!) I’ll give you the highlights of the Tampa Bay schools I ended up touring. Then I’ll leave the rest up to you and YOUR mommy-sense!

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Here we go in no particular order . . .

My ideal early childhood program for my daughter would offer:


  1. A Website that Matches its Physical Location: If a school’s website photos look like the Promiseland for preschoolers, but in reality premises are far less polished, I’m disappointed ( and probably a little suspicious)


Top Rated: Primrose Academy in Lutz – Even the website’s colors and motif matched the school’s beautiful interior


  1. Food . . . Real Food: I’m no food snob. But I do own a stove. And I do cook meals . . . meals that aspire to introduce my daughter to foods beyond pizza and chicken nuggets. Some schools I came across equate processed foods with “kid friendly” foods. I’m sure we can do better.


Top Rated: Creative World on W. Waters Ave – Chicken Tetrazzini, Arroz con Pollo, BBQ Chicken, Yum! Does this place take reservations?


  1. Cultural Diversity: I want my daughter to have experiences with all types of people from different backgrounds . . . because that’s the real world (or at least the type of world I like to live in.) Sending her to school where no one shares a similar cultural background with her would be scary to me . . . as would sending her to a school where she shares the same cultural background as everyone.


Top Rated: Primrose Academy in Lutz – Holds an annual parade for children and staff to celebrate their diverse heritages


  1. A Warm Welcome: When we first entered a school for a tour, I always made a mental note of how quickly staff acknowledged my daughter (not just me). This, to me, speaks volumes about how staff value and prioritize children.


Top Rated: Kids R Kids in Westchase – Doesn’t even require families of prospective students to schedule visits because they’re concerned about families always feeling welcomed


  1. Special Lessons: I’ve read enough research to know that children don’t learn a language or master an art in 30 min/week increments. But I do appreciate a program’s decision to offer special programs related to the arts, foreign languages, etc. I think that says something about the school’s value of those subjects.


Top Rated: Smart Start Pre-Prep in Westchase – Dance and Spanish classes are an additional fee, but offer the convenience of on-site extracurriculars


  1. Developmentally Appropriate Scheduling: I’m not a fan of programs that over-schedule 2-yr-olds with tightly packed activities. I’m more concerned with my toddler learning new skills by exploring and socializing, than chasing academic benchmarks.


Top Rated: Countryside Montessori Academy in Lutz – Students were so engaged with exploring classroom props, they hardly noticed visitors


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  1. Convenient Schedule: I need a school schedule that works with my schedule. My daughter’s school time, is valuable adult time for me. The more flexibility I have, the better!


Top Rated: Creative World on W. Waters Ave – Offers ultimate flexibility, allows option to choose full-time or part-time programs as well as preferred days of week


  1. Language: My toddler repeats every other word I say. She needs strong language models. I don’t need English professors, but I do prefer classroom staff who generally use correct grammar and complete sentences.


Top Rated: Jewish Community Center Preschool North in Citrus Park – Lots of great conversations between students and teachers overheard, even on the playground


  1. Passion: I want to see teachers whose students make them smile. I want my child to have a joy for learning. I need staff who model this same spark for being in the classroom in their teaching.


Top Rated: Countryside Montessori Academy in Lutz – Staff made comments like “isn’t this fascinating” as they observed my daughter spend her visit with blocks


  1. Gut: A checklist is helpful, but at the end of the day, I need to “feel” that a program is “right.”


What does YOUR gut say . . . What’s most important to you in finding the right school fit?



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Stefanie Foster Brown is a certified school psychologist who recently relocated to Tampa from Long Island, NY. She and her computer engineer husband, Eli, own Preschoology, a mobile app company and blog devoted to helping young children learn new skills. They’re also the proud parents of a spunky 2-yr-old daughter who is in charge of all the pilot-runs of their ideas. Their blog is an open notebook of fresh and creative ways to help young children learn and grow.



  1. Great job Stephanie! I wish I had this list when my little ones were preschool age!

  2. Thanks Sherrie! I think what’s really important in a school in probably a lot clearer in hindsight!

  3. Hello. My daughter is now 19 months and I want to sign her up at some point within the next year to a day-care or pre-school. One of my favorite options -elsewhere- have been co-op schools that have parents involved. My sister is a director at a co-op pre-school and besides it being affordable, parents work there 30+ hours a year. I am interested in the actual involvement rather than the price! I see none in the Tampa bay area. Perhaps I am not looking in right place, any suggestions?

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