There comes a time when every parent has to drop off their precious child with a perfect stranger … and leave her there! For some, it's when mom goes back to work; for others, it's when a toddler is ready for further stimulation. You want to make sure that you're leaving her in an environment where she'll be safe, stimulated, happy and well cared for. Choosing a crèche, playschool or preschool involves practical considerations and gut feel. Word-of-mouth and personal recommendations are a good way to get started.
Genevieve, mom to Angela (4) and Harry (2), relied on instinct. "A friend had kids at the school and she was very pleased with it, so that was our first stop. It just felt right from the word go." The staff were a key factor. "I don't believe there's a huge difference in what preschools offer academically. Our top priority was to have a good feeling about the people who would be looking after Angela. At age two, she couldn't really express herself verbally, so it was important that we felt comfortable talking to her teacher and the preschool owner, as we would be relying on them for much of our information."
The school also met their practical considerations: Although the school day ends at noon, there is aftercare until 2pm, which is helpful when you have two working parents; the school goes up to Grade R, which meant that they would have both kids in the same school for a few years; and there were extramural activities on offer on the premises, so they don't have to transport kids to activities.
Natalie Webster is a preschool principal and the founder of the Preschool Association of SA, a private regulation and accreditation body for Early Childhood Development Centres, whose objective is to ensure high standards of care, stimulation and safety. She shares Genevieve's view: "A parent's instinct is powerful - you must be happy with the vibe at a school and that it's in line with your own approach at home, whether formal or casual."
Natalie says that a preschool that is run and managed by the owner, is often a good choice. "Working with children is not like any other business - a child is not a file that can be put in a cupboard at the end of the day. It requires a certain type of person, someone with lots of patience and a real commitment to the children."
Crèche or daycare?
A crèche, also sometimes called daycare or childcare, usually accepts children from a couple of months old, and offers a full daycare service. In South Africa, this term is often used to indicate a facility whose focus is on childcare, rather than on academics.
Playschools usually take kids from age two to three. The emphasis is on play, socialisation and enjoyment. In suburban environments, you often find small home- based playschools with one owner-teacher and perhaps a helper, looking after a group of 10 or 12 children. These playschools usually offer a mornings-only option, and some operate only three or four days a week. Larger or more commercial playschools may have longer hours and offer aftercare, and they're sometimes combined with a preschool.
Preschools usually take children from the ages of three to five (Grade 000 and Grade 00). Some preschools include Grade R as well. The programme is slightly more formalised than the playschool programme, with more focus on preparing children for ‘big school'. Kids are exposed to a variety of activities, including music, singing, physical games, art, puzzles, and so on.