Not sure whether it’s a day care or nursery school? Here’s how you tell

As a new parent embarking on the school hunt for the first time it can be pretty daunting, and confusing. Creche, day care, nursery school, pre-school… what are the differences really?

Christine Wrathall, Principal of Wesley Pre-School, says essentially a crèche or day care will take care of your child’s daily needs: meals, sleep time, potty training and supervised play. Staff may be qualified in child care but not always in Early Childhood Development (ECD). “These facilities usually cater for children from a couple of months old and they offer a full day service at a lower cost.”

A pre-school or nursery school, she explains, will run a structured, formalised, half-day curriculum where children are exposed to a variety of supervised activities.  “The emphasis is on educating the child and preparing them for ‘big school’. Children from two to three years upward are accommodated. Aftercare and holiday care are often additional extras. Teachers are qualified in early childhood development and if a Grade R class is available, the syllabus would be recognised by the department of education.”

Creative parenting expert, speaker and author, Nikki Bush, adds that a nursery school would be running a school-readiness programme, essentially ensuring children are ready for Grade 1. “A nursery school has got defined activity rings and should be all about developing perceptual skills in a stress-free, play-based environment.”

What to look for in a nursery school

Word-of-mouth recommendations are a good start to choosing the right school. Consider your routine and travel time and to find a school that is in close to either work or home. A visit is essential. Wrathall says parents instinctively know after a school visit (or two) whether the school fits in with their parenting philosophy and approach. “Prospective parents should be able to view the school during operating hours and see the programme in action. Every day should be an Open Day,” she says.

  • Qualified staff

Bush says a nursery school should be run by people qualified in ECD. “Not all staff need to necessarily be qualified in ECD as experience also counts for a lot. However, there needs to be at least one person qualified in ECD and the rest of the staff should have at least completed some relevant courses especially relating to sensory processing and dysfunction. They need to be able to identify if there is a developmental delay or a learning difficulty. The earlier these issues are picked up, the easier they are to remediate,” she says.

“Children’s brains in their early years of development are plastic and elastic. We obviously don’t want teachers over-diagnosing but we want to be assured that teachers will know our children well enough to pick up if there is a concern,” she says. There needs to be ongoing professional development.

Wrathall agrees saying the head of the school and the teachers should be qualified in ECD or be working towards a qualification. They should also be registered with the South African Council for Educators (SACE) and assistants should at least have a certificate in childcare.

“Working with children is unlike any other profession. What is just as important as a qualification is the type of commitment, dedication and patience the staff show towards the children placed in their care. Is there a happy, busy noise and are the children actively engaged? How do the staff respond to the children – are they patient and nurturing? These are good things to look for,” she says.

  • Play

During the pre-school years, the easiest modality of learning is play. There should be a good balance between facilitated play activities and free play. Bush says when you visit the school look at the artwork. “Coloured in worksheets are a no-no. Every child’s work should be different. You want to see big pieces of paper being used. This will encourage crossing of the midline – an essential in early childhood development. This should be happening regularly. They should also be working on blackboards, using easels, doing art lying on the floor ad so on – all these different mediums stimulate perceptual development and creativity,” she says.

She adds that there should also be a big bank of educational toys, games and sensory activities that are rotated regularly. “Kids should be allowed to get dirty.”  

  • Adult-to-child ratios

At both a day care and nursery school you should be looking for supervision, loving care and some form of a one-on-one connection. Children under 18 months should be getting one-on-one care. “Realistically the best you’ll get at day cares currently is closer to three children to one caregiver,” says Bush.  She recommends that with children in this age group, if you have the option to rather keep your child at home with a caregiver, do so. If not, look for a day care with an optimal adult-to-child ratio.

Wrathall says that younger children (three-year olds) do well in a class of approximately 10 children to two adults. A class of 15 children to two adults is suitable for four-year olds. From five years old children are more independent and a teacher (depending on their experience) should be able to manage 15 to 20 children unassisted. These ratios may need to be adapted to cater for any children with disabilities based on how much support they need.

“A pre-school environment needs to emulate home in as many ways as possible. Children need to connect to a caregiver and know that their emotional needs will be taken care of. The vital skills they need to acquire and practice at this stage of their development require more individual attention. An appropriate adult-to-child ratio is essential in achieving this. Parents also need to remember that children all have different biological and emotional needs. If your child isn’t coping well in a large group then you may want to rethink the school and class size. Other children thrive in a large community and enjoy the social interaction of many peers,” she says.

  • Routine

Routine is key, believes Bush. Where things are well-organised children feel safer. “If you child is spending more time at school than at home then you need to ensure your home routine mirrors the school routine. Parents often make the mistake of expecting the school to customise their routine to fit in with the home routine. When your child is part of a group they will need to adhere to the routine of the group. What’s most important is one routine and continuity.”

Wrathall suggests asking the school what happens during a typical school day. Is there a structured curriculum and routine? “Children feel comfortable in a calm and disciplined environment. A well-planned day which balances exploratory play time with a variety of stimulating, educational activities is essential.”

“At the end of the day, no school is likely to tick all the boxes,” says Wrathall. “After you have made appointments with a few schools in your area, make a list of things you consider to be the most important. Is it proximity to home, availability of aftercare, educational programme, facilities, school fees or qualified staff?”

“Choose the school which best fits your family ethos and routine. Pre-school is a time when both parents and children form lasting bonds and friendships. Your child may not remember their time at pre-school in much detail, but if their experience was a positive one, they will build a strong foundation and carry with them to ‘big school’, an enthusiasm and curiosity for learning,” she concludes.

Bush offers these quick tips:

  • Visit the school when there are children there. Have a look at how happy the children are. There should be noise but not chaos. Children learn through self-discovery which drives curiosity which drives movement. Children of pre-school age should not be sitting still for long. Is there allowance for curiosity at the school?
  • Look at the ethos of the school. Are you looking for a faith-based school? Or a philosophy-based school such as a Montessori or Waldorf?
  • Is the school pushing technology? There has been an upsurge of schools using technology to market themselves. Personally, I believe in play over technology. Children have so much screen time that they don’t have time to play, potter or ponder. Screen time has resulted in children battling to think, show initiative and entertain themselves. 21st century children are going to be tech savvy without having to have it as a subject in nursery school. More importantly they need multisensory, hands-on activities that celebrate their creativity.

Wrathall share five most frequently asked questions from first-time visitors:

  • What are your operating hours? (how early can I drop my child off and how late can I fetch them?)
  • Do we provide a snack? Snacks provided by a school do not always cater for individual preferences and dietary requirements. A lunch box provides a small connection to home. Children are excited to open it up and discover what delicious treats are on offer for the day. The contents also open up conversations and learning moments around food and healthy habits.
  • What happens if my child is sleepy? Most children arrive having been used to a mid-morning nap and parents worry about the break in routine. In reality, children quickly drop the 11am nap in favour of an early afternoon one.
  • What do we offer in terms of our school programme and which class will my child be placed in? Will they learn their alphabet? Because children develop so rapidly in their early years, many parents, especially those with children born in the first few months of the year, are convinced that their child is surely of above-average intelligence. They are concerned that placing them with their peers will inhibit their educational development. I don’t believe I have seen a case in over 30 years of teaching where moving a child from his peer group to an older class has ever been to that child’s advantage. In the long term, a child’s emotional and social development often becomes the deciding factor between a successful school career and a mediocre one. The three R’s can often wait. Allow them the time to make friends and learn to share and cooperate.
  • How many classes? How big are the classes and are the teachers qualified? Smaller classes, qualified staff and low staff turnover are important considerations.

About Christine Wrathall

Christine started teaching at Wesley in 1999 and took on the principal position in 2008. She studied combined HDE at Johannesburg College of Education in Foundation Phase and Early Childhood Development after which she taught Grades 1 -3 at Montrose Primary for 11 years. She headed up Grade 1 for seven years and received two merit awards and an outstanding achievement and service award from Department of Education.

She took a break from teaching to have two children. During that time, she did locum teaching, published four school magazines and published a What to do with your child/children’s services book called Tiny tots to Teeny Bops.

Christine has always had a passion for teaching young children and holds a particular interest in early child development. As principal of Wesley Pre-School, she strives to provide a nurturing environment which emulates home and a stimulating and diverse programme where children feel comfortable to explore and discover at their own pace. Her aim is for each child to move on from Wesley with a positive attitude to school and an enthusiasm for learning.

Caption: Christine Wrathall

About Nikki Bush

Nikki Bush

Creative parenting expert, Nikki Bush, has helped hundreds of thousands of parents to build fabulous relationships with their children by turning very ordinary, everyday moments into extraordinary memories. Nikki helps today’s busy parents to future-proof their children despite their busyness. Her wisdom, creativity and practical ideas are the solution for parents who are long on love and short on time.

Nikki’s work is fuelled by her passion for play, connection and relationships. She is a sought- after speaker and co-author of three bestselling books:  Future-proof Your Child (Penguin), Easy Answers to Awkward Questions (Metz Press) and Tech-Savvy Parenting (Bookstorm) and a number of ebooks .

She is the go to person for the media regarding anything to do with child development and parenting, racking up over 140 interviews a year including a weekly slot on SABC 3’s Expresso and Radio 702. She is a guest lecturer at Henley Business School, Wits Business School and GIBS.

Nikki lives in Johannesburg with her two sons.

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