MANHATTAN — Come September, the city expects to have more than 70,000 free pre-K seats — enough for all 4-year-olds across the boroughs.
The ambitious expansion is still underway, with thousands of seats expected to be added to the roster in the coming weeks. For now, parents have until Friday to apply to the roughly 60,000 seats in public schools and community-based early education centers in the Department of Education's pre-K directories.
With so many new options to choose from, DNAinfo asked early childhood education experts for advice on picking the program that's best for your child.
1. Consider how a program fits in with the logistics of your life.
It's important to think about where a program is located, how you'll drop off and pick up your kid and how the hours fit into your life. Classes might be half day (2.5 hours), full day (6 hours, 20 minutes) or include early drop off or after care for extra fees.
The right program often depends on "the family structure" and whether parents are working or not, said Maris Krasnow, early childhood education professor at NYU Steinhardt.
"One of the things parents worry about is having access to their children if a child gets sick," she said. "Do you want the program to be close to home or near work? Logistics can be very stressful for families with young children."
If you have an older child at a school, it's often easiest to send your 4-year-old there, or if there's something around the corner, that might be your best be, said Brooklyn College early childhood education professor Mark Lauterbach.
"Parents sometimes sell short how important being really close to home is," he said.
2. Find a program that supports your family's language and culture.
The program you pick should be a good match culturally for your family since it's important that you and your child feel comfortable there, experts said.
"There should be a caregiver there that understands one of the languages your child speaks," said Barbara Schwartz, NYU Steinhardt professor of special education. "It provides that kind of nurturing and comfort for the child."
3. Make sure the classroom is organized with distinct "learning centers."
Classrooms should have different learning centers, including an art center where kids can get crayons and pencils, a dramatic play area, a space for sensory experiences with sand or water, and a reading area where kids can grab their own books, experts said.
"Research shows that reading to children really helps them learn to read eventually," Schwartz said, noting that preschoolers should be read age-appropriate books at least twice a day.
"Books shouldn't be high on the shelves where children can't reach them," she added. "The room should be organized in a way that children know what's there and should have access to it."
Wooden blocks are also essential, many said.
"[Kids are] deciding, they're building," Krasnow said. "They're learning about balance, size, geometry, literacy and language because creating involves using language" 'Let's build a tower and we'll have a rocket man come in.'"
4. Make sure your kid will have time to move around.
The preschool day is often scheduled around blocks of time for different activities. Many experts warn against blocks of time that are too long (though they can increase over the course of the year) and stress that kids need to have time for movement throughout the day.
"If there's not outdoor playtime then make sure there's an indoor play space," Schwartz said.
5. Look for play-based activities rather than too many worksheets.
Though many programs give kids worksheets to help them learn their letters or numbers, most education experts advise against the practice.
"Unfortunately, too many people think that learning is doing a worksheet," Lauterbach said. "But in essence, when you have two kids sitting across from each other looking at a book and talking about it, they're learning."
Also, a program that has a vocabulary curriculum where, for example, they set out to learn 10 words a week, might not be as good as an activity-based that teaches through things like cooking and art, he said.
"You've got this solid thing you can hang your hat on," he said of the vocabulary goals, "but a teacher actively engaged in the dramatic play area, elevating the level of interaction and conversation, may cover 30 words a week. "
Schwartz added: "Young children learn from their play and their engagement with others in play. Children will figure out how to do worksheets when they get to kindergarten."
6. Listen for the buzzword "child-centered."
"It's really up to the teacher to tap into the what the kid is about," Krasnow said. "You want to make sure your teacher is able to identify who your child is and what your child needs in a caring way."
7. When you visit, watch for kids interacting happily with each other.
When on a tour, it goes without saying that you should look for happy kids, experts said. You should also observe whether kids have time to engage with others since one of the main goals of preschool is socialization.
"It's about social development, learning how to navigate the community and be part of the community," Schwartz said. "You're going to have to learn what we call 'self regulation.'"
Krasnow added: "The environment has to support the concept of how does your child work and play well with others. If you don't get that skill you're not going to have a lot of successful experiences in life."
8. Don't worry: there are no big mistakes.
Even though where to send your kid to preschool may be a hard decision for families, "there isn't anything here that's going to be a huge mistake," Krasnow said.
You'll likely know if your child is unhappy and doesn't want to go to school. Sometimes kids move from one class to another or even switch schools.
"You really don't know if a program is a good fit for your child until you're in the school," Lauterbach said.
"Unless it's horrible, you do your best and suck it up," he said, noting if children have special needs that aren't being met, those issues should be addressed.
"As long as it's friendly and teachers are happy and it's a safe environment," he said, "for most 4-year-olds, if they have enough time on the blocks and playground it's a good fit."