Q:

I'm very puzzled about how to find the best kindergarten for my young son, as I have several choices. How can I tell if a kindergarten is a good one? - Totally Baffled

A:

A good experience in kindergarten really sets the tone for children's future years in school. Some kindergartens have become miniature first grades, with a very strong emphasis on academics. While kindergarten is the time to get children ready for elementary school, such an approach has its drawbacks, when workbooks and worksheets completely substitute for learning through hands-on experiences.

You should look for a kindergarten that focuses on all the areas of your child's development - physical, intellectual, social and emotional. It might be easier to find all these components in a full-day rather than a half-day program. Here are the top signs of a good kindergarten classroom from the National Association for the Education of Young Children:

1. Children are playing and working with materials or other children. They are not aimlessly wandering or forced to sit quietly for long periods of time.

2. Children have access to various activities and materials throughout the day, such as block building, pretend play, picture books, paints and other art materials, and table toys such as Legos, pegboards and puzzles. Children are not all doing the same things at the same time.

3. Teachers work with individual children, small groups and the whole group at different times during the day. They do not spend time only with the entire group.

4. The classroom is decorated with children's original artwork, their own writing with invented spelling, and dictated stories.

5. Children learn numbers and the alphabet in the context of their everyday experiences, such as exploring the natural world of plants and animals, cooking, taking attendance and serving snacks.

6. Children work on projects and have long periods of time (at least one hour) to play and explore. Filling out worksheets should not be their primary activity.

7. Children have an opportunity to play outside every day that weather permits. This play is never sacrificed for more instructional time.

8. Teachers read books to children throughout the day, not just at group story time.

9. Curriculum is adapted for those who are ahead as well as for those who need additional help.

10. Children and their parents look forward to school. Children are happy; they are not crying.

11. Individual kindergarten classrooms will vary, and curriculum will vary according to the interests and backgrounds of the children. But all developmentally appropriate kindergarten classrooms will have one thing in common: The focus will be on the development of the child as a whole.