Close to home or far away?

Little kids tire easily, and a long commute to school will be difficult, particularly in the winter. Who will take them home if they get sick during the day? Will weekend or after-school playdates be possible? Still, some parents find good programs near their work, or near a grandmother who can pick them up after school.

Are the children safe?

Is the class clean and orderly or does it have an air of neglect— dusty shelves, torn books and dying plants? Is there a safe, fenced-in playground? Look for a bathroom in the room or no more than three doors away. You don't want to see exposed extension cords and outlets. You can find information on safety and cleanliness by checking out the inspection history of pre-k sites online.

Is the teacher effective?

A good pre-k teacher should be talking to kids and listening to them, repeating back words and full sentences—upping the ante when it comes to language. They should be able to maintain an orderly and predictable routine to help kids feel safe and secure.

Are parents welcome?

You can tell a lot from the moment you step inside a building. Does someone say hello? Do you feel security is thorough? Is there information for parents on display and is there a place to sit and wait? Parents should feel welcome to take part in the life of the school, whether it's attending an event, taking care of the class pet over the holiday or volunteering to read a book to the class.

What is the program leader or principal like?

You want someone who is approachable and easy-to-find, not hidden behind a door. A strong leader brings out the best in each member of the school community. The principal or director should either know something about early childhood or be in communication with an expert in the building.

Are there examples of children's work?

Look for children's work on display, not decorations made by the teacher. Ideally, the work should show individual creativity. You don't want to see lots of fill-in-the-blank worksheets, but kids may be beginning to draw, write letters, or sound out words and label their pictures. Are there science explorations—like drawings of leaves or a graph to show how many seeds are in an apple?

An exciting, orderly classroom

Kids like to explore in a well-organized classroom. Good pre-k's have fun-to-read books and objects organized in baskets on shelves to help them investigate patterns, numbers and shapes. Instead of tracing their names over and over, kids can strengthen their hand muscles for writing by squeezing clay, cutting paper and stretching small hands around big blocks. Look for classrooms with live animals, Legos, water tables, plants and fish tanks to spark curiosity. Tables and rugs give kids choices of where to work. It's great to see a mini kitchen, hospital or wood shop area where children can dress-up and say new words like "construction" and "stethoscope."

A well-balanced day

Often you will see a schedule of the day posted on the wall. Look for a routine with a mix of active and quiet activities. There should be a time to rest in full-day programs but not enforced naptime. Kids should have time to play outside every day and time to explore, often called "choice" or "center" time. All pre-k children eat lunch in the classroom, "family style," where they can chat with friends and practice good manners.

Opportunities to be independent

Look for how teachers foster independence. Children are able to hang up their own coats, help prepare and serve breakfast or lunch, clean up after themselves, and put on their own coats and shoes. Good pre-k's often label objects so kids can begin to pair objects and words, and provide them with step-by-step pictures for procedures like hand washing. These activities instill good habits.