Thinking Outside The Preschool Box


In New York City, it’s not uncommon to hear parents with infants—and even soon-to-be first-time parents—talk about applying to nursery schools. There are a lot of anxious questions in the air. When do I have to apply? What if we don’t get in? What if I can’t afford it or don’t want to spend that kind of money? For generations, most child development experts have been emphasizing how important the early years are to future success, so it’s not all that surprising that some parents are a little obsessed with giving their young children the best opportunities they can.

But, that doesn’t mean that a child has to be in a wellrun private nursery school to have a nurturing, stimulating and fun early childhood.

While there are more New York City parents than ever engaging in the private nursery school admissions process, there are others who are opting out, seeking alternatives for their child that seem less fraught and less expensive. These alternatives include public pre-K programs; children’s activity centers with preschool-like classes (commonly known as “preschool alternative” programs); daycare centers with curriculums; and parent-centered arrangements, like a parent-based cooperative preschool.

Here are some of the pros and cons of each type.

Activity and Enrichment Centers with “Preschool Alternative” Programs

Responding to the demand, many private children’s activity and enrichment centers around the city have established programs under the “Preschool Alternative” umbrella. Here’s a short list: Kidville, 74th Street Magic, Reebok Sports Club, Gymtime Rhythm & Glues, Discovery Programs, Citibabes, apple seeds and New York Kids Club. Like private preschools, these preschool alternative programs focus on allowing children to learn through play, to socialize and form positive interaction skills, and to learn to become independent from parents or caregivers.

“Preschool alternative” programs generally start at age 2. They’re first-come-first-serve, so no stress of an interview, and no application deadlines. There are also a variety of programs to fit different styles and needs.

“The goals of our program are social development,” says Natalie Cronin-Reyes of Kidville. “I would not say we’re academic—those kinds of things sort of happen organically because we pay attention to what the children are curious about and we model our themes and curriculum around [that]. But our primary goals are helping them get along and how to manage their first separation from their parent.”

Elaine Winter, director of Discovery Programs, says their program serves to “strengthen the bridge between home and school.” A child’s day is divided between the classroom— taking part in activities like music, art, and science—and the on-site gym, enjoying gymnastics and working on full-body coordination. Like other programs, Winter’s also offers flexibility. “A child can start at a certain number of afternoons a week, and then grow with the program,” she notes.

Early Learning Foundations (E.L.F.) at Gymtime Rhythm & Glues is licensed by the Board of Health, meaning it follows the same regulations as a preschool, plus all its head teachers hold master’s degrees and are accredited—a big selling point for
families. “We really call ourselves a preschool,” says E.L.F. Director
Lena Vollaro. “The only difference is that we run by semester, so that
if your child isn’t the right age in September, they can enroll in

At Reebok Sports Club, which includes two preschool
alternative programs—Stepping
Stones, as well as Just For Me (which runs out of their Sports Club LA
location)—regional manager Dina Casellini sees families interested in
their impressive 1 to 3 teacher-to-student ratio. Such a high ratio
“isn’t always the case at some of the other preschools,” she says. It
translates into more individualized attention for each child, which many
parents are looking for.

Although these programs don’t compare to the
tuitions of private preschools, many can still cost upward of $12,000
per year and, depending on your schedule, you may need to find
additional care for when your child is not in the program.

Public Preschools

Public Pre-K
programs are offered at hundreds of New York City public schools, as
well as at community-based organizations like childcare centers,
religious institutions and nursery schools, though the latter are not
directed by the Department of Education. A directory of all the public
programs is listed on the Department of Education’s website. These public pre-K programs offer either half- or
whole-day schedules for five days a week, and they are also free.
Because of their growing popularity, the department has been amending
the admissions process to try to make it as fair as possible. Priority
is given to siblings, then to zoned students, then to students in the
district whose zoned school doesn’t offer pre-K, or district students
with no zoned schools, and so on. You can find your zoned school by
calling 311 or visiting the department’s website.

Last year,
applications for admission into public school preschools had to be
mailed by mid-April, and applicants were required to list five programs
they would like their child to attend, in order of preference. As for
pre-K programs held in community-based organizations, applications are
accepted directly by the organizations, and the admissions process is
open until October.

The downside of opting for public programs
is that they only take children who are 4 years old (as of Dec. 31) and
you’re not guaranteed a spot.

Daycare Centers With Pre-K Programs

There are also
high-quality daycare centers that are essentially preschools with longer
schedules for parents who need full-time childcare. These centers offer
full-day, year-round childcare and take children as early as 6 weeks
old. Children who attend these programs can benefit from continuity—the
same people and children in the same place until they go off to grade

The House of Little People, for example, accepts
children aged 3 months to 5 years old, and starts teaching the children
as infants. “We start introducing the children to a curriculum, if you
will, as soon as we get them in,” says Barbara Robinson, the program’s
founder. She explains, “The infants are taught by sensory, so we can
certainly introduce them to sound, to color, to smell—[enhancing] their
learning ability for the next level of learning.”

Learning then
continues in the toddler room and 5- year-old group. Children leave
well-prepared for school, says Robinson, and many go on to excellent
private schools and gifted-and-talented programs in the public schools.

daycare programs offer full-time care, they can be more expensive than
other preschool alternatives. Although they have rolling admissions,
they often have a waiting list, particularly since most children start
at infancy and stay until they are ready to go to school.

Parent Cooperative

nursery school co-ops aren’t as common in New York City as it is in
other parts of the country. But for parents who are interested in taking
a more direct role in their children’s early education, these are

A parent cooperative preschool can be organized in a
variety of ways. Some are essentially playgroups in which parents take
turns teaching the children, while others become nonprofit,
professionally run preschools in which parents participate in all
aspects of the school.

Regardless of the level of formality,
these co-ops become closely knit communities. Because parents are active
in all aspects of running the preschool, they don’t have to hire
outside help, so the costs are less than that of other programs.

The preschool 43rd
Street Kids is a parent cooperative located in federally subsidized
housing for artists and was founded more than 20 years ago. Now, a staff
of professionals with master’s degrees runs the school with extensive
parental involvement. According to Virginia Parks, the school
administrator, parents act as assistants in class, fundraise, sit on a
variety of committees, work to keep the school maintained, and attend
meetings to help make decisions.

“The family involvement is
crucial to us,” Parks says. Still, you have to have the time and energy
to participate in these preschools. You may also need to be prepared to
deal with other parents who don’t share your views or have sufficient
early childhood education backgrounds.