With so many options when it comes to picking a nursery – curriculum, fees, location – we had two veterans of the UAE nursery scene provide a comprehensive checklist of what to look for when selecting the right environment for your child.
Tania Siddiqui, Director of Masterminds Nursery, points out that while location used to be the primary criteria for choosing a nursery, increasingly parents are becoming more selective and are willing to look further afield for a place that meets both the universal and personal requirements for their child’s nursery.
‘The process of choosing a nursery in Dubai can be very confusing,’ says Katrina Mankani, Managing Director of Jumeirah International Nurseries, ‘in any choice that parents make, they should rely on two main factors: a gut feeling and the facts.’
Here are some of the top tips that can help you assess the quality of a nursery and how much it meets your present and future needs:
The first question a parent should ask themselves is whether they are looking for a nursery to merely provide child care for part of the day, while they are working for example, or if they are looking for a learning experience, explains Tania. Essentially this is a choice between whether the parent wants a day care or an education specialist.
‘Part of this factor is based on personal preference,’ Tania points out. ‘For example, some parents want to take the lead in the early learning for their child in a home environment. Nurseries can then play the role of providing additional stimulation and socialization for their child.’ Sometimes, however, ‘parents find nurseries to be the most realistic option to provide intellectual, physical and social stimulation. In this case, finding the right expertise is absolutely crucial.’
Katrina suggests you begin by researching the key early years curriculums ‘to ensure that you have a basic understanding of what you are looking for’ whether it be Early Years Foundation Stage, Montessori, High Scope or others.
Most importantly ‘when visiting a nursery look for the evidence of the curriculum application,’ she says. ‘Timetable, planning, goals for each child should be displayed where parents can see them. Make sure that you see the "science" behind play. It takes skilful adult guidance to make the most of what children can learn from the equipment provided.’
Tania agrees that as ‘most curriculums…have a great deal of flexibility in the early years, it all depends on how each nursery uses them. The ultimate indicator is the outcomes that a nursery creates within its children. Do children who attend that nursery demonstrate exceptional outcomes related to literacy, numeracy, and other areas? Does the nursery offer additional enrichment in terms of languages, music, physical development and art? Most importantly, do the children look happy and well settled as they learn?’
Looking for these results will help you establish if a nursery meets your needs in terms of education expectations.
Simply put, a good learning environment should be safe, warm, inviting and stimulating, Katrina explains. ‘Properly structured learning environment aids development. There should be well-organised areas around the room such as a science corner, reading corner, construction corner etc. Facilities should also adapt to independent and adult-led work. There should be a secure outdoor play area with lots of activities for free play and physical activity such as gardening and water-play.’
Meanwhile, also ‘look for evidence of the constant re-invention of the learning environment. A neat environment with permanent structures looks good to an adult, but children get bored after some time.’ Painted cardboard boxes that can easily be swapped out for something else are a perfect example of a flexible play tool that would appeal to children’s constantly inquiring minds, says Katrina.
Similarly, Tania argues that while ‘the campus is often what makes the first impression, parents should also evaluate how the learning environment contributes to the learning experience of the students.’ Watch out for excessively cluttered and busy classrooms, which can distract children and actually deter learning, she says. Lastly, ‘parents should assess whether the facility design and flow aids in bringing the learning experience to life’, this should be a core focus for the nursery space.
While the quality of staff is clearly important, it can also be the most difficult criteria for parents to gauge, explains Tania.
‘Most parents make a decision based on gut feel after speaking to some of the teachers at a nursery. Without a doubt, parents should be looking for nurseries who employ qualified teachers. However, perhaps even more important is inquiring about how much training the teachers receive once they are at the nursery. Since the same curriculum can be implemented well or poorly, is the nursery investing in training its staff to deliver its intended learning outcomes?’
The three things that can help you measure the staff engagement are ratio, qualifications and turn over, Katrina says. Ask yourself the following:
‘How many staff are present in each classroom? Are they talking to each other, or the children?
What are the teachers' qualifications? For EYFS curriculum look for a minimum of CACHE Level 3 Diploma in Pre-School Practice / NVQ Level 3 (UK) or equivalent relevant to the position.
Do you have confidence that the nursery manager possesses strong leadership skills, is well involved and has a 'hands on' approach?
Finally, ask about staff turnover, stability is crucial. It helps your child settle if one adult is their "key-worker". There are many new nurseries in the UAE, and clearly for expats, this is by nature a transient country. Nevertheless, an established nursery should have the majority of its staff in place for two years or more to be able to provide a fairly stable environment.’
In terms of an appropriate staff ratio, it varies depending on what you want. ‘There are nurseries that have as many as 20 to 24 two-year-olds in one class,’ explains Tania, in others the maximum class size is 12. ‘This factor also goes back to the first point about the kind of offering that parents are looking for. Day care can take place with 20 young children in one class – effective early years learning cannot.
More importantly, she says, the size of the learning group should be taken into account. ‘Are learning activities being conducted together with all children in the class or within smaller sub-groups? There is a very high correlation between the pace of a child’s development and the level of personal attention during those important formative years.’
Read more: 'Play with your child like a nursery teacher would'
Tuition fees and hours of operation
‘Look for value, not price,’ says Tania. Though ‘the total out-of-pocket cost for tuition fees is certainly important, like everything else that we purchase, value is more important than price. You could be paying Dh30,000 per year for a nursery and getting poor value for a service that is not much better than day care or you could be paying Dh50,000 for a nursery giving you exceptional value in terms of enriched learning and add-ons, like meals.’
Katrina also points out that ‘tuition fees often depend on the hours you choose. Generally, there is the main morning programme, afternoon programme and early morning programme. All of them are charged separately.’ As ‘opening hours vary from nursery to nursery. Choose what is convenient for you. If you’re a working parent you would probably prefer a nursery with long operating hours.’
Other things to consider
Katrina also lists a quick-fire checklist of other things to consider, such as their general nursery policies. ‘A well run nursery should have established and defined policies for everything from opening and closing times to dealing with emergencies’ she explains. Find out whether the nursery has these and check the level of detail:
- The safety of the nursery starts right from the gate. Is there a number lock or an intercom at the gate? The harder for you as an adult to get in, the better it is.
- Check if all staff have their First Aid certificates and whether there a full-time nurse.
- Look for the cleaning check-lists in the lavatories and ask for the toy cleaning schedule.
- Ask what the pre-school's ‘first day policy' is. Your child will be with strangers, perhaps for the first time. Can a parent stay for a while, or will you need to leave immediately?
- Does the nursery encourage parental involvement? It should. Avoid any place where you are told to be brave and just leave the child to them. Also, check the schedule of pre-school events where parents are invited and put it on your calendar.
- Check the illness policy. Find out which illnesses will keep your child at home and for how long. This can clearly impact your time and your commitments, but also is important in making sure your child remains fit and healthy.
- Do they provide additional services such as food and transport? Provision of transport and food can be crucial for you, especially if you are a working parent. Is the food cooked on the premises or delivered? What are the menus like? What are the bus routes and hours of operation?
Finally, ‘the impact of your child’s early years’ education will stay with them throughout their life’, Tania points out, making it worthwhile to invest time and effort into choosing where they receive that experience. Ultimately ‘you want a pre-school that will work with you and respect your knowledge as a parent’ explains Katrina. So making sure you’re as informed as possible and able to enter the nursery selection process equipped with all the important questions ensures that the decision you make will be the right one for you and your child.
Read more: 'How to prepare your child to start nursery'