Nursery schools in the UAE, unless part of a larger school, are not yet subject to KHDA inspection reports, which means the onus is on you to do your own research.
A sign of a good day nursery is a recommendation from other parents. The Internet is your friend here: Look on forums - like the Dubai School Guide for Parents Facebook group, or ExpatWoman.com, for recommendations. If there aren't posts on your chosen nursery, ask... Parents in these groups in general are very, very helpful.
While feedback is very important nothing is a substitute for actually visiting a nursery.
There are two parts to this. Firstly, your gut instinct. Often you will feel if a nursery is right for your child - and you should listen to what your instincts tell you.
The second part to a nursery visit is more reasoned. There are key signs you can look for when assessing a nursery you are visiting.
Going in with the ability to an make educated choice - to know the questions to ask, and what to look for - will not only help guide your instincts, but mean you're more likely to have greater confidence in the final choice YOU ultimately make..
What to look out for:
1. A well run nursery should have established and defined policies for everything from opening and closing times to dealing with emergencies. Check whether the nursery has these on its web site. If it does not, ask whether the nursery has these codified elsewhere. These should be available to you.
2. How many staff are present in each classroom - that is, is the nursery sufficiently well staffed?
International guidelines recommend one adult to three children aged two and younger, one adult to four children aged between two and three and one adult to eight children aged between three and five.
3. Ask parents and the educators you meet what staff turnover is like? A high staff turnover will make it difficult for you and your child to get to know teachers and the support staff. 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.
4. Good nurseries should in general welcome your appearance, even if not scheduled, at the pre-school. (Note, however, that a parent's presence can affect how children behave, and the development of their independence, so while you should be able to visit, you also need to let your child explore their world and forge friendships fairly independently.)
In a similar vein, ask what the pre-school's 'first day leaving 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? The argument for the latter is very simple - children will not calm down and begin to relax until parents leave. It is very important that you discuss this and it fits with what you believe is in the needs of your child. This is a delicate and important separation.
5. Ask how the nursery includes parents in its activities. The nursery should make you feel included.
6. How will you be informed of your child's progress. Is there formal feedback? How frequently? How open are teachers to providing informal feedback at the end of a day?
7. Staff should have the appropriate qualifications. If a nursery claims to follow the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework, make sure that the teaching staff have EYFS qualifications. The school's managers should also be suitably qualified.
8. Children learn by doing and through structured play. If pupils are not being kept busy, wandering or being told to sit quietly the chances are they are not absorbing as much as they could be.
9. Children should have access to multiple activities throughout the day. Can you see various types of building blocks, construction materials,props for pretend play, picture books, art materials; and table toys?
10. Look at the state of the materials. All equipment should be clean and in good order. Ask the nursery how often materials are cleaned, particularly in shared activity areas such as ball-pits.
11. To get a sense for the range of activities, look for materials and activities involving:
- art materials
- imaginative play - sand pits, playhouses
- story time and reading
- construction blocks and dough
- jigsaws, other puzzles
- simple cooking
Note: Some nurseries purposely don't overcrowd, and teachers will select particular equipment for the day so if you don't see these materials, ask where they are.
Signs for good use of materials should be found on the walls - if there are plenty of drawings and paintings, for example, it shows that these are being put to good use, and children are being encouraged to use their imagination.
A wide variety of materials also suggests children can have some say in what activities they do.
12. It is important children get the basics of the ABCs and 123s at pre-school. Catching up later can be both difficult and frustrating. Note, however, the policy of some nurseries is to delay this so as not to pressurise very young children. There is evidence however, learning early gives children a considerable advantage later on.
Check how children are being taught these skills. Look for numbers and the alphabet on the walls and hanging from the ceiling to get a sense of whether learning is being made fun.
13. There should be time for "structured" play time where children are asked to use their imagination. 'Pretending' improves both emotional control and understanding as well as behavioral skills.
14. Equally there should be unstructured play. Ask how often children get the opportunity to play outside (mid-summer excepted). Free play time should be built into every child's day.
In the UAE it is very important to look for how children can play when it is too hot to go outside... In this regard, a water play/pool is important in the UAE and is a feature of many nurseries.
15. In general, television should not be a regular activity for children at nursery.
16. Ask whether children get individual attention, separate to group teaching. The nursery's staff should be able to give extra attention, and to adapt the curriculum, to those learning at different speeds - more quickly, and more slowly.
17. Do teachers read books to children individually or in small groups throughout the day, not just at group story time? With smaller sized groups, so children have the opportunity to ask questions and interact with the teacher more.
18. Children should be happy - this really goes without saying. A tell-tale sign is whether children look forward to school. Pupils should be excited to see their friends and get to school each morning. Crying, and children feigning illness is not a good sign. Clearly this is perhaps more difficult to pick up prior to your child joining the school, but feedback from other parents should help here.
19. Look at how teachers interact with children. Does the relationship seem warm and nurturing. Are there smiles? Do teachers seem to be positive and encouraging pupils in the classroom?
20. Ask about the nurseries illness policy. Find out which illnesses will keep your child at home, and for how long. This clearly can impact your time and your commitments, but also is important in making sure your child remains fit and healthy. In this regard, is there a nurse on call all day? Most nurseries should have basic medical support on hand.