The preschool years – from birth to age five – see the most active period of development the brain ever undergoes, where neurological pathways are established for future learning, and patterns of health and behaviour are laid down that may affect the trajectory of a child’s life. All the more important, therefore, to find a preschool that will give your little one the greatest start.

If you are new to the Cayman education system, or this is your first child, you might want to check out a prospective preschool’s latest inspection report, produced by the Office of Education Standards, a division of the Cayman Islands Government. Their highly insightful school reports enable you to glean a wealth of insight about a school before you even book your tour! Judged according to various criteria, preschools receive a rating from Weak to Satisfactory, Good or Excellent and inspection reports detail recommendations to improve standards. However, there are a wealth of other factors to consider. Here are a few pointers:

10 Markers of an Excellent Preschool

Here are some pointers to consider. You will find a list of Cayman's preschools at the bottom of this article.

1. Qualified & Passionate Early Childhood Practitioners

Miss renee

Current Education Council Guidelines stipulate that only one member of staff (out of every ten) must possess a Teaching Licence – though not necessarily specific to Early Childhood Education. Excellent preschools invest in well qualified early childhood teaching practitioners, experienced and passionate about this unique stage of learning and development. The socio-emotional bonds and relationships that your child builds with teachers are central to nurturing positive dispositions to learning. It is important to look during your school visit for evidence of these connections. Check to see that the teachers are engaged with the children, involving them and participating in active conversations.

2. An Active, Hands-on Learning Environment

Quality preschools create engaging, developmentally appropriate, purposeful, and enjoyable play-based learning environments that tap into the interests and fascinations of each child. Diversity should be reflected in all aspects of these environments and mirrored in displays, books, artwork and photographs. Offering a mixture of self-initiated and adult-led activities including exploratory play with open-ended resources (e.g. water play, role play and sensory play), fosters creativity, teamwork, independent thinking and a strong sense of self. Within the setting, the materials should be appropriate for the age group and do make sure that any equipment is in good repair.

Little trotters boy

3. Developmentally Appropriate Foundational Skills

Preparing children for the next stage of their learning journey is vital but beware of the trend towards ‘schoolification’ (introducing school standards earlier via increased teacher-directed pedagogies, less playtime, greater attention to academic content and isolated, technical instruction) as this can backfire, increasing stress hormones in the brain. Conversely, creating fun, purposeful language and print rich environments that promote ‘serve-and-return’ interactions motivates children to read and write, promotes curiosity, and creates lifelong learners and creative, critical thinkers.

4. Assessment & Evaluation

All preschools should have assessment processes in place to evaluate the children in their care. These assessments should be used to ensure that your child is developing at the expected pace. Each school is also required to have a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo) to help those children who are perhaps not reaching their goals by communicating with families, therapists and teachers on the best course of action. Many schools also host regular parent meetings to further develop the parent partnership.

5. Curriculum

Each preschool should follow a curriculum. Most preschools in the Cayman Islands follow the Cayman Islands Early Years Curriculum Framework, which has the ‘Key Focus Areas’ of development as Exploration, Respect, Communication and Wellbeing. By presenting opportunities to explore a variety of topics linked to books, learning activities, outings or guest speakers to spark curiosity, firing children’s imaginations and enabling them to make connections between concepts and the world in which they live, the preschool should be supporting your child’s development in all of these areas.

6. Music & Movement

Children intuitively love music, songs, nursery rhymes and clapping games. The benefits of music and movement for young children are vast. Music allows children to communicate their feelings and encourage the regulation of their emotions by learning to calm down, relax and control their feelings. Music also helps the development of physical skills, such as hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness and balance, and social skills like cooperation and taking turns. And, rather significantly, it supports the cognitive growth and the development of problem-solving skills, such as logic, reasoning and sequencing. All of these reasons make it imperative that music and movement are an everyday part of your chosen preschool.

Littl Trotters music

7. A Shady & Stimulating Outdoor Environment

Education Council Guidelines require all Early Childhood Centres to have 40-square-feet of useable outdoor space per registered child. This should include a shady garden or play area where children can engage with nature and enjoy fresh air and stimulating physical play out of the sun. There should be opportunities to develop their gross motor skills, explore a variety of sensorial experiences, and be involved in collaborative play with others. Outdoor play is an incredibly valuable part of the curriculum for preschool children in helping to strengthen all aspects of their development.

Little Trotters Cayman outside

8. School Animals

An American biologist, E.O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia”, which is the innate connection which humans feel for other living things. Children feel connected to animals simply because they, like them, are living beings. Researchers have found that children who constantly interact with animals strengthen their empathetic and caring skills, which extend to their human relationships. If given the chance to engage in caring for the animals by feeding them, a child’s sense of responsibility is strengthened. Close relationships with animals can also help increase a child’s self-esteem and confidence. Whilst not possible at all preschools, a school pet can bring so many rewards to the development of the children.

9. Parent Partnerships

Preschools often have an open-door policy that allows you to visit your child at any time. Teachers should also communicate regularly with parents and discuss any concerns about children with them. A good preschool will also involve parents in field trips, special events, etc., and give parents opportunities to get involved in and out of the classroom. By being aware of what is happening in the classroom, the learning carries over to the home environment, and visa versa. When schools establish clear and effective lines of communication and parents are engaged, the result is improved outcomes for all.

Children feeding a duck

10. Positive Atmosphere & Ethos

Preschools should have a caring, nurturing ‘can-do’ ethos that promotes thinking and where mistakes are seen as integral to the learning process. Skills such as concentration, trying a different approach, risk-taking or perseverance should be praised. This kind of responsive, nurturing, respectful caregiving fosters confidence and an all-important sense of belonging.

Children lining up

Observe how teachers listen and talk to children in their care. They should embody and model the kindness and respect you would like your child to develop. Naturally, there are practical considerations to choosing a preschool, including location and hours of operation, but those ‘good feels’ should not be ignored.

It is worth noting that some preschools in Cayman have long waiting lists. Many require you to sign up your child while pregnant. If you do not get your child into your first choice then do not despair there are plenty of great preschools in Cayman that will give your child a brilliant start to their education.

Important Final Thoughts

Five is the mandated legal age that all children in the Cayman Islands must be in full time education. This does however, cause a few issues, which until now have not been talked about. These are the issues:

If Your Child is Going to a Government Primary School
As mentioned above, it is not a requirement for you to send your child to the Government primary school in your district until your child turns 5, which means, if you hold them back at home or in a preschool, they will go straight into Year 1 at primary school. Some parents choose to hold their children back while others find that there is just not enough space in the Reception class (at age 4) for their child. For example, The John Cumber Primary School in West Bay only has three (3) Receptions classes but then from Years 1 to 6 they have 4 classes, meaning that in West Bay at least 22 children have to stay in preschool, or at home, for another year and will then skip the foundational skills and move straight into Year 1 at the age of 5. All the other primary schools in the Government system have the same number of Reception classes as they have classes in Years 1 to 6, but often the school is completely over-subscribed in Reception (which caps their numbers lower than Year 1), or the parents choose to keep their kids at home until they have to go to school at five. However, if the child stays at home, or in preschool, thus missing that foundational year in primary school, it sets them up for a very difficult year of transition once they do get to primary school at age 5. The child will have missed the gentle adjustment to primary school that is given to children in the Reception year; they will have missed being taught the phonetic sound of the alphabet and missed the part when the other children were taught to blend their letter, and have missed the part where they would have started to learn to read alongside all their classmates. They will also have missed the gentle start to being taught their early Maths skills, which they should have been taught in preschool, including their colours, shapes, sizes, proportions, numbers, counting etc. Once the children get into Year 1 they are expected to know the early foundational literacy and Maths skills, and the work is much harder. However, if your child does stay back at home or in preschool, thus missing the Reception class, you must ensure that they are actively taught the early foundational skills in reading, writing and Maths that they would otherwise learn in Reception. If your child does stay in preschool, past the age of 4, then the preschool is required to teach the foundational skills, but this process is not consistent between schools. In fact is is seriously inconsistent between preschools, but the Early Childhood Department of Government is actively trying to improve the situation. This is something that must be considered by every parent in the Cayman Islands! If your child can get a place in a Government primary school at the age of 4 we highly recommend that you take it! If they cannot then make sure they learn the skills at home or in preschool, and lobby your MLA to ensure that all Government primary schools have enough Reception classes for the number of children in their district. This problem is one of the main reasons why some Caymanian children are finding it so hard to do well in reading, Maths and English.

If Your Child is Going to a Private Primary School
Every private primary school in Grand Cayman has a Reception/Kindergarten/Pre-K 3 class where all their registered children get offered a place (if there is space) when the child turns 4 years old. The child has to have turned 4 by September 1st in the UK system (Cayman Prep, Island Primary, Foosteps and St. Ignatius) or by August 1st for the US system (Triple C, Cayman International School, Grace Christian Academy). The exact same number of children then move up to Year 1 when they are five, leaving no spaces in Year 1 for those parents that wanted to keep their children back for a year. Hence all parents take the space in Reception if it is offered to them! In Reception at the age of 4 the children adjust to being in primary school, get taught the phonetic sound of the alphabet and start to blend letters, and they consolidate their early Maths skills which they should have been taught in preschool (colours, shapes, sizes, proportions, numbers, counting etc). Then as soon as they know the first set of letters they start to learn to read. Children will then move into Year 1 when they are 5 years old already reading and they advance to more complex topics.

Nurseries & Preschools in the Cayman Islands