Preschool Co-Op: How to Start an At-Home, Parent-Led Program

5/26/10 - By Allison

One of the urban legends spread to NYC parents is that you have to sign your children up for preschool while they're still in the womb. This isn't true. In fact, preschool is optional and there are lots of options out there from full day preschools to half day, preschool alternatives and enriching and nurturing day cares.

Our family decided to do something completely different and join some friends as part of a parent-led preschool co-op with our 2-year-old. I recently met with other moms who've done it before to hear their experience and tips on making it a success. 


You may be wondering what exactly is a parent-led preschool co-op? It can really be whatever you want it to be, since you, the parents, design and run it. That's the beauty of it (aside from the cost and lack of a waitlist.) In general, it's more than a playgroup where children and parents regularly meet and have free play. Instead, at a co-op preschool, parents may or may not be present and children learn from a specific curriculum.  This curriculum can vary from a short music or art session before free play for younger children, to a longer academic lesson for older kids. 

How do you get into a preschool coop? Unless you're invited to join a current group, start your own! Ask around with parents you know to see who may be interested. Every parent-led preschool has its own approach that works for the families involved. Before starting, parents should get together to set goals they hope the children will achieve and agree on the curriculum, size and format, and member responsibilities.  

Tips for Starting a Co-Op

Size and Format
Parent-led preschool co-ops usually take place in a home for a couple hours, one or two times a week. You can choose to always have it at one home, or rotate so each parent takes turn hosting. Groups of five to six children usually work best. Any less can leave a small group when children are absent, and more can become tricky to handle especially in city apartments. It's ideal to create groups with children of similar ages starting not much earlier than 2 years old.  If you have a mixed age group you can try to work in extras to keep the older kids challenged. 
You can choose to have all parents stay for the duration, or you can teach on a rotation basis so parents get a turn to drop off and leave. Many parents recommend a rotation not only to get some time off, but also because they find the children are better behaved and get more from the lesson when there is just one or two adults leading and not every child's parent is in the room. However, if you are rotating teaching duties, it will be beneficial to the kids to agree on a consistent agenda or format for the adults to follow each week.
Pick a Curriculum
Curriculum can vary widely. Obviously younger children can't handle as much structured time as older children.  Curriculum can be as simple as "The Alphabet" or "Numbers and Counting 1-10."  Parents can choose to write their own lessons for each week, or you can use the library or internet to find loads of preschool class plans and curriculum already laid out for you.  I want to stress that there is NO REASON to spend a lot of time creating a curriculum thanks to these resources.  Some are free, some you order and pay for, some are specialized by language, religion, etc. You can choose to go with one or mix and match.  Most everything you will need is available online including craft ideas, songs, poems and stories and more.   
Parent Duties? 
Since parents are in charge of everything, they have to be organized and committed. It helps to lay out the calendar ahead of time and schedule the parent's roles for each week. This gives parents plenty of time to prepare for their teaching/hosting duties and to arrange for a swap or replacement within the group if there is a conflict. Also, parents should address any issues such as the cost of potential supplies or props, sick policies, or any safety concerns such as allergies, etc. 
If several parents in the group have more than one child they can try to organize two preschools to go on simultaneously, one for older and one for younger children. If some parents have infants, you can arrange for adults who aren't leading lessons to care for the babies in a separate room each week.
Here are two example formats for how your parent-led preschool could operate. But remember, since you are the "principal," it's entirely up to you how it works.
Sample 1
9:30 - 10:15  Music time - sing-along songs, play instruments, puppets, dancing
10:15 - 10:30 Snack and bathroom
10:30 - 11:00  Lesson of the Day and related craft
11:00 - 11:15 Storytime until pick-up
Sample 2
10:00 - Attendance
10:00 - 10:45 Lesson of the day with related reading, singing and large motor activity
10:45 - 11:00  Snack and Bathroom
11:00 - 11:30 Craft
11:30 - 12:00 Free play
And remember when you live in NYC, sometimes the best classroom is right outside your door. Days spent exploring the city can be the best enrichment of them all, whether you head to a museum or other cultural institution, a performance, or a free class. Use our site and calendar to fill your days with excellent, enriching opportunities.
Photo of artwork via Shutterstock.