Looking for play-based environmentally-sound preschool

We're looking for recommendations for a new preschool for our very active 3 year old daughter.  This year she's been at a Waldorf school, which we had been drawn to for a number of factors: the emphasis on play and nature, the natural environment (things made out of wood, not plastic), the small class size, healthy food, and the purported humanism of the orientation.  But it hasn't been a good fit.  Even after months of adjustment, she does not like being there.  What we hadn't realized was that the Waldorf approach really emphasizes quiet children (the songs notwithstanding).  The kids are hushed all day long and their questions about things around them -- such as how something works -- are not welcome. 

We're looking for recommendations of smallish play-based preschools, where children are nurtured emotionally and socially, and where their natural curiosity is embraced.  The Reggio-Emilia approach seems particularly appealing, but we'd be open to other play-based schools.  Some play-based schools we visited last year seemed too large and chaotic, so on the smaller side would be idea.  We also really want a place where the people running the preschool have thought about the environmental health of the kids, so that it's not full of plastic toys, foam mats, particle board, etc, which are known to emit toxic substances that harm the developing bodies of children.  I realize that that's asking a lot for one place.  Any direction that you can give us would be most appreciated! 

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My kids (now 19!) went to Kensington Nursery School, which had a very reasonable sized group, excellent teachers, and is play-based. Staff has probably changed, but I'd suggest that you check it out.

We love Rockridge Little School (the Taft one). We left another preschool to join this one because the first was too large and chaotic for our daughter - this one feels just right. About 31 kids total with 6 highly engaged teachers and she's really thrived. App deadline is coming up very soon. Happy to answer more questions at umbreen [at] gmail.com

If you're in or near Berkeley The Gay Austin School may be a good fit. It's a great program with just about 15 kids per age group (2-5) in separate classrooms. The teachers are top notch, children are nurtured and creativity is encouraged. It's play based for the most part but also Reggio-Emilia inspired.  My son went there for a year and we're sad to go when we moved.  Most of the toys are made of natural materials and the environment is very aesthetically pleasing. 

You should check out Sequoia Nursery School. It has everything you're looking for. 

It's a co-op, which may not be for everyone, but if you can make it work, sequoia is pure magic.  I think they are scheduling tours right now and I know they have room for three and four year olds next year.


I'm sorry to hear Waldorf didn't work out for you. I hope you find somewhere that suits your family's needs. 

As a Waldorf family ourselves I wanted to chime in and say this has not been our experience, rather we have been very happy with our children's schooling for the past five years. 

In my experience I would say children are encouraged to think about things for themselves before given a set adult answer. This helps them to build their own curiosity and understanding of the world versus looking at the world the same way previous generations already have. This helps them to be free thinkers, along with a curriculum that values care of our environment and community (among other things) the hope is that the children will grow into both conscientious individuals and active and contributing members of society who know how to be part of a group. 

I am sorry your experience didn't work out for you and understand different families have different needs. I had to chime in though as Waldorf has been a wonderful thing for our family and hope that my understanding of the rhyme for their reason might clarify things for those interested. Thank you. Feel free to DM me if you'd like to talk more. 

Respectfully - 

Highly recommend Children's Workshop Oakland.  Play based, engaging, snacks and lunch provided.  The teachers really connect with the kids and clearly love what they do.

Hello Hazel,

Take a look at Pine Crest in Kensington:  http://www.thepinecrestschool.com/

The teachers are fabulous and they embrace all that you mention in your post.

Sounds like you need Albany Preschool!  They are play-based, lots of outdoor time and all questions & exploring allowed!  Teachers are warm, attentive and really encourage questions, exploration and tons of play.  My daughter comes home dirty and with tons of art projects!  I know they are aware of toxins in toys so are particularly choosy about what's allowed at the school.  You can request a tour of the school from the website www.albanypreschool.org  and check it out yourself!  


I recommend you check out Albany Preschool. It's a play-based preschool with a Reggio-Emilia approach. Besides the great teachers and program, one of things I really liked about it is that the outdoor space is open most of the time, compared to some schools I toured where there were set recess times where all the kids went out at the same set time. At the schools with set recess times I found the indoor play areas a little too chaotic as there were kids running around that obviously need to be outside blowing off some steam.  My two daughters attended Albany Preschool at the same time - one was active and loved being outdoors in the sandbox, swing, riding trikes, whereas her quiet sibling preferred quieter play inside so the indoor/outdoor set up was perfect. Check out their Facebook page (link is on their website, www.albanypreschool.org) and you will get a good sense of what the school is about, and how children are allowed to explore and grow through play. It's a wonderful school!

we are a monteverde family and we love it. it's a reggio-emilia school in the elmwood district of berkeley and i absolutely could not be happier with it. in fact, i sometimes wonder if i had a third kid just so we could continue to be there. 

it is a larger school (30 kids) and initially i was worried about this, but it worked out wonderfully for us. there are multiple rooms, play areas and kids can be where they want so the only time they are all together is during circle time. the kids who prefer more quiet find those spaces, and the ones who need to run and climb and yell spend most of their day outside. in addition to a great play structure, we also have a garden and our beloved bongo--the "wild" space where kids can climb and have their "secret" meetings. all is visible by the adults, but it gives the children a feeling of getting away to climb up the hillside and do treasure hunts or make up adventures. 

there are about 10 or 11 teachers, so the ratio is excellent. plus each teacher appeals to different kids. and they are all wonderful with children. i have seen very shy, socially awkward kids come out of their shells and gain confidence and rowdy kids learn to chill out. they never raise their voices, i don't understand how they get 30 kids to settle and quiet down talking so softly. they just love children, you can see it in the way they interact with them. and not only that but they take their work very seriously and do tons of documenting. they hold wonderful parent education evenings where you get to learn about the reggio approach and how your child is exploring and learning. i can't even express how my children have blossomed there. they do such creative play, make tons of art, and are constantly encouraged by the teachers to question and have that moment of discovery. 

on top of all of this, it's a school that really tries to create a diverse student experience. they offer financial aid for families who need it and they try hard to represent many races and types of families. i love this about our school. we are a transracial adoptive family and this was huge for us. 

as far as environmentally healthy i would say they definitely so a good job. and i am obsessed with that stuff. i once spied a box of borax that they used to make gak with and i spoke with one of the teachers about the dangers of borax and they promptly changed to a safer formulation. it's not really toy based--they do have wood blocks and lots of trikes to ride and shovels to dig with. but i would stay they stay away from most plastics. and they are incredibly receptive to environmental health and safety concerns. 

it can be tough to get a spot, but if you have some time, i would definitely take a tour. 

I encourage to ask yourself why you want a school with a smaller class. It sounds like you have a curious child who loves to explore and who felt limited in his/her current space. A bigger school might be a better fit for him/her. My son went to Children's Community Center, a co-op preschool in North Berkeley. The classes are 26 kids each, and it was a bit of an adjustment at first, since my son is an introvert. But he absolutely thrived at CCC, where the teachers and parents go above and beyond to cultivate each child's curiosity. The CCC yard is huge and kids spend much of the time outdoors. 

As far as your environmental concerns, there are some plastic toys, but it's definitely not the majority. Also, nothing is brand-spanking-new so there wouldn't be much off-gassing. I know of families who were very concerned about toxic substances from particle board, new carpets, etc., and they were very happy at CCC. 

If you decide you like it, you can bring your child for a day to see if it's a good fit. 

My two (now 17 and 21) went to the wonderful Griffin Nursery School in Berkeley (near Alta  Bates) -- it's a magical small, nurturing, play-based school that's all about social-emotional development and building on kids' curiosity.  The kids can move freely between the inside and outside spaces.  The teachers provide opportunities for activities and projects throughout the day, but they also pay attention to what the kids are working on and then build on that.  For example there was a stretch where my daughter and friends were building a stage and putting on a production of the nutcracker (not for the parents or anything -- this all happened during the school day, and it went on for weeks).  I loved that school so much!!!