Play-Based Preschools

Parent Q&A

Diverse Play-based, Outdoor Focused Daycare for 2 yrs Mar 16, 2021 (7 responses below)
Looking for a Nature rich, play based Pre-K Jan 31, 2021 (3 responses below)
Looking for preschool with more nature & play-based activities Nov 9, 2020 (11 responses below)
Looking for play-based preschool in Berkeley Nov 1, 2018 (4 responses below)
Play based preschool recommendations in Oakland? Sep 13, 2018 (7 responses below)
Looking for play-based environmentally-sound preschool Jan 23, 2017 (12 responses below)
  • Hi friends,

    I have been searching the site for daycares for our 2 year old that takes part-time initially to full-time in the Fall 2021. We are looking for a diverse environment focused on play and outdoor activities with a smaller pods. If you have any good recs for me, please send them my way. We love art, music, sports, reading and it would be great to find a play-based, socially conscious environment for our toddler to thrive and socialize.

    We'd like it to be as close to Richmond (north and east) or Oakland (47th and Martin Luther King Jr Way). BIPOC, Queer-friendly preferred.

    I would recommend contacting Kathy at Applejacks daycare on Hill St in El Cerrito, google says it’s closed but that’s not true! 510-253-9155. My daughter attended there and it’s play based, beautiful outdoor space and kind loving staff. Home cooked lunches, WOC owned, always a diverse group of kiddos. 

    We have our almost 2 year old son at Good Earth School in El Cerrito and we're loving it! Happy to answer more questions. 

    I would look into Skytown. It is a co-op. Affordable. Tons of outdoor time and play based. In Richmond. In our experience, it has a lot of heart and community. 

  • Looking for a Nature rich, play based Pre-K

    (3 replies)

    I'm looking into pre schools for our almost 2 year old. Ideally a diverse school with lots of outside play. Any suggestions? I know EBWS isn't the most diverse but I'm, drawn to other aspects. However I don't know when they're reopening, or if we could get enough financial aid. So I'm looking for other suggestions. Ideally a campus that has lots of dirt & trees or is at least close to it. Thanks!

    Pine Crest School in Kensington meets this criteria!

    Not sure if you are located near North Berkeley/Kensington, but both Pinecrest School and The Good Earth School are on 9 acres in the hills (located next to each other) and the kids are outside everyday. My kiddos went there and always came home with stories of hiking, climbing trees, finding bugs, and covered in dirt. They loved it. Note- both schools are more expensive than the other schools we toured, but we wanted the kids to be in nature. 

    I'm not sure where you're located, but I highly recommend Sequoia Nursery School in Oakland

  • Hello, fellow east bay parents.

    Our 3 year old daughter is currently attending a Montessori school, and while she does enjoy her teachers and classmates, she seems a little bored and understimulated by the curriculum and structure. She has shown signs of needing more play-based activities (pretend play, self-discovery activities, etc.)  and generally more time outdoors. She really thrives when she's in nature. We were curious about the Pine Crest School in Kensington, but there isn't much information about it online. I also wanted to hear from parents who may have other recommendations, and how these preschools are operating during COVID-19.


    My kids adored Redwood Garden Preschool in Berkeley. Just 6 kids and a fantastic Waldorf teacher. Gentle, loving, supportive, & lots of outside time. Not sure current status with pandemic.

    We had a marvelous experience at the East Bay Waldorf school last year. They're closed this year due to COVID-related expenses and income loss proving too burdensome, but if you're open to a little bit of ambiguity going forward you might keep an eye on their website to see what their plans are for the 2021-2022 year. If they're able to reopen, it sounds like they'd be EXACTLY what you're looking for for your daughter. You might also check out Berkeley Rose, the other Waldorf school in the East Bay, which I believe is open now in some capacity.

    Hi there, my son attends Pine Crest and we like a lot of things about it — they spend a ton of time outside (nature walks every day, a great outdoor space) and are very self-directed in their play. All kids wear masks and stay within their pods, though the teachers (also masked) periodically move around to help out with the other classes. On balance the sheer amount of outdoor time has been the biggest pro, both for our particular kid and in general since Covid started. We were much more comfortable sending him back to school knowing that he'd be outdoors more than in. Feel free to DM me if you'd like to talk more!

  • I’m looking at preschools for next year for my 3 year old daughter, especially Step One and Berkeley Hills Nursery School. They both claim to be play-based, but we would also like our daughter to be exposed to numbers, letters, shapes etc before she heads off to kindergarten. If you sent your kid to either one of these schools, what was your experience of them learning letters, numbers, shapes, and beginning letter writing?

    I sent both my kids to BHNS. They learned basic counting, the alphabet and how to write their names. Loved it there!

    I sent my child to Step One and it was perfect for him.  He was incredibly shy, and Step One brought him out of his shell!  He was exposed to numbers, letters, shapes, and beginning letter writing, etc. before K and now he is in K at Jefferson School in Berkeley and doing wonderfully. What I loved most is how much Step One emphasized empathy and caring for self and others.  I felt like he was extremely prepared to create new, strong social relationships based on his beliefs and natures, not what other kids were doing. The teachers are also incredible, responsive, and loving.  It is such an amazing community! I personally have made life-long parent friends!

    We sent both our son and daughter to Step One. Step One does not impose a specific didactic but creates an environment where each child is able to develop their love of learning in the way that works best for them. So my son did not start writing when he left Step One, but he rapidly picked it up in kindergarten and is now doing very well academically (in gr 3). My daughter on the other hand, was very interested in learning letters, numbers etc and so she graduated Step One with good skills in those areas. 

    We absolutely loved Step One for the all-round development it gave our kids - building their love of learning, their social skills and helping them truly learn through the play based methodology. Highly recommended!

  • Can anyone recommend a play based preschool with a nice outdoor space in Oakland that your children love? Spanish is also a plus. Our daughter is 2, and we're looking for May 2019. Thanks!

    Sequoia Nursery School.  They don't enroll mid-year, only in September, but it is worth the wait.  The best outdoor space you have seen at a preschool.  Loving teachers.  Engaged parents.  I had four children go through there and they all say it was the best school they ever went to.  

    Information Night is usually held in January.

    Our son started at Storybrook Oakland this school year.  It is play based and they have an amazing outdoor space.  They have a cooking/farming teacher and art teacher in addition to the classroom teachers.  My son loves it there!

    Skyline Preschool at the UCC church on Skyline (but not religious), fantastic outdoor space.  Bloomers in Glenview has a nice space, but it's just the backyard of a house.  We loved both, but that was 12-14 years ago.  Both basically play based.

  • Hello All, 

    Our daughter is turning 2 in August and I would like to find her a great part-time preschool (maybe 2 days per week). I prefer a less strict, more play-based, warm, nurturing and loving environment. Ideally this place would have a small class size, access to gardening, pets, outdoor play and arts and crafts. We live in the Hiller Highlands so anywhere from Rockridge, Berkeley, Orinda, Lafayette, etc would be great.

    We've already applied at St. Stephens and the Mulberry School. Any feedback or other recs would be greatly appreciated.


    My daughter attended the Lake School in Oakland.  She / we loved it.

    "Hug-a Bug" preschool in the El Cerrito Hills. Nancy Kelleher is a brilliant magician with young children with 40 years experience, The curriculum is nature/play based. My daughter is now an Honors student at St Mary's Highschool and still considers Hug-a-Bug as one of the parts of her life. Highly recommended.

    Lafayette Nursery School is wonderful--and a co-op.

  • 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! 

    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]

    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. 

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Seeking a small, warm, play-based preschool

Oct 2015

We're starting to research preschools for next year and are feeling overwhelmed by all the options! Thought I'd post here about what we're looking for and see whether anyone has any suggestions. Our daughter will be almost 3 when she starts, so we'd like three half-days a week in a small, warm play-based program that nurtures creativity and exploration but doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Ideally, it'd also have a nice outdoor space, an emphasis on healthy food, and bonus points for Spanish! We're very interested in co-ops (but it doesn't absolutely have to be a co-op). Thanks, wise BPN families!
Preschool Researcher

Hi there! My daughter just graduated from the El Cerrito Preschool Coop (ECPC) and I'm in again with my second daughter. It is a magical place and I highly recommend that you check it out. My older daughter grew leaps and bounds at ECPC and she is now thriving in kindergarten. It's a play based school with unparalleled grounds. It's a very loving environment and a really unique way of building a network of friends for your child and your family. I think the prices are very reasonable for the area. We're having our Open House October 17th from 10-12. I am happy to talk to you more about it. Feel free to email me! Tina

Albany Preschool meets your listed wishes: In my 4th and final year there with 2nd child. It's a great school. happy aps parent

I have nothing but a glowing recommendation for Skytown Cooperative Preschool. It is located in Kensington (just next to the Berkeley Hills), and has a play-based, child led, emergent curriculum. There is a large indoor and outdoor space, which the children are free to explore. The outdoor space has a play structure, tons of sand, a tire swing, many many plants that attract all manner of birds, bugs, and butterflies, and fosters lots of creativity. The school is on a secluded hillside with a beautiful view, and the children often go on walks around the property, climb trees, and pick flowers when they are in bloom. There is yoga and dance once a week for interested kids. The teachers are fantastic and truly honor and respect the spirit and development of each child. Also, I love the level of parent education that is provided on early childhood education and the lovely support within the community. It's a co-op, so there is a lot of participation expected, but that's what keeps the fees low. You can ''buy out'' of whatever you feel you is too much of a time commitment. It's a special preschool, and I whole-heartedly suggest checking it out! preschool co-op mom

I highly recommend Griffin Nursery School. It is a lovely, play-based pre-school that provides our little ones with the opportunity to play and explore and grow. The director, Betsey Nachman is so incredibly thoughtful about the needs of 3,4 and 5 year olds. She and all of the teachers are particularly attuned to their social and emotional needs. There is a nice outdoor space that has some covering as well as heat so that the kids can go outside in any weather. My son spent two years there and flourished. My daughter is there now and is so excited about school. It's really special. It is on Prince, right at Telegraph in south Berkeley. Good luck in this process! Feel free to email me if you have any questions about the school. leigh

Please check out El Cerrito Preschool Cooperative (ECPC). My 3 year old just started this year and we couldn't be happier with our choice. It's play based and child-directed with a vibrant and welcoming community. The school's philosophy is focused on allowing children to develop their social and emotional skills while learning through exploration and play. The school is bright and air with a seemingly endless supply of creative activities and manipulatives. The 2 play yards are impressive and large. And most importantly the teachers are wonderful and highly experienced. Spanish, Music & Yoga are each offered once a week (and included in the tuition). You can choose morning, afternoon or full day with a minimum of 3 days a week. Since it's a co-op the tuition is very reasonable. We currently pay $330 for 3 days 8:30-12. It's a really special place. If you can make it please come to our Fall Open House on October 17th from 10-12 to experience a day at ECPC. The school is located at 7200 Moser Ln. El Cerrito. Loving ECPC

We are in our final year at CCC, Children's Community Center, in North Berkeley, and we have LOVE-LOVE-LOVED every single minute of it. It is a co-op and is play-based. The teachers are amazing and nurturing, guiding a program that really supports the child in developmentally appropriate ways (which means that the teachers and community fully recognize that each child is on her/his own developmental/social schedule and supports that). It is a gem of a place physically, just magical, with tons of outdoor space to run around and PLAY in. The community of families, kids and parents is like one big, welcoming, extended family. The only thing that might not work in your case is that it's a five-day program, from 9am-12:30pm (and with the option to extend the day(s) to 3:30pm or 5:30pm). The connections run deep, as there are four preschoolers here this year whose parents were students at CCC when they were preschoolers, a few decades ago! My husband and I pinch ourselves sometimes because we feel so fortunate to be a part of this community. Our motto is, ''Even if we did absolutely nothing else right as parents, we got one thing right and that's sending our child to CCC.'' Happy CCC Camper

Looking for a play-based, diverse preschool for my daughter

March 2015

Here is what we are looking for. To begin in the fall. I realize applications are already due for most and people are on waitlists at many places, but maybe people can chime in with some suggestions. 1) a fairly unstructured environment with lots of time for free play but a bit of "circle" or organized time mixed in. Time for music, arts, and hands-on projects a must. 2) Maximum outdoor time!! 3) Small group environment; my daughter gets somewhat overwhelmed when there are too many different kids and energies in the same space and really thrives on individualized attention 4) a mix of socioeconomic levels represented. We cannot afford to pay a lot for preschool, so I would love the school to appreciate that and represent that in in its tuition. I know the more expensive schools offer scholarships, but I would rather not be one of the only working class families with children attending there. 5) I am not opposed to a co-op, but we are about to have a second child (in July), so anything above a monthly commitment seems out of reach right now 6) Looking for 2-3 days, 4-6 hours a day. 7) Located in Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, but willing to travel to Albany, El Cerrito, or Richmond

You should check out Albany Preschool. I know for a fact they still have openings in the Afternoon Program (1pm - 4:30). It is a co-op, but the afternoon doesn't require parent participation in the classroom. You just have to have a family job (averages 4 hours a month), help w/ the fundraiser (time, not money), work one maintenance day (on a Saturday and you can choose your day out of a couple) and attend the monthly parent meeting in the evening that's only an hour. Let them know you will have an infant and they will try to give you an ''easier'' family job like laundry. It's play based with opening and closing circle, and there are a couple of great music and movement teachers that come. One thing I love about the school is that the outdoor area is always open during free play time, there's no ''recess'' time like some schools I visited. It's even usually open when it's raining unless it's raining really hard because they have a covered area. The teachers are fantastic and it's a great community of parents. You can check it out at anon

I'd recommend Happy Together on the Oakland-Piedmont border. The staff seems happy to be there and are always friendly and pleasant. My child brings home both new Spanish and Hebrew words. There is a slight emphasis on Jewish culture, which I appreciate even though we don't attend temple etc. i feel like it's good exposure to multicultural environments. I love their emphasis on nonviolent communication. They are very willing to address concerns and are very flexible with helping children adapt or address personal issues. I feel completely at ease with my child in their care!

I think The Model School in south Berkeley meets most of your criteria. And since they enroll year-round, you don't have to worry about missing the boat for Fall 2015. It might be a little larger than what you're looking for, since they have 5-6 classrooms (ranging in age from infant to Pre-K), but of course, your child will be in one classroom with a known group of students. They do art and music and circle time and have lots of free play. I think they could offer a little more outdoor time, but overall, it is a wonderful school. The hours are amazingly flexible (I don't think you will find a school with more flexible hours) and the cost is low by Berkeley standards (hence the school offers more diversity than many). My daughter is now in first grade and still reminisces about Teacher Alice in Pre-K 2. Model School fan

Hi Rachel, I would recommend you take a tour of the Broadway Children's School of Oakland which is located in the Lake Merritt area of Oakland. It is a play based preschool and only offers a part-time program. My daughter attends 3 days a week. The class is from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. They do offer extended care until 3:00 p.m. The school is a non-profit, so they do encourage parents to volunteer but it is not required. The teachers are fabulous and have lots of experience and education. The tuition is reasonable and there is scholarship money for families that need it. Please check out their website at Dharma