Play-Based Preschools

Parent Q&A

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  • Hi everyone,

    I am looking for recommendations for outdoor play based preschools/daycare for my LO who turns 18 months in January. 

    I am looking for a half day program for 5 days, preferably in North Oakland or Berkeley

    I looked through a lot of the older posts but couldn't find too many recent posts for 18 month olds which were half days. 

    Thanks a lot!

    Hi! My son went to a home run daycare from 18 months to 3yo. It was play based with heavy emphasis on being outdoors and he totally loved it! Look for Greenhouse run by André, he is simply amazing!

    Try Keiki’s Corner on Euclid in the Berkeley Hills. I know that they have a 5 day/week opening available right now and their regular hours go from 8:30 am to 1:30 pm. They take kids starting at 18 months. Dianne is the owner. We toured today for a 3 day/week spot and it seems like a very lovely daycare.

    Berkeley Little School opened a toddler program for 18 months+, and they offer a few different schedule options including a half day option, 5 days a week. It's not entirely outdoors, but they have a nice outdoor area and spend a lot of time outside during the day. It's based in North Berkeley on Hopkins close to Monterey Market.

    Our daughter started there in the toddler program in May, and recently moved to the 2-year old group, and we love it! I think they still have a few spots open in the toddler program right now if you want to check it out

  • Hi Fellow Mamas,

    My daughter is 4.5 and just stated a TK program through OUSD. After being there for a few weeks, I am looking to change to something that will be more play based, outdoors with the flexibility to drop in if possible or go just a few days a week.

    This time is precious, I want her to still have a a very free, creative place to go. She will be in Kindergarten next year. If you know of any places like this please let me know.

    Ever so kindly,


    My children loved the outdoor space and play focus at the New School of Berkeley.  I don't think they have a "drop-in" program but I believe they have openings for the oldest preschool group.

    Hi Laura,

    I highly recommend my kiddo's preschool Children's Community Center - it is a play based co-operative that offers indoor/outdoor play + the opportunity for a caregiver to participate 1 or more times a week. The main program is a morning program from 9a - 12:30p with the option to add additional time if you so chose/need. It's 5 days a week but you don't have to attend all 5 days if that doesn't work for your schedule. There are still 1 or 2 spots in the Backyard class. More info here:

    Let me know if you have any questions!

    Check out Beatie St preschool, they have a TK and could possibly have an opening.

    A preschool that may fit what you're looking for that I highly recommend is Berkeley Hills Nursery School (BHNS). My 4.5 year old is in his second year and we all love it. His second year started on Tuesday and he's so happy to be back. They are entirely play based, and I would describe the experience as free, creative, loving, nurturing, and active. They are outside a large part of the time. They take "field trips" to walk around the neighborhood and even occasional trips to the UCB campus. They also get to play in the adjoining Grizzly Peak Park.

    BHNS is not "drop in," so the tuition is for a 5-day per week program, but you can send your daughter for less time.

    Like you, if my son were eligible for TK this year, I would opt to stick with BHNS so that he could have another year of his very young childhood in this special place. You can see reviews for this school on BPN.

    Good luck!


    Hi, we love our son's preschool - Sheffield Preschool in Berkeley, near Willard Park. I'm not sure about drop in (might be possible) but you can choose any number of days or half days per week. Most of the children go part time. It's very play-based and they spend hours outside in the beautiful backyard/play area every day. It's a small group of only ~10 children and I know they are looking for a few more for this coming year. The kids are mostly in the 3.5-4.5 range so your daughter would fit right in. Feel free to message me directly if that would be helpful.

  • Hi BPN!

    We are looking for a daycare/school for our daughter who recently turned 2. Not sure if we are asking for too much, but we are hoping to find:

    • Play-based - ideal would be if the owner / teachers are familiar with or just naturally follow a RIE or child-led approach
    • Spanish-immersion
    • Serves healthy lunches and snacks - I know healthy is subjective, we mainly just care about added sugar 
    • Somewhere in Berkeley

    Anyone know of a unicorn place that meets some or all of these criteria? Thank you so much!

    Try Wawasi in Albany? They speak Spanish with the kids, though not immersion, and serve healthy food. My kid ate vegetables there that he never ate at home. They’re mostly play based but I think they did do some basic letter and number stuff. 

    New School is not Spanish-immersion, but they are an excellent play-based preschool in Berkeley that does not allow added sugar.  They serve hearty healthy snacks but don't provide lunch.  My kids went there and thrived.

    I can highly recommend two such pre-schools.  La Familia is owner run in her home, very loving, and homemade healthy food -- a great community!  We loved it.  She doesn't have a webiste, but knows child development and each child's need.…

    The other one is a coop.  Las Semillitas.

    KSS in Albany offers a play based Spanish immersion preschool starting at 2.  It is in Memorial Park near Solano Ave and only a few blocks over the Berkeley border.

    Via Nova near Ashby BART may be a good fit. You would be providing the food, but it meets the other criteria. 

    You might try Arbor Berkeley or Oakland, both are on the border between Berkeley and Oakland. They are not immersion, but they do Spanish-English, and they are very open and play-based, with many parents that are into RIE. Their snacks and activities for the kids are more diverse than most places, and they don't do junk food or sugary snacks. They also focus on a lot of outdoor time, which my kid loves. 

    They start at 2.5 and are good up to about age 4 to 4.5. They are great with the younger kids, but don't have anyone on staff for TK, and have a required 2 hour nap/rest which doesn't work for a lot of the older kids as they outgrow nap. This is a general issue with preschools though, so if you're kid's not a great napper, or won't go to bed after napping, 1/2 preschool (if that's an option), or a preschool that has a program that goes through K or later can work better because they usually don't require the nap after 4. Some of the Montessori preschools are 3-6, which seems to work better for the older kids, but universal TK seems to be making leaving preschool early a more popular option. The only other warning about Arbor is that they're just a couple years old, so things are not entirely ironed out yet with the management and processes, and they have shorter hours than most places with extended care. 

    Another popular option for Spanish immersion is EBI, which is a certified international baccalaureate that starts in preschool and goes through grade 8. There are lots of reviews of EBI online since they've been around longer. Applications are in the winter for the following fall. Mi Mundo is another preschool on the Oakland/Berkeley border, and small like Arbor. There are other Spanish language preschools around, and many have reviews on Berkeley Parent's Network. It's best to check them out in person though, because that's the best way to get a feeling about fit for your family. 

    Check out arbor! Their Berkeley location in the southeast corner of Berkeley has been amazing for our kiddo. If you want more info about our experience, let me know

    Our son goes to Kidsland Berkeley and we absolutely love it. Feel free to message me if you have any questions, otherwise I highly recommend reaching out to Ana and doing a tour. Facility is super clean and my child lights up every time we walk up to the door—he loves his teachers and it’s mixed ages which I think is so great for development. Good luck!

  • Hello, I am looking for a daycare or preschool program where my daughter can attend from age 2 until TK.  It seems like many of the programs are either half days or don't start until age 3 and I would like to minimize transitions for her and us.  Ideally we are looking for something play-based with lots of outdoor time, perhaps Waldorf-inspired or with an emergent curriculum when it's developmentally appropriate.  Location in Rockridge, Piedmont, North Oakland, or South Berkeley would be great.  We are planning to get on waitlists now (i.e., we don't need a current opening).  Thanks so much.  

    Duck's Nest, KSS Spanish Immersion, Heart's Leap to name a few. We looked into Duck's Nest specifically because it offers a TK program. 

    Hearts Leap! The Hearts Leap Beginnings program starts with infants. My son is currently in the 2-year-old classroom. Then they graduate to the preschool the year they turn 3. It's in the Julia Morgan Theater on College Ave. near Elmwood. They are play-based and focus on the kids social and emotional development. They definitely have a waiting list. 

    We love Step One School in Berkeley and they have a 2s classroom. North Berkeley though.

  • 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. 

    In our experience, Big Trees Play School has everything you’re looking for. The website is pretty bare bones, but don’t let that fool you. The director is wonderful.

    I wanted to give the strongest of recommendations for Semillas School in Richmond, and it seems like a match for what you’re seeking.  It is a truly wonderful play-based in-home preschool. They have been based in Oakland but are relocating to Richmond near the Arts Center in May 2021. My daughter was 1.5 when she started, and she felt so safe and happy there. She was excited to go to school every day.

    The children spend loads of time outdoors - exploring and playing and learning and going out on adventures -  in a way that feels wild and free. The school’s founder Elisa and her mother Paula are an amazing team and have put together a group of loving and supportive teachers. Their philosophy is play, and they gently support children in navigating social and emotional learning. The teachers and children are diverse and the school is socially-conscious.  I can’t recommend them highly enough and I’m so excited for the families in Richmond area who will be discovering the gem that is Semillas!

    You can reach Elisa at: semillaschool [at]

    Pine Crest School in Kensington is a good choice. My children go there and it's very outdoor play-based. My children have thrived. 

    Thank you everyone for the great recommendations! I am so glad I asked and will continue to research these suggestions!

  • 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!

    Our 2yo started at Step One School in Berkeley in September and absolutely loves it. I fell in love with it when we toured last January, mostly for their lovely little hillside play area with trees, a small pond and stream, treehouse lookout, and adorable playground (including a small separate playground for the 2yos). They are definitely more play-based and child-led; in my daughter's classroom this week they're doing some activities around taking care of babies since a lot of the kids seemed interested in baby dolls and some have baby siblings on the way. I love that they follow the interests of the kids and create "lessons" and activities around things they're already showing interest in. I know they have some openings for ages 2-5 right now so you should look into it if it seems like a good option! Feel free to send me a message if you want more info.

    It's been years since my children were in preschool, but we had a great experience with New School in north Berkeley.  It's play-based, and children have a great deal of freedom to choose their own activities. Playing outside is always one of the options - no need to wait for a specific recess or outdoor time.  Pre-Covid, they also had weekly field trips to local parks, as well as walking over to Totland for lunch once a week. For our family, it was a perfect fit.   

    Right next to PineCrest (literally) is The Good Earth School.  It is an outdoor, nature based preschool for kids 18months - 6 (right now with kindergarten closures).

    My two year old attends and they take hikes, they have a large outdoor area for play, and their activities are heavily based with items from nature.  She's not the most outdoor kid, but she's still loving it as do I to balance out the fact that we have no yard.  She comes home dirty (from enjoyment, not due to lack of care) and having had a "happy day" - in her words.

    Hi there! Our 3-1/2 year old daughter has attended the Yellow House Playschool in Oakland both pre- and post-COVID. YHP is a very small, play-based program run out of the director’s home and we received no fewer than four unsolicited recommendations for it from acquaintances and family friends.

    Since it reopened in June, it’s been even smaller and 100% outside. As it gets colder/rainy, they’ll go indoors more but I expect they’ll still spend time outdoors playing and going for walks in the neighborhood. It’s definitely not forest school, and it’s part-time hours, but it’s a wonderful program and feels very safe and supportive during this uncertain time. 

    I want to add that I went to Montessori school for part of my childhood and it was formative for me. However, we decided play-based was better for our shy toddler and it’s been an amazing fit. Her imagination, curiosity, and self-confidence have blossomed, as have her social skills.

    Best of luck and please reach out if you have any questions about YHP!

    I adore our preschool, Via Nova in Berkeley (right by Ashby BART station).  After my son went to a montessori preschool, I moved him to Via Nova (based on a friends recommendation), and it was the best decision!   He completely blossomed, was utterly engaged, and often begged to stay longer at pick him. My daughter is now in her second year, and Via nova continues to be an amazing place for kids to thrive.  While now my son is "distance learning" 3rd grade at home, I am so glad my daughter gets the regularity and fun of her dear friends and teachers at preschool.  Via Nova is our extended family.  My son wishes he could go back!   My kids are different, but both benefitted and loved the outside play, involved and elaborate art projects, and deeply supportive social environment.  We are so grateful.

    Thank you everyone for your very thoughtful and detailed reviews of school options. My list of schools to tour has now grown considerably. I'll DM you if I need more info on a specific school. All the best, and hoping you all stay safe during these uncertain times.

    Just wanted to put in a plug in for CEC in the flats of Berkeley. They are historically reasonably priced, play-based, and in non-COVID times they have been piloting a forest school for the older kids (TK year type of thing). I believe there are openings right now, and we've been happy there for over 2 years. 

    My son is at MCPC, a co-op preschool in Oakland, and having an amazing experience. He also started at a more structured preschool and just didn't seem to love it. Fast-forward to year two at MCPC and it is his favorite place to be. His first question every morning upon awakening is 'Do I get to go to school today?' The kids have tons of free play where they get to decide exactly what they want to do mixed with a little bit of circle time/teacher led activities to get used to taking turns, listening etc.

    We've been at the school through COVID and have been thoroughly impressed with their transition to an almost completely outdoor school day. My son was actually sad that it wasn't raining today because he had so much fun playing outside in the rain. The school already had a huge outdoor area and now it is used almost exclusively. Everyone has been very thoughtful about every aspect of reopening in a way to keep families and teachers safe and we have a COVID community agreement in place as well.

    The thing we have been the most impressed with, however, is the social emotional learning and anti-bias curriculum. Our son is learning at age 4 how to problem solve and communicate with his peers in a way my older child never did. He's also already getting the message that people have similarities and differences, in the ways they look, how they behave and what their belief systems are — and they are all to be celebrated. MCPC is truly a gem, please check it out!

  • 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!

    Hi. Our three daughters attended Step One (each for 3 years) with our youngest just graduating in August. We (and they!) had an incredible experience. I didn't know a lot about play-based programs prior to attending, but I've come to fully believe in the importance of this curriculum, especially at a young age. I feel that b/c of Step One our girls learned how to socialize with others (working through conflicts, etc), gain confidence in themselves, appreciate differences and -- thanks to S1's nurturing environment -- come away with a love of school and learning. Step One does expose children to letters, etc as part of the curriculum, especially for those who will be attending K the following year. But -- in my opinion -- this is less important. All of our daughters came away more than prepared for their school experiences at Prospect Sierra...but I attribute this to the strong social/emotional intelligence that Step One (and the play based curriculum) fostered...not b/c they got a head start on academics. Hope that's helpful! Good luck!

  • 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.

    If your daughter will be 2 years and 9 months by the time she starts, I highly recommend Monteverde. It's in South Berkeley and attracts a very diverse group of families from across Oakland and Berkeley. It’s a Reggio Emilia school, so activities are play- and project-based, very hands-on, and creative. The “curriculum” follows the kids’ interests and they get lots of variety and choice. 

    In terms of play, the outdoor space is amazing—there’s a lovely garden, room to race tricycles, and a semi-wild little hillside that the kids love. There’s also a big indoor space for tumbling, climbing, dancing, yoga, etc. They also have a dedicated art teacher, weekly music, storytelling, science experiments, theater, cooking, crafts, critters—you name it. I’ve seen both outgoing, active kids and shy, introspective kids thrive at Monteverde because they’re free to explore whatever they’re drawn to, with the full acceptance and support of an amazing group of teachers. 

    There isn’t a Spanish language program per se, but they do incorporate some Spanish, as well as sign language. Families are also encouraged to share their own language, food, holidays, and traditions. 

    Other aspects of Monteverde that we appreciated: their emphasis on social-emotional development (resilience, respect, kindness), a mixed-age grouping that allows kids to both learn from and lead others, flexible schedule options, and a lower cost than most of the schools we looked at, with scholarships available. 

    There’s also just an incredible amount of love and joy at Monteverde. Our whole family felt lucky to be part of this amazing community and I couldn’t imagine a better preschool. 

    I'll second Sequoia Nursery School.  My son went there a few years ago and it has a large and super nice outdoor space. 

    I sent my boy to Escuela Bilingüe Internacional located in North Oakland on Alcatraz/Telegraph.  It's a Spanish immersion play-based preschool which then continues on K-8th grade if desired.  They have a relatively new outdoor space that my boy loved.  He never wanted to leave there after school.  Many of his closest friendships were developed there that have continued on until today.  The teachers were like warm aunties to him and made him feel like school was a second home.  Within a week after starting preschool there, he was asking me, "Daddy, why can't I spend more time at EBI?"

    Broadway Children's School is a wonderful play based preschool with a large outdoor play area. It is located on Adams Street in the Lake Merritt district, and has been serving Oakland families for over 60 years. It has been such a warm, loving and safe environment for my son who is now in his second year there. They also have a parent participation class for 2 year olds, which includes weekly parent education and discussion groups. Not sure if there are any current openings but might be something to look into. I can't say enough wonderful things about this school. The teachers at Broadway offer just enough structure, leaving room for playful exploration based on the individual child's needs. It is a nurturing environment for young minds, and I feel so fortunate to have my son attend.

  • 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. 

    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:

    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  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, 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!!!

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