To many families, preschool is a chance for tots to get used to a classroom setting, carry a cute backpack, and make some haphazard art projects. But that's not always the case. In some of the nation's biggest cities, preschools with Ivy League-level prestige — and tuition — are giving even 3- and 4-year-olds the chance to learn a second language, play an instrument, or take a yoga class in fancy facilities that are a far cry from a church basement. Here's a look at 15 pricey preschools across the nation.
(Note: Ranges in tuition costs for some schools reflect a variety of programs offered, including half and full days, as well as other variables. Most schools, but not all, offer financial aid or tuition assistance programs.)
THE CHILDREN'S SCHOOL
Character development is a big selling point of The Children's School. Preschoolers are paired with older kids, called "Big Buddies," who are meant to model good behavior and citizenship. Also on the agenda: building skills in conflict resolution and temper management, and plenty of play-based learning and pretend with props. Students have access to five playgrounds as well as Atlanta's massive Piedmont Park, which is across the street.
GERMANTOWN FRIENDS SCHOOL
Germantown Friends accepts preschoolers on its main campus as well as at a new satellite campus in central Philadelphia, where kids enjoy a sleek movement studio complete with an indoor climbing wall, slide, monkey bars, and more. The curriculum emphasizes early literacy and math, hands-on science, and art; students are also exposed to Quaker principles like truthfulness and peaceful conflict resolution. After school, tots have the opportunity to participate in soccer, ballet, karate, and drama.
AVENUES WORLD SCHOOL
New York City
The curriculum at Avenues World School includes about 50 percent Chinese and Spanish immersion, and a "World Course" encourages preschoolers to explore their similarities and differences, and communities in their school, neighborhood, and city. A shiny new three-floor preschool facility includes a teaching kitchen, garden patio, and library geared exclusively for early readers. After-school enrichment includes robotics, chess, kung fu, ballet, and tennis.
NATIONAL CHILD RESEARCH CENTER
In the heart of Washington's leafy, pricey Cleveland Park neighborhood, the National Child Research Center follows a child-led curriculum with plenty of outdoor time. The school, which pioneered research on early-childhood behavior, also emphasizes inclusion and doesn't shy away from special-needs children. Enrichment options include Spanish immersion, and the school has educated children related to many D.C. luminaries, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt's grandson, Buzzie.
MARY INSTITUTE AND SAINT LOUIS COUNTRY DAY SCHOOL
On an expansive 100-acre campus, the youngest students at this independent school in St. Louis benefit from a child-led curriculum. They explore forest, desert, ocean and pond animal habitats, learn Spanish, and get ample outdoor time at a science garden and playground solely for younger students. After-school classes have included Lego, piano, ballet stories, alfresco art, and more, while holiday camps have included bowling, pottery, and trips to the trampoline park.
Children as young as 2 can enter Cambridge-Ellis, where a play-based curriculum is supplemented with robust arts and language programs. An optional afternoon language program offers immersion in either French, Mandarin, or Spanish, and includes teachers brought in via an exchange program with a preschool in Taiwan. An artist in residence works with preschoolers to explore handmade work relating to a special theme all year.
CENTER FOR EARLY EDUCATION
Located on an urban campus in West Hollywood, the Center for Early Education has a staggering five play areas, including two rooftop playgrounds. The broad curriculum includes a focus on service learning even at the youngest ages, with preschoolers helping prepare food and collect supplies for charities and shelters. Extensive after-school programs include classes like yoga and Spanish, play for preschoolers, and printmaking, robotics, drama, and "mad science" for older kids.
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO LABORATORY SCHOOLS
As their name suggests, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools are part of the world-renowned University of Chicago. Accordingly, they emphasize critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving wherever possible. Even preschoolers frequently journey beyond their own campus to the college's Botany Pond or libraries, or to Lake Michigan, or even the local comic-book shop. But staying on campus is pretty nice, too: It includes several playgrounds, a pool, a massive arts hall, and much more.
At Greenhill School, lucky preschoolers may not even realize they're learning thanks to an effort to incorporate play into almost everything. For instance, students have created their own post office, clinic, and even a rainforest inside the classroom. The preschool includes its own teaching kitchen and "maker spaces" as well. After school, classes like karate, yoga, tennis, and art await in the extended-day program.
Preschoolers who attend Presidio Knolls spend 80 percent of their class time immersed in Mandarin; even if they speak none at home, the school says kids reach full classroom understanding in very little time. The child-led curriculum also emphasizes social justice, hands-on learning, and frequent field trips around San Francisco. Enrichment options are varied even for the youngest kids, and have included Chinese calligraphy, theater, yoga, watercolor painting, and jewelry making.
ECOLE BILINGUE DE BERKELEY
Preschoolers as young as 2 can begin the mixed-age French immersion program at Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley. Classes focus on spoken language, writing, movement, and practical skills as diverse as gardening, measuring time, and working cooperatively. Though most instruction is in French, the curriculum includes five hours of "English time" each week. Students can order hot lunch from a catering company that makes each meal from scratch using organic produce and other food that's free of chemicals, preservatives, and trans fats.
GEMS WORLD ACADEMY
As its name suggests, Gems World Academy encourages even preschoolers to gain a global perspective by following an International Baccalaureate curriculum. Subject areas include Symbiosis (exploring how creatures include humans rely on one another), Roles and Responsibilities (exploring families, communities, and government), and world languages. The eye-popping modern campus includes an indoor climbing wall, parents' lounge with Wi-Fi and work space, a rooftop playground, and 70-inch touchscreens in every class.
BANK STREET SCHOOL FOR CHILDREN
New York City
Preschool isn't too early for kids at Bank Street School to start learning about social justice, a cornerstone of the curriculum. That includes simple lessons about sharing, pitching in, and activism, whether through classroom routines, class guests, or even puppet shows. Kids also get to explore their Upper West Side neighborhood through nature walks, trips to the market, and other outings. After-school options for older preschoolers have included golf, Mandarin, and tennis.
New York City
Parents pay big bucks for their tots to attend this traditional English school in a historic building across the street from Central Park, where preschoolers get to burn off energy every day. Even the smallest children are outfitted in uniforms — plaid dresses for girls, polo shirts and blazers for boys — and receive plenty of instruction in respect, responsibility, and manners. The British-inspired curriculum is broad, but introduces math and literacy very early on. Preschoolers even have the opportunity to begin independent piano lessons during school (but it will cost extra — ouch).
BRITISH INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL
New York City
The eye-popping tuition at the British International School of New York does come with some impressive digs for tots: The Manhattan campus overlooks the East River and includes two playgrounds (one rooftop, one by the water). Preschoolers are outfitted in traditional uniforms and eat from-scratch lunches that include everything from fish tacos to roasted kale. Their curriculum includes French, Spanish, and swimming lessons at an on-site pool.