The answer is, it depends. Since there is no standard registration/admissions policy for preschools (unlike college or grad school), is also no set timeline. Generally speaking, however, there are two times you should seriously be thinking about and applying to schools.
1) As Early as Possible – for Waiting List Preschools
OK this is probably not the most specific answer, but if you have preschools with waiting lists in your area, chances are they start accepting applications the day your child is born. If it’s a daycare that takes infants and for a FEW other preschools out there, as crazy as it sounds, families can submit applications when the child is in utero.
This does not necessarily mean that if your child has already started crawling, you’re too late and you’ve ruined any chance they have. Even in super competitive cities like New York and Los Angeles, putting your child on the list a year or year and a half before you want them to enroll is pretty safe at most places. I can talk about it more in a future post, but plenty of schools also consider how committed the parents are to enrolling when deciding who to give the next open spot to. It’s not necessarily all about how early the application was received.
And remember, just because a school is known for their super long waiting list, that doesn’t mean they’re the “best” school out there. Never forget that the best preschool is the one that is the best fit for your child!
2) 1 to 1 ½ years Before Your Child Will Enroll – for Regular Admission Preschools
For nursery schools that don’t have wait lists, registration forms/applications are generally due between the December-April prior to the September start date. (Note: If a school lets kids enter year round rather than just in September, chances are they use a waiting list system.)
That means you should researching two summers before the year your child will start. Right now (July 2009), for instance, is a good time to start looking into which schools fit your needs if your child will start in September 2010 so in a few months when it’s time to sign up for tours and schmooze at preschool fairs, you’ll know which schools are on your short list.