Update: I wrote this post during the first two years we were in France. My daughter was 4 and 5 back in 2011 and 2012, and a lot has changed. So I have updated it to reflect the current changes.
First, general info about preschool in France
Preschool in France is called école maternelle. Pronounced [ay-kole ma-terre-nel]
Unlike the U.S. and Canada, preschool is fully sponsored from the age of 3 to 6 years old. (it’s free). Preschool is not mandatory, but most parents do send their kids to preschool from about three onward, especially if they work.
There are three levels of pre-school (école maternelle)
- Small sections = Petite section – (3 to 4 years olds)
- Middle section= Moyenne section -( 4 to 5-year-olds)
- Big or high section = Grande section – (5 to 6 years old)
Our daughter attended Moyenne (middle section) in Marseille and la grande section in a town called La Garde. After preschool, she was promoted to CP, which is the first official year of primary school. It’s comparable to Kindergarten in North America.
How Long Is A Preschool Day / Week?
Pre-school students generally start at 8:30 in the morning until 4:20 in the afternoon. Some start a little 15 minutes earlier, or 15 minutes later, it just depends on the school.
Kids go to school every day, EXCEPT Wednesday.
**Update: As of 2015, primary school kids now have a half-day on Wednesdays. They usually finish up just before lunch at 11:30 is.
On the surface, this may sound like a long day, but there are several things to consider here.
1-If you’re a working parent in France, you would have to put your kids in before and after school care. Having a longer day at school means that many parents don’t have to send their kids to after-school care, or they can minimize the amount of after-school care needed.
2-Wednesday’s are a half-day. This is the day many kids do their sports activities—dancing, judo, football (soccer) etc.
3- Lunch is about one and a half to two hours long, and the kids have several breaks throughout the day to play and run around.
Preschool Lunch: The makings of future foodies
The French Take Food Seriously
One thing to note is the French take their lunchtime very seriously. People in France generally eat slower. They eat smaller portions and take longer breaks for lunch. They also enjoy GOOD FOOD. This slower and eat better food culture can bee seen at the preschool level.
Up to two hours for lunch break, which is eaten at “La Cantine” (cafeteria).
The first 45 minutes to an hour is spent eating and the rest playing with friends in the yard.
Not all kids eat at La Cantine.
Many parents pick their kids up at lunchtime and then return them to school at the end of 2 hours. The longer lunch break makes it possible for parents to drive to pick up the kids with plenty of time to eat together.
Meals cost about 3,50 to 4,25 depending on the preschool, and you usually pay a month in advance for your child’s meals. Some parents pay less. It just depends on your income.
What is “La Cantine” Like?
At the two schools my daughter attended, the kids sit at a round table with real plates and utensils. No Styrofoam or plastic utensils.
The cantinière (lunch ladies) come around and place napkins around the children’s necks before serving the kids food as you would at home: family-style.
Serve Food Family Style Just Like At Home.
Each lunch lady has several huge serving platters and bowls from which she serves each child. There are usually five different food items that each child gets, not including bread. (see menu below).
The food looks surprisingly delicious, like something made with love at home, probably because much of the food is prepared on-site and served family-style.
What Type of Food Do Kids Eat?
Above is a sample menu from the school, my daughter, attended her first year in French preschool. Notice the different columns for the five food groups.
NO PROCESSED FOODS OR JUNK FOOD:
Kids’ taste buds are cultivated from a young age in France. No dumbed-down kiddie food served. Catherine gets a hefty dose of French food that would have many adults drooling with envy.
She also has eaten some things at school that might send some people running for the hills like the time she had duck pate and another time she had baby octopus salad.
What’s on the menu?
Things like mussels, octopus, beets, grated carrots, fish, blue cheese, chicken paté and more. All things a North American would not expect their kids to eat. Maybe not even in the UK either.
Every preschool meal has five items for lunch:
1- One a starter: such as grated carrots in a vinaigrette
2- One main plate: Such as lamb or Rake (fish) curry
3- One Side: such as green beans or polenta
4- One cheese or dairy product: Usually cheese but sometimes yoghurt
5- Desert: such as fresh fruit or fruits with sweet syrup.
Plus a Pastry: One bread option
Surprise “NO MILK”
You might be surprised to learn that milk is not served a la Cantine. Instead, children are given water to drink. Not juice, not coke, not milk but water.
The emphasis is put on the cheese column of the menu rather than serving milk. There are over 350 cheese types, and it seems like the schools want all the kids to try as many as possible.
I’ve counted over 25 different cheeses that rotate on the kid’s menus. A few, I’ve tried a few that put hair on my chest.
Typical Preschool Classwork
Every few months, a three ringed binder comes home with Catherine filled with all of her work.
I like this method because, rather than sending the kids home every day with random papers, I get to flip through her work in an organized fashion and see the progression of her work.
I do notice an emphasis on handwriting practice. Something that is sorely missing from many schools in the U.S. This could be why so many
French people have beautiful handwriting.
Lot’s of Snails: Escargot
Lately, I’ve noticed a theme. Certain things are very prominent in the French culture and, subsequently in Catherine’s school work like owls, hedgehogs, crepes and as of late, lots of snails. –>> ESCARGOT.
Here area few photos of the three ring binder with the snail work she has been doing.
SPELLING: They learn to spell “escargot.”
Body parts: They learn the body parts of a snail
Word Recognition: They learn to point out the word escargot in a sea of words
Counting: They learn to count snails
There were more, but I think you get the point.
Snails At Home
There must be some kind of subliminal effect because Catherine keeps looking for snails in gardens and in parks in her free time. Here’s a picture of her holding one in her hands.
Catherine likes to draw snails in her free time too. Here is another random snail drawing. Very elaborate, if you ask me.
What if my child does not speak French?
*Catherine already spoke French when she arrived in France. My family is French Canadian, so we spoke French at home.
I know four other families who sent their kids to French preschool without speaking one word of French. At the end of the school year, all of their kids were speaking and communicating in French.
You could always enroll your child in a private international school or American school if it’s available in the area of France where you live; however from my experience, the kids don’t end up with strong French skills because they tend to stick with other English speakers. By mainstreaming your kids in French only schools, your kids are immersed and pick up the language faster.
What if I want to home-school my child?
I understand that some parents prefer to home school their kids. I considered it myself.
However, If one of your goals is for your child to become bilingual and to pick up the little nuances of local culture and you have limited time in France, than preschool is an easy, fast and fun way to expose them.
They learn organically from playing with other children.
Catherine often comes home from school and teaches us something new about French culture that we had no idea existed.
She is very proud of those moments.
Lastly, you can always supplement preschool with your own homeschooling curriculum, or you can take your child out of preschool all together if things don’t work out.
Conclusion: Is preschool right for your child?
I can’t answer whether or not sending your child to French preschool in France is right for you and your child.
I can tell you that my daughter loves school.
Any hesitations, doubts or concerns I had about sending her to preschool in France are long gone now.
I genuinely feel I made the right choice.
Catherine has made many friends, and so have my husband and I through the parents of Catherine’s friends.
Pictured below, all three of our kids sitting on the bench outside of Catherine’s first day of preschool.