Kindergarten & French preschool in France: What It’s like!

école maternelle: preschool and kindergarten in France
école maternelle: preschool and kindergarten in France

Are you curious about what preschool is like in France? Here’s everything you need to know about the French school system at the preschool and kindergarten levels based on personal experience.  **Updated for 2021-2022 school year. 

Selecting the right preschool or nursery school for your child can be crucial to their development, but it should also be practical and affordable for you. 

The good news is, if you have a preschool-aged child in France, the country invests in the education of young children right from the start with free preschool programs.

Our personal experience with French schools

photo of Catherine with her preschool teachers in Marseille France, 2011
Catherine at her preschool in Marseille 2011

That’s my daughter Catherine pictured above with two of her French preschool teachers when she was four years old.

I enrolled her in preschool in October of 2011, one week after arriving in France.

I also enrolled one son in middle school and my eldest son in secondary school. 

It was a busy week and required a lot of time and patience. I had wanted to pre-enroll my children in schools before arriving in France but couldn’t until I was physically living in france.

Since then, we’ve had our ups and downs with the French school system in France, but that would be true in any country because no school system is perfect.

With that said, let’s jump right into everything you need to know about preschool and kindergarten grade levels in France.

École maternelle: School In France For Children 6 And Under

All children living in France between the ages of 3 to 18, whether French citizens or foreigners, must receive an education.

It’s the law. 

This means all preschool aged children (3 to 6 year olds) must attend maternelle, short for école maternelle, unless you plan on homeschooling them.

(See homeschool section.)

Again, this isn’t optional, it’s the law and parents have a legal obligation to educate their preschool-aged children. 

ÉCOLE MATERNELLE:

\Ay-kole Ma-tear-nel\

École maternelle is PRESCHOOL and KINDERGARTEN combined.  If you’re from England, it’s NURSERY + RECEPTION.

école maternelle: preschool and kindergarten in France

1) École maternelle: Grade Levels

Preschoolers almost always share a school with older primary aged children (6 to 11) but are usually kept separate from one another.

There are three grade levels in an école maternelle plus an optional year for two year olds.

  1. (PS) Petite Section 3 -4 years old:  
  2. (MS) Moyenne Section 4-5  years old: equivalent to Pre-K or junior kindergarten
  3. (GS) Grande Section 5-6  years old: equivalent to primary level Kindergarten. Third and last year of pre-elementary school.

Optional: (TPS) Toute petite section (very small section). (2 years old)

Some French preschools in France accept children as young as 2 years old, but certain conditions must be met. 

  • The school must accept 2 years old. Not all do.
  • Your child must be 2.5 years old. 
  • The child must be mentally ready to be away from their parents.
  • They should be somewhat autonomous.
  • They should be potty trained: no diapers. 

2) How much does école maternelle cost?

Public school:

Since 1833, France has had universal preschool or Universal pre-K.

In other words, Public maternelle programs are free for everyone, including foreigners living in France.

In 1833 when the central government took ove preschools which were private at the time, they named these grade levels “maternal schools”, hoping that the care would be like the care a mother would give. 

Private schools

Prices for private schools in France vary.

The vast majority of private schools in France are Catholic, and these are the most affordable ranging from a few hundred euros per year to a couple of thousand euros per year.

In case you’re wondering, no, you do not have to be Catholic to enrol children in a private Catholic school.

There are other types of private maternelle programs such as Montessori, international schools, and bilingual schools, but these will generally be more expensive than a private Catholic school. 

Zunino école maternelle France

3) How Long Is A Preschool Day / Week?

Depending on the school and the city or region, the school day can begin and end at different times, but the total number of instructions will always stay the same.

Each student receives  864 hours of instruction per year in Maternelle.

  • 24 hours of instruction per week.
  • 36 weeks of instruction per year. 
  • = 864 hours per year.

Some schools have a 4 day school week, with Wednesdays off, but most schools in France have a 5 day week, with Wednesday being a half day. 

There are rules for the maximum number of hours of instructions per day a child can receive.  

  • Half days cannot exceed 3 hours and 30 minutes (this usually applies to Wednesday).
  • Full days cannot exceed 5 hours and 30 minutes of instruction.

Below is an example of a 4 and 5 day school week in France

Keep in mind, these are just examples of school hours. Schools can start sooner or end later than the times listed below. 

 Example:
4 Day School Week:
No school on Wednesdays
  MORNING LUNCH AFTERNOON
Monday  8:45 – 11:55  11:55-13:25  13:35 – 16:25 
Tuesday  8:45 – 11:55  11:55-13:25  13:35 – 16:25 
Wednesday
Thursday  8:45 – 11:55  11:55-13:25  13:35 – 16:25 
Friday  8:45 – 11:55  11:55-13:25  13:35 – 16:25 

 

 Example:
5 Day School Week:
Half Day Wednesdays  
  MORNING LUNCH AFTERNOON
Monday  8:30 – 11:30  11:30-13:25  13:35 – 16:30 
Tuesday  8:30 – 11:30  11:30-13:25  13:35 – 16:30 
Wednesday  8:30 – 11:30 
Thursday  8:30 – 11:30  11:30-13:25  13:35 – 16:30 
Friday  8:30 – 11:30  11:30-13:25  13:35 – 16:30 

School holidays

There are 11 official bank holidays in France and several long holidays that last around two weeks, including All Saints, Winter vacation, and Spring vacation.

I’ve put together a complete list of all French holidays in France and their description.

4) Before and After School Care

Working parents can take advantage of before and after-school day care programs located at each preschool.

It’s not free, but it’s very affordable. 

In the mornings’ daycare usually begins around 7:00 or 7:30 am. 

After school daycare begins as soon as school is out.

Parents have to pick their children up by 7:00 pm or 7:30 pm, depending on the school, otherwise you’ll be charged extra.

5) School Breaks 

Recess

Children usually get two breaks or recesses per day.

These breaks allow children to move around and play in a secure outdoor schoolyard or inside if the weather is bad. 

The morning break is around 10 am for 15 to 30 minutes. 

Parents can give their child a snack (collation) to eat during this break; a cookie, banana, yogurt, etc. Some schools provide a snack. 

In the afternoon, children normally get another break of 15 to 30 minutes.

Nap room at école Maternelle in France: Preschool

Naps

Naptime is usually right after lunch (minimum 1:30 minutes to 2 hours).  Parents may have to provide nap material, blanky etc. Each school will tell you what supplies you need to provide. (see school supplies section)

Only children in the toute petite section (age 2-3) and petite section (age 3-4) take naps from 1 hour 30 minutes to 2 hours.

In Moyenne section (age 4-5), children are not required to take naps unless parents or teachers think the child needs to continue taking naps at school. 

By the time a child starts Grande section (age 5-6), children no longer take naps. 

6) Preschool Lunch: La cantine

The school cafeteria in France is called “La Cantine.”

Lunches are usually 1 hour 30 minutes long but can be as long as 2 hours.

My daughter had a 1 hour 45 minutes for lunch. The first 45 minutes she spent eating and the rest playing with friends on the school playground. 

You might be interested in reading15 School Lunches Around The World Including France, Finland & USA.

Photo of schools eating in a public elementary school in Dijon
This is how primary school kids are usually served in a public school cafeteria in France.

Children don’t bring lunch to school.

Most schools in France do not allow children to bring a lunch from home to school.

Children either eat at the school cantine or their parents pick them up for lunch. It’s not uncommon for parents to pick their kids up at lunchtime and then return them to school at the end of lunch.

Food served in a French preschool is served family-style.

Children usually eat in a designated cafeteria at tables with real plates and utensils.

Then the Lunch lady (cantinière) usually comes around and places napkins around the children’s necks before serving everyone family-style.

Meals are not free and can cost anywhere from 2 to 6 euros depending on the preschool. Some parents pay less if they earn below a certain amount of income. 

You might be interested in reading: 50 Crazy Interesting Facts About France That’ll Blow Your Mind.

What Type of Food Do Kids Eat?

Preschool meals usually consist of five or six different things and meals are not dumbed down kiddy meals.

It’s real food.

Things like beets, grated carrots, fish, blue cheese, chicken paté (at Christmas time) are just some of the menu items preschool-aged children might eat for lunch in France. 

Example preschool meal:

  1. One starter: such as grated carrots in a vinaigrette or salad
  2. One main plate: Such as lamb or Rake (fish) curry.
  3. One Side: such as green beans or polenta
  4. One dairy product: Usually cheese but sometimes yoghurt
  5. Desdert: such as fresh fruit, a cookie or flan
  6. Water and bread: no limit. Milk is Never served.

Salt and sauces such as ketchup are served according to the dishes. They are not freely accessible unless the dish calls for it.

School lunch: Cantine in Le Mans France

School lunch: Cantine in Le Mans France

School lunch: Cantine in Lille France
https://www.lille.fr/Vieux-Lille/Les-ecoles/Le-temps-du-midi

Beginning the 1st of January 2022, school meals must be made up of 50% sustainable products including 20 % organic products. 

Example school menu for one month.

An actual school menu for public schools in Dijon France from October 2019

Milk is never served.

You might be surprised to learn that the preschool cantine menu never includes milk.

Instead, children drink water. Not juice, not coke, not milk but water.

The reason may have something to do with the fact that children always have one dairy product, either cheese or yoghurt.

There are over 350 different types of commercially produced cheese in France, so there are plenty of options.

Below is an example of an actual school lunch menu from a preschool in France with the days where cheese is served circled. the other days’ yogurt is served.

French school menu cheeses

7) Typical Preschool Classwork

School work preschool France: white board

Preschool education in France is much more than just daycare or playschool.

Schooling is a blend of childcare and education aimed at preparing children for entry into primary school.

Preschoolers typically learn reading, writing, numeracy, creative and artistic activities, and a foreign language at a very basic level, usually English…   

In the petite section, children (3-4 years old) are introduced to the first notions of math, letters and oral development of languages.

The last two years of preschool, Moyenne and Grande section are more like regular school where reading, writing and mathematics are introduced to prepare them for entry into primary school.

3 ring binder that comes home every couple of months full of Catherine's work

Children learn to organise their school work early on. Every few months, my daughter would bring home a three-ringed binder 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.

On a side note; don’t be surprised if your little one comes home saying some funny words like caca boudin, which means caca sausage.

It’s the equivalent of calling someone a caca head. Here are other insults and bad words little kids like to say.

First day of class in a new preschool in France
The beginning of our second year in France and the first day in Grande section at école maternelle.

8) School supplies parents need to buy

Each year, schools give parents a list of school supplies (LISTE DES FOURNITURES SCOLAIRES) that they will need to buy.

The list varies from school to school and from grade level, but there are some staples that make it onto most lists in France. 

Example of school supplies at the preschool level:

  • For naps, a blanky and maybe a pillow
  • Change of clothes for accidents
  • A plastic cup
  • box of tissues
  • felt tip colouring pens
  • coloured pencils
  • Glue stick
  • Scissors
  • Sometimes you will be asked to buy workbooks or paper for writing and math exercises.
  • A small white board (Ardoise blanche aka Ardoise valleda). Usually two sides, one with grid, the other side blank. 

9) Vaccinations needed to attend school in France:

Vaccinations children need in order to attend school in France

Children must be vaccinated to enrol in public and private schools in France.

As of 2021, a child should have had 11 vaccinations before entering maternelle.

If a child is not up to date with their vaccination, they may be able to get provisionary admission that allows parents 3 months to get all the vaccinations needed. 

List of vaccinations needed:

diphtheria, tetanus, polio, whooping cough, hepatitis B, pneumococcus, haemophilus influenza B, measles, rubella, mumps and meningococcus C.

COVID: As of this writing, children must also have had their Covid vaccination. (this may change)

Other General Information

10) School clothing

Children in preschool, whether public or private do not wear uniforms. 

However, each school usually has it’s own dress code.

For instance, at one of my daughter’s preschools kids could not have painted fingernails, or jeans with holes.

At another preschool, the children were not allowed to wear their baseball caps backwards.

Flip flops are generally never allowed. 

And lastly, in public French schools, children are not allowed to wear any religious symbols. No crosses, hijabs, or yarmulkes. This is true in All public French schools in france. 

Private schools may have different rules.

11) Enrolling your children in preschool

You can enroll your child in any private school of your choosing but there usually is a waiting list, especially in Catholic schools. 

You should call the private school as early as possible to find out the process and to find out if there is a waiting list.

If you choose to send your child to a public maternelle school, a school is assigned to your child based on your home address which you will have to prove.

Usually, a bill or bank statement with your home address is sufficient proof.

Example Documents Needed to enroll children in school.

Schools will ask you for vaccine records, proof of address and a “livret de famille”.

If you’re not French, you probably won’t have a livret de famille. In this case, you’ll have to make one.

(article coming soon about what documents you’ll need to make a livret de famille.)

12) What if my child does not speak French?

You don’t need to worry if your child does not speak French.

They’ll be mainstreamed with the other French kids.

Kids learn organically from playing with other children. It really is the quickest way for kids to pick up the language.

At the end of the school year, your child should be able to communicate with other children in French fairly well. By the second year, you might be surprised just how well they speak.

You might be interested in reading: How long does it take to learn French? and why you’ll never be fluent

French accents

My daughter already spoke French (Quebecois from Canada) when she arrived in France, but there was a small adjustment period for her because the French accent in France is different from Quebec.

There are also some vocabulary and expressions that are different.

On top of that, we lived in Marseille our first year, where the accent is very different than say Paris.

The Marseille accent is called l’accent marseillaise. It’s hard to explain, but they pronounce more syllables and it almost sounds like someone speaking French with an Italian accent. I had never heard it before moving to France and it took me a while to get used to.

12) What if I want to homeschool my child?

The homeschooling curriculum is tightly regulated in France, and parents are supposed to register as homeschoolers and undergo annual inspections. 

If one of your goals is for your child to become bilingual and to pick up the little nuances of local culture but will only be staying in France for a year or less, then preschool is an easy, fast and fun way to expose your kids. 

Preschool also lets kids socialize and play with other kids their own age…And you the parent, will meet many people through your preschooler. 

Is public preschool right for your child?

first-day-of-school in La Garde for catherine. we all went to pick her up after school.
Catherine sitting on a bend with her two brothers in her second year in preschool in France.

I can’t answer whether or not sending your child to a French preschool in France is right for you and your child.

There are some good public schools and bad ones, just like everywhere else in the world. 

I can tell you that my daughter had a great experience, and any hesitations, doubts or concerns I had about sending her to preschool in France are long gone now.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog annieandre.com for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.

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