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

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

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. She was four years old when we moved to France.

I enrolled her in the French education system one week after arriving in France along with her two older brothers, whom we enrolled in middle school and secondary school. 

Throughout the years, we’ve had our ups and downs with the schools in France, but that’s true of any countries school system. No school system is perfect.

With that said, let’s jump right into it. 

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 children between the ages of 3 to 6 years old 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:

école \Ay-kole\  maternelle\Ma-tear-nel\

École maternelle is a combination of PRESCHOOL + KINDERGARTEN (RECEPTION in England or PREP In Australia)

 In 1833 when the central government took over the 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. 

école maternelle: preschool and kindergarten in France

1) École maternelle: Grade Levels

Preschools are not separate schools in France. They are almost always part of a primary school but the children are usually kept separate from the older elementary school kids. 

There are three grade levels in an école maternelle. 

  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.

Exception for 2-year-old children: (TPS) Toute petite section (very small section). 

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?

Parents can choose to send their children to public schools or private schools.

Public maternelle programs are free for everyone, including foreigners living in France. In other countries free education to children under 6 years old is sometimes called universal preschool or Universal pre-K.

Prices for private schools vary. The vast majority of private schools in France are Catholic, and these are the most affordable ranging from a few hundred euros a year to a couple of thousand euros a year. You do not have to be Catholic to enrol your children in a private Catholic school.

There are other private maternelle programs such as Montessori, international schools, and bilingual schools, but these will 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 commune, 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 are open 5 days a 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.

Here are two examples of how a school day might be broken out.

 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 and description of all French holidays in France. 

4) Before and After School Care

For working parents, there are usually before and after-school care programs at preschools. In the mornings’ daycare usually begins around 7:30 am, and in the afternoon, daycare begins as soon as school is over until around 7:00 pm to 7:30 pm, depending on the school. 

Before and after school daycare is not free, but it is affordable. 

5) School Breaks 

Recess

Children usually get two breaks or recesses per day. The morning break is around 10 am for 15 to 30 minutes.  Parents can give their child a snack (collation) which they can eat during this break; a cookie, banana, yogurt, etc. Or the school may provide one. 

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

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

Nap room at école Maternelle in France: Preschool

Naps

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 Grande section (age 5-6), children no longer nap. 

Naptime is usually right after lunch (minimum 1:30 minutes to 2 hours), and parents may have to provide nap material, blanky etc. (see school supplies section)

6) Preschool Lunch: La cantine

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

By law, 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.

Meals are not free and can cost anywhere from 3 to 5 euros depending on the preschool. Some parents pay less if they make below a certain amount. 

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 is served family-style in French preschools.

Children usually eat in a designated cafeteria at tables with real plates and utensils. Lunch ladies (cantinière) come around and place napkins around the children’s necks before serving everyone family-style.

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

What Type of Food Do Kids Eat?

There are usually five different food groups served, and the meals are not dumbed down kids’ meals. It’s real food, not nuggets and pizza.

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. 

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

Every preschool meal has six items for lunch: 

  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. Desert: such as fresh fruit, a cookie or flan
  6. Water and bread: no limit

Salt and sauces are served according to the dishes. They are not freely accessible.

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

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.

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 or 

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 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 to 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 in 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.

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. And Flip flops are never allowed either. 

And lastly, in public 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. 

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 may have to call well in advance, just to get your name I the 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. 

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.)

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.

French accents

My daughter already spoke French Canadian when she arrived in France, but there was a small adjustment period for her because the French accent spoken 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 FrancFrance, 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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  1. Hi Annie,

    I just found this article and I am so happy to know I too can save about 10,000 on preschool next year. We are moving to Paris at the end of year for at least 6 months. Do you know if my son could start mid year and only stay for 6 months or would he have to do a full school year? Thanks and I love your blog!

    Kevin

  2. Hey Annie,

    I wish we could bring longer (and better) lunches to the US. I didn’t know that parents would pick their kids up for lunch and eat with them. What I did know was that the French don’t generally drink milk. I had a French teacher in college who said that in class. The way she put it was that the French don’t have the stomach to drink milk like in the US. She said if she were to drink a full glass of milk, her “stomach would explode”.

    It sounds like you made a great choices in preschool. Looks like it’s a great experience and a good learning environment. They definitely learn more about snails than I ever did in school.

  3. Hi Annie,

    Wow, I love this post and it got me back to memory lane as far as I am concerned.

    When I was in School it was already that Wednesday off, can you imagine? and gosh did I hated that cantine!

    For sure we didn’t have any type of processed food, but I remember those “carottes rapées”, grated carrots which I really didn’t like as a kid. Plus I liked to eat at home. I complained so much about that cantine that my mother ended up picking me up every day for lunch.

    I think that the French pre-school system in France is really good, though. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Sylviane,
      Catherine loves “carottes rapées”. She tried les poulpes but said it was too chewy. And she won’t eat the snails because she says they are her friends.

      I also think the French preschools are very very good.

  4. So is Catherine loving school Annie? I bet she is, she seems like someone who loves people and the interaction. I already know she’s fluent in French.

    I remember you telling us that their food is fabulous and just from that menu I can definitely see that. It all sounds so good and I sure wish the US schools would go to that extreme. We are such an overweight nation because everyone is in such a darn hurry. If they took the time to enjoy this time I think it would be recognized much better as a time to enjoy and be with family.

    Thanks for sharing this with us and I know all of those who have kids in school loved this post too.

    ~Adrienne

    1. Hi Adrienne.
      The food culture is very different here but it’s very easy to adapt to. I know that in some progressive schools they are trying to instill a better sense of food but for the most part, it is a matter of economics. In many schools, they even sell taco bell, McDonalds and Dominoes pizza. YUCK!.. Of course, it’s hard to compete with that when the kids get home.
      Thanks for commenting I always enjoy your feedback and comments.

  5. Fantastic post Annie! I think this is exactly why we want to settle in France in the medium-term as a family. I love the emphasis on eating which is indeed such a part of the French culture. I only worry that Reuben will be frustrated at the lack of language skills he would have compared to the other children. Maybe I’ll start some “snail” learning now!

    1. Bethaney, you would be amazed at how quickly kids pick up a new language when in school with other kids. The people who rented our flat before us had a 5 year old who did not speak one word of French. The teachers say that after six months she was communicating easily with everyone at school in French.

  6. Sounds too good to believe Annie!

    I like the fact that they take such good care where food is concerned, and if they do that then you know your kids are in safe hands where eating and nutrition is concerned. A very few schools our end take this much care.

    Also, I think it’s nice if kids are able to stay in school right up to 4.30, because kids our end at that age are sent back home after 3-4 hours. I guess because they have just a single lunch break. But it becomes tough for working parents as they have to send their kids to creches or keep extra help to look after their child when they return from school. Even the spread sheets look interesting – as kids learn best when they see, more than when they read at that age.

    Thanks for sharing this with us. :)

    1. Hi Harleena,
      You are so right in that it does work out great for many parents to have the kids in one place until 4:30. There are so many parents that are able to adjust their work schedule to get off work to pick up their kids at the end of school who would normally have to be shuttled to day care by yet another person.
      I also think that having free preschool makes a huge difference for so many people in France.

  7. what a great school and a wonderful culture that encourages healthy eating and inquisitive thinking! I think France just moved up on our list.

    1. Oh Paz, France has some amazing food. The problem is much of it is unknown to the rest of the world. We just had Cassoulet. mmmmmm. I had never heard of it until last year. delicious.

  8. Hey Annie

    Whoa, the things on the menu certainly surprised me. My son goes to the nursery at the private school where my wife works but I couldn’t imagine him eating octopus!

    I was also surprised that there is no preschool on a Wednesday. In the UK, preschool is generally every day. My son goes from 8.30 am until 3 pm every day.

    In September he will start primary school and then secondary school is usually from the age of 11. My daughter starts in the nursery at the same time. Just in the mornings though. What am I going to do with my time?

    That’s a lot of emphasis on snails too. Even learning about their body parts! That’s serious stuff :-).

    One thing I was going to ask you is, do you speak to Catherine in English at home? I guess with most of her day being in French, I was just wondering how you maintain her spoken and written English?

    1. Hi Tim,
      Sounds like will have too much time on your hands once your youngest starts nursery shool.

      Languae skills, well. at home we speak two languages. I speak only French to my daughter. I have only spoke french to her since birth. My sons speak French and English to Catherine. My husband only speaks English to her. We are really not too worried about her losing out on her english ability. I mean look at me. english is nt my first language and i speak just fine. :)

  9. Great report. My home-schooler daughter is in Mexican school this year. She’s loving it and learning tons, though I wish I could have had her doing this in the pre-school years, like you’re doing with Catherine.

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE that school binder. My daughter’s had a few school experiences here and there, and I always hate the mish mash of paper that turns up in the backpack. A binder sent home at regular intervals is much smarter.

    OK, you’ve really inspired me here. I think I’ll do a report about middle school in Mexico.

    1. Hi Renee,
      Sounds like your daughter is having a good experience too. It’s a good feeling. And the binder is really great. Can’t wait to read what schhool is like in Mexico…

  10. Hi, that’s very similar to German and Swiss preschools. We lived a few years in Germany, Ulm and my 2 year old kiddo had to go to one of such kind of schools. i was afraid for a while but they know what they do. he was so happy and I had some free time, too. As for the cosine that was lovely. Just normal fresh food.

    1. Hi Marta,
      I’m not surprise that German and Swiss preschools have similar experiences. It is nice to have free time too especially knowing the kids are thriving in school.

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