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French Preschool in France: What’s It Like?

By Annie André

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Are you curious about what preschool is like in France? Do you plan on spending some time in France and wonder if French preschool is right for your child? Here is a peek at what school is like for my daughter and my thoughts.
photo of Catherine with her preschool teachers in Marseille France, 2011
Catherine at her preschool in Marseille 2011

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

first-day-of-school in La Garde for catherine. She sat down and started colouring
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

Lunch is served a la cantine in France

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.

Longer Lunches

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?

French preschool lunch menu.

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.

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

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.

CHEESE PLEASE

French school menu cheeses

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

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

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.”

Learning to spell escargot

Body parts: They learn the body parts of a snail

Identifying the body parts of a snail

Word Recognition: They learn to point out the word escargot in a sea of words

word recognition: finding the word escargot

Counting: They learn to count snails

counting snails in french preschool. fun fun fun

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.

weather permitting, she plays with escargot in her free time.

Catherine likes to draw snails in her free time too. Here is another random snail drawing. Very elaborate, if you ask me.

Even in her free time, she draws escargot, snails

General Questions

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?

catherine teachers from 2011 in Marseille

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.first-day-of-school in La Garde for catherine. we all went to pick her up after school.

 

  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. 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.

  7. 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…

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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. :)

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