When my son turned one, everyone began asking me about preschool. How many tours had we gone on? Were we on a wait list? It seemed extreme since he wouldn’t be setting foot in one of these places for more than a year. But I quickly learned that preschool is a big deal in Charlotte, with wait lists and midnight registrations and, for me, lots of anxiety.

Parents here are fortunate, because the Queen City is home to many, many preschools who are leading the way in early childhood education methods. Gone are the days of sitting at a table and trying to stay in the lines on a coloring book page.

Here are three innovative preschools that aren’t afraid to think outside the box:

Open Door School 

This 50-year-old program has the distinction of being Charlotte’s first racially integrated kindergarten, and Director Sheila Locklear says the school still follows the progressive philosophy on which it was founded. Although Open Door School is a mission of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, you won’t find Christmas trees, Easter eggs or other religious symbols displayed during Christian holidays. Locklear says those should be celebrated at home.

Students in the program, which serves 2-to-5-year-olds, focus on hands-on learning rather than rote instruction.

“We don’t teach them ‘this is red because Ms. Sheila says so.’ Instead we give them red crayons or paint let them experience it,” she said. “We use that same approach whether they’re doing math or social studies as well.”

You also won’t find a time-out chair or treasure box at Open Door School. Staff focuses on reasoning and conflict resolution rather than a reward or punishment system. That’s because Locklear believes social and emotional development is just as important as academics.

Open Door School: 234 N. Sharon Amity Road

Mosaic ALC

Part of the ALC (Agile Learning Community) network, the K-12 school ALC Mosaic also has an early childhood education program and a half-day pre-K co-op for kids 4 and younger. Director Lacy Manship said 2-year-olds can attend, but they must have a parent or caregiver present.

Children ages 2 through 8 spend time in the same “flow” in ALC Mosaic’s “Roots” early childhood education program. On a typical day the structure is loose, with some kids joining staff or “facilitators” on walks through the woods, making boats out of tin foil or removing their shoes and taking some cleansing breaths before beginning calm indoor play.

Manship told us her basic philosophy is that children are people and deserve the same amount of respect and rights as adults.

“Children are learning as they play — we don’t have to prescribe a certain set of information or skills on them,” she said. As a result, kids who come out of the Roots program often don’t have the same identity hangups as other kids: “I’m not a good reader” or “I’m bad at math.”

ALC Mosaic: 401 E. Arrowood Road

Ballantyne Preschool of the Arts 

Run by the YMCA and operated out of the Ballantyne Arts Center, this preschool uses an arts-integrated curriculum to help kids develop cognitively, socially, emotionally and physically.

Disclaimer: this is the preschool we chose after a tour with Director Meghan Nance, who told us that it’s all about using art — visual art, theatre, music, etc. — to teach kids.

For example, if students are learning about the number four, they aren’t counting and writing the number four over and over.

Instead, they might explore a well-known painting by Henri Matisse called Goldfish, noting the four goldfish swimming in the fishbowl, before using paper and four orange handprints to collage a piece of art that represented the number four. Later that day, they might dance along to a silly song all about goldfish during their dance special, make goldfish faces and practice counting with goldfish crackers.

Nance told us, like any good artist, she drew inspiration from many sources, including other innovative preschools, to create BPA. All staff members there are professionals in their craft, whether it’s early childhood education or various artistic endeavors.

She said it’s engaging for kids to have a creative, sensory-driven curriculum but it’s also critical for them to learn the skills they’ll need for elementary school, including standing in line and eating at a table with other students. The balance is what makes BPA unique.

Ballantyne Preschool of the Arts : 11318 North Community House Road

Know of any other innovative preschools in the area? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: Ballantyne Preschool of the Arts

This story was written for CharlotteFive’s latest channel for parents in the QC, called QC Playground. Sign up for the weekly QC Playground newsletter here.


  1. Please investigate the Reggiio Amelia approach. A new beautiful house school opened in Warsaw in late August. Laurel wood Community Preschool is an indoor/outdoor school with a wonderful art studio. Kathleen O’Connell, BS University of Michigan and MS UNCC is the educational director. Elizabeth Garcia is an educator and Studio teacher. This is a must see school following the pedagogical approach developed in the preschools and infant toddler centers of Reggio Emilia, Italy. Ivy brook Academy, with three area locations, Fort Mill, Weddington and soon to open on Caswell in Charlotte also is inspired by the Reggio approach. The Ivybrook staff has been studying this approach for over five years and attended special seminars and conferences sponsored by NAREA (North American Reggio Emilia Alliance) The traveling exhibit from Reggio is now on display in Durham, NC. It will be housed there through May, 2017. It is a must see for parents interested in projects involving thoughts, theories and visual representations of the thoughts of young children in the municipal preschools and infant toddler centers in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Many Charlotte educators have been attending conferences and studying this beautiful approach since 2012 in the Charlotte area.

    • Laurelwood Community Preschool is located in Waxhaw, NC. This is their second year in operation and has the honor of hosting Central Piedmont Community College’s Early Childhood Education Students who are completing their practicum. Laurelwood is only one of four preschools in the greater Charlotte area to receive this honor for the 2017 -2018 school year.

  2. Piedmont Progressive Preschool. Their program is like Open Door’s, but they’re on the north end of town. They’re fantastic.

  3. Open Door definitely has a rich legacy and a consistent reputation for child-centered, positive problem solving skills, and play based themed that will continue 50+ years.

  4. Laurelwood Community Preschool is located in Waxhaw, NC and is a Reggio-inspired preschool. This is their second year of operation as a five-star center. Laurelwood is hosting Central Piedmont Community College’s Early Childhood Education Students who are completing their practicum. Laurelwood is only one of four preschools in the greater Charlotte area to have this honor for the 2017 – 2018 school year.