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Preschool philosophies, A to Z

Learn about different preschool options with specific philosophies or approaches, such as Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia.

By GreatSchools Staff

As you search for a preschool for your child, you may come across schools with differing philosophies and approaches, and unfamiliar names. Montessori, Reggio Emilia, play-based, High Scope are just some of the types you may see. Some preschools focus more on creative play and individually focused learning while others favor group projects; one program may promote play as the primary learning activity while others may include more traditional academic learning. You'll want to choose a preschool that meets your needs and the needs of your child.

Match the school with your child's needs

With a wide range of early learning programs available, you'll want to understand the basic philosophies that underlie many of these preschools. As you review the different types, think about your child's personality and learning style, and try to imagine how your child will fit in each environment. Keep in mind that more than one type may fit well with your child's learning style. Here is a quick look at some of the more common types of preschool philosophies.


The Montessori school philosophy is based on the work of Maria Montessori, an Italian educator, who founded the movement in 1907. The underlying idea of Montessori is that children are individual learners with teachers as guides. Children participate in a variety of hands-on activities. Play materials are designed for specific purposes, which guide the child's playtime. Montessori fosters personal responsibility by encouraging children to take care of their own personal needs and belongings, such as preparing their own snacks and cleaning up their toys. A wide range of ages may learn together in one classroom, and children are encouraged to help each other learn.

The focus on individual learning allows students to work at their own pace, which promotes a healthy environment for special needs children.

Montessori instructors graduate from a special training program. Schools have the option to affiliate with the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI or AMI-USA) or the American Montessori Society (AMS) but be aware that a school may use the Montessori name without being affiliated with a Montessori organization. Be careful to check the mission statement and curriculum of your Montessori school.


The Waldorf philosophy, which began with the founding of the first Waldorf school in 1919, is based on the ideas of Austrian educator Rudolf Steiner. The underlying principle of the Waldorf program is dependable routine. The daily and weekly schedule follows a consistent rhythm, and teachers often remain with the same group of students for up to eight years, allowing them to form a trusting relationship. The atmosphere is home-like, with all-natural furnishings and playthings and a group-oriented curriculum. Waldorf emphasizes creative learning, such as play-acting, story readings, singing, and cooking. The goal of this system is to develop the child emotionally and physically as well as intellectually. A Waldorf school is good for students who thrive on predictable rhythms.

Various national and international associations regulate Waldorf programs, and a school must be affiliated with the local organization to use the Waldorf name. Teachers must receive special training through a Waldorf organization. In North America, this organization is the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.

Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia schools are based on the highly successful preschools developed by the townspeople of Reggio Emilia, Italy during the 1940s. As in Montessori, students take the lead in learning. The curriculum consists of projects that reflect the interests of the students. Teachers observe the spontaneous curiosity of their students, and then guide them to create projects that reflect their pursuits. Children are expected to learn through mistakes rather than correction, as they are considered equal learners. Their play and projects are documented in photographs and records of their own words, which allows teachers and parents to follow each student's progress and helps children see their actions as meaningful. Reggio Emilia schools emphasize creativity and artistic representation, so they may be a good choice for students who are learning English.


Schools with a project-based approach consider children to be individual learners and teachers to be guides. Students work together and with their teachers to negotiate, plan and work through projects. Their lessons are enhanced with real-world connections, field trips and projects. This approach encourages skill application and positive learning habits by attempting to make learning as pleasant and self-motivated as possible. This is a good program for children who work well in an unstructured environment.


High/Scope was started by Dr. David Weikart, a Michigan educator, in 1970. The program deemphasizes social and emotional development in favor of academic skill development. Children and adults learn collaboratively, and students are encouraged to make independent decisions about materials and activities. High/Scope advocates learning experiences such as arranging things in order, counting and telling time as well as more creative and linguistic activities such as singing and dictating stories. Some programs involve computers in the learning process. High/Scope was originally developed for at-risk urban children and is appropriate for children who benefit from one-on-one attention, including special needs children.

Comments from readers

"This is a great article on the various types of school options available for my 2 year old son. I never knew there were so many disciplines and philosophies. I'm definitely better informed as I research which schools we have available nearby after reading this article. Thankyou! "
"I notice no mention of nature based preschools on your list. Research is showing that children today are growing up with a 'nature deficit'. Free play in natural places has greatly diminished over the past several decades with a variety of negative repercussions. Studies show that nature play positively impacts cognitive, emotional and social growth. There is a growing movement to reconnect children to nature, including the creation of nature based preschools."
"This is very informative. I have a 4 year old and never realized the differences of schools philosophies. This is truly opens ones view in education provided to ones child/ren. Outstanding..."