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.

Montessori

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.

Waldorf

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.

Project-based

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

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.

Bank Street

Bank Street preschools are based on the early childhood program run by Bank Street College of Education in New York City, which was founded by Lucy Sprague Mitchell in 1916. In Bank Street programs, children are regarded as active learners and the world around us is considered to be the best teaching tool. Lessons focus on the social sciences (such as history, geography and anthropology). Artistic and scientific lessons are included within cultural lessons resulting in an integrated curriculum. Classroom toys are basic, encouraging children to exercise imagination during play. Children may work alone or in groups, with specially trained teachers guiding. Bank Street programs are good for children who learn well in an unstructured environment.

Religious

Many churches and religious schools offer preschool programs. They may follow any preschool philosophy in determining curriculum, and they may incorporate varying degrees of religious content and/or training. If you are interested in a religious-based program, be sure to ask about their curriculum and philosophy, too.

Community

Community centers and childcare centers often have preschool programs. You can find preschools through your local recreation department, YMCA or Jewish Community Center. Like religious schools, they may follow any one preschool philosophy or a combination, so it's a good idea to ask questions about their philosophy and curriculum when you are checking these schools out.

Cooperative

Parents who want a big role in their child's preschool education may want to consider a cooperative preschool, which can follow any preschool philosophy or a combination. Its distinguishing characteristic is that parents take on significant roles at the school. Participating parents take turns to fulfill various duties, such as school upkeep or preparing snacks. A professional teacher is usually hired, but may be assisted by parents in the classroom. This can be a less expensive alternative, as heavy parental involvement minimizes extra costs. Try looking for schools supported by a regional or state organization that regulates parent participation preschools in your area. Also consider finding a school that has not joined an organization or even starting a new one yourself or with a group of similar-minded parents!

Developmentally appropriate/play-based

Developmentally appropriate (or play-based) preschools are fairly common. Their primary principle is to promote participation in age-appropriate activities, such as unstructured hands-on play, group story-time, and themed activities. Kids are encouraged to learn through play, though some have added more academic content in response to demand. Play-based philosophies may draw from multiple philosophies such as Montessori or Waldorf.

Language immersion

In a language immersion preschool, all or most of the classes are conducted entirely in the new language. The teacher may demonstrate her meaning while she speaks, but rarely or never translates. This method is more appropriate for young children than translation learning (the more common teaching method for adults). The content may be guided by other preschool philosophies. The focus on a new language develops the child's language acquisition ability while providing fluency in the new language. Language immersion is best for children who are developing first language skills at a normal rate. It may temporarily slow development of the first language, and so it's inappropriate for children who are struggling in this area.

International school

An international school is usually a school instituted by a foreign country in another country. The language of the country of origin (often English) is typically used to conduct most or all of the classes. These schools were often set up for the benefit of the children of expatriates and local children who wish to learn the language. An international school may teach other languages in addition to the main language. These schools are best for children who are temporarily in a foreign country or for parents who want their children to learn the new language.