How to Choose a Preschool: Which Program Philosophy Is Right for Your Child?

When I sent my daughter to nursery school, I wanted the most nurturing environment I could find for her and chose a wonderful progressive program in my neighborhood.

A few years later, when we were interviewing for a selective girls’ school, the admissions director there told me that during my daughter's interview, she would be expected to draw circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles. My eyes bugged open in shock, and I said, "But my daughter doesn't know how to draw those." She looked at our file and said, rather snootily, "Oh yes, your daughter went to one of those downtown play schools."

I was offended that she viewed the school we loved so much that way. But she did. Meanwhile, I ran into a neighbor who sent her daughter to a traditional nursery school uptown. She was applying to the same school for her daughter. When I told her what our girls would have to be able to do to get in, she said, "Erica can do that. They spent a whole month on a shape unit at her nursery school."

When you choose a preschool for your child — whichever type of school it is — remember that, down the road, there is likely to be a test she’ll have to take if you want to apply to a private school or gifted and talented program. Even if you choose public kindergarten, your child will be tested for placement in ability groups as soon as school starts.

You can’t get away from it — all kids are expected to have mastered the same early childhood skills, no matter where they go to nursery school. Frankly, I would have chosen the same school no matter what because we loved it. But I wish I’d understood from the beginning that there would be an important test at the end, and that, if my nursery school didn't prepare my child, I would have to.

Five Preschool Philosophies

It doesn't matter if you're looking at a preschool in a church or temple, a co-op school, a public preschool, or a private program — most of them use one of these educational approaches with their students.

Traditional

In the traditional classroom, there is a structured curriculum with specific objectives for the children. Goals are built around teaching children math, letters, numbers, sounds, shapes, problem-solving, listening, and more. The talk by the water table is most likely to be teacher-directed instead of child-led. In these programs, the teacher instructs, directs, explains, and organizes each lesson. Children learn from the adults, rather than through their own explorations.

Teacher-Directed Instruction

In this type of classroom, all the children are likely to be working on the same activity at the same time. For example, at Thanksgiving, they may all work on putting pre-cut construction paper together to make turkeys. The emphasis will be more on the finished product than on the process. If you walk into a classroom and see a bulletin board displaying twenty matching turkeys, you are probably in a traditional school. At these schools, kids might be working with early childhood worksheets to learn math and writing. There is a strong emphasis on school readiness.

Overall Experience

In traditional environments, certainly there may be a free-choice period, but there is more emphasis on formal instruction. Children tend to call teachers by their last names, and they may be required to wear uniforms or follow a dress code. In a traditional program, school staff will likely be strict about making sure that your child is toilet-trained before the age of 3. While kids who attend traditional schools are anecdotally less aggressive toward peers and more task-oriented, they may also show less independence and initiative, less imaginative play, and less creativity.

Check out "What to Look for in Your Child's Preschool" for more signs to determine the right school fit.

Progressive

This is the preschool model I chose for my kids, and we loved it. It is sometimes called “developmental,” “child-centered,” or the “Bank Street model.” Here, the philosophy is that children need to explore and learn through imaginative play, art, and block-building. The progressive classroom is typically set up as a series of "centers" where learning can take place using open-ended materials. There might be a fantasy play area, a cluster of easels with paint, a block corner, water tables, or a puzzle area. Teachers create and adapt these environments in response to what they see the children are interested in. They move among the areas and encourage the kids to pursue their own projects and ideas at the various stations. Play is considered the "work" of children, and it is taken seriously.

Learning Through Play

In these schools, there is no pre-planned curriculum that kids follow. Since teachers are following the children's lead, what kids learn from year to year and between the morning and afternoon sessions may be different. Children work at their own pace, learning through play. The interaction is between the children, as opposed to between the children and the materials (as with Montessori; see below) or the children and the teacher (as with Traditional). At no prescribed points are children expected to learn any particular skills. In fact, specific learning through teaching is frowned upon — a tendency that explains why my daughter never had a unit on "shapes." It’s just not part of the progressive approach to education.

Overall Experience

Social interaction between children is very important in a progressive classroom. There is much talk about "community." Separation between the child and parent is seen as a major developmental step, and a lot of time and energy is spent on this. The classroom environment is informal; kids often call teachers by their first names, and you would never find uniforms in a progressive program. These schools also tend to be more relaxed about when a child should be toilet-trained.

Children who attend progressive preschools tend to be independent, curious, creative, and likely to ask questions. That said, if your child will need to be tested for private school or a gifted program after attending a progressive school, you will want to be sure she has gained all the abilities the future test will assess.

If you're considering private K-12 schools for the first time, you may find using an educational consultant worthwhile. Read "What to Look for in a Private School Consultant'" to hire the right person.

Montessori

Personally, I love Montessori schools and encourage you to tour one to see it for yourself. Not only do kids learn a lot, they are taught not to start a new project until they put away the materials they were using. My daughter has always been messy, and I often wonder if she wouldn't have been had I started her at a Montessori school. The goal of Montessori is to establish independence, self-esteem, and confidence in a child while fostering learning at her own pace.

Self-Directed Learning

In a Montessori classroom, the main interaction is between the child and the materials, not between the teacher and the child. Initially, the teacher demonstrates the proper use of each set of materials, after which children may work on them individually or in small groups. Children can take the materials out, place them on their mats, and use them as the teacher taught. When the students are finished, they put their materials away before starting a new project.

The emphasis is on self-directed learning; children pursue their own interests at the pace that best suits them, rather than moving through teacher-led lessons as a group. Because Montessori programs are designed to accommodate individual interests, needs, and pacing, children with learning delays — as well as those who are gifted — tend to fare well in these classrooms.

Materials-Guided Learning

The materials used in Montessori classrooms are built around three learning areas.

  • Practical life skills (such as folding shirts or tying shoelaces)
  • Sensory skills (such as handling geometric shapes or putting blocks in the right holes)
  • Language and mathematical skills (such as handling sandpaper letters and numbers or counting beads on long chains)

As you can imagine, children learn a great deal with this curriculum — from numbers and letters to adding and subtracting to practical life skills and more.

Overall Experience

The Montessori classroom is bright, warm, and inviting. There are usually several different learning centers where children can explore via hands-on, tactile materials. Classes have mixed age groupings, usually from three to six years old, with the older children helping the younger ones. Kids are encouraged to work at their own pace and build their own knowledge foundation. When they emerge from Montessori, children are typically cooperative, organized, respectful of peers’ work, and able to work independently.

Find Montessori schools near you, or for more information, read further expert advice about a Montessori education.

Reggio Emilia Schools

Loris Malaguzzi founded the Reggio Emilia approach at the Italian city of the same name. In 1991, Newsweek magazine hailed Reggio Emilia programs as the best preschools in the world. The Reggio Emilia approach views children as competent, resourceful, curious, imaginative, and inventive.

Classroom as Teacher

In a Reggio Emilia school, educators pay close attention to the look and feel of the classroom, which is often referred to as the "third teacher." The goal is to create a room that is beautiful, joyful, inviting, and stimulating. Children's work is on display, along with collections of leaves or rocks they have made after field trips. There are natural light, plants, mirrors, photographs, and children's work to capture attention. Different centers throughout the classroom are devoted to dramatic play, art, writing, sand/water exploration, math (which would include manipulatives, or small objects, used for counting), blocks, and science. Much thought goes into the design of a Reggio Emilia classroom in order to support a multisensory approach to learning.

After the teacher organizes a classroom that is rich in possibilities, she invites the children to undertake exploration and problem-solving. By observing the children, she learns what they are interested in and uses that information to act as a resource for them, asking them questions, discovering their ideas, and helping them create hypotheses and theories to test. There is no pre-set curriculum. Teachers and parents are seen as partners in learning with the children.

Overall Experience

Teachers document the children's discussions, remarks, and activities through notes, videos, and photographs. This makes learning visible and helps parents to understand what their children are learning; teachers get to know the children better; and children see that their work is valued.

Long-term projects emerge out of spontaneous play and exploration with children. These projects may last from days to several months. Topics for projects are decided based on children’s interests (and based on their input). Teachers bring in materials, books, and questions to enable the children to explore subjects further. Exploration may take place through field trips, discussions, drawing, sculpture, puppetry, drama, shadow and dramatic play, and writing.

Even if you do not enroll your child in a Reggio Emilia school, you can encourage her with these fun art activities for preschoolers.

Waldorf

Developed by Rudolf Steiner in 1919, Waldorf programs aim to educate the whole child — "head, heart, and hands." Classrooms are warm and homey, and creative play is the order of the day, with a strong dose of teamwork and community. The teacher stays with the same group of children from preschool through eighth grade. This leads to a strong relationship in which the teacher truly knows your child.

Hands-On Exploration

Learning is hands-on, achieved through cooking, art projects, storytelling, singing, puppet shows, dress-up, and play. Academics are not emphasized in the early years, with reading readiness beginning in kindergarten and actual instruction starting in first grade. "Main lessons" are taught in blocks of 1.5 to three hours a day, with each subject block lasting three to five weeks. In this way, children explore curricula deeply and vividly. Activities that are seen as extras at many schools — such as art, gardening, and foreign languages — are core to the Waldorf philosophy. In the early years, much learning takes place through art, as opposed to lectures and rote learning. All children learn to knit and play the recorder.

Overall Experience

In the early years, Waldorf schools don't use textbooks. Instead, children have their own "main lesson books," which they fill in during the year, recording their experiences. Later, textbooks are introduced for certain classes, such as math and grammar. Grading does not begin until middle school. Instead, teachers write detailed reports about each child's development and progress. The use of electronic media, especially TV, by young children is discouraged in Waldorf schools.

Follow this link for additional differences that distinguish the Waldorf method from other approaches.

Combination Schools

Some schools use a mixture of these approaches. You may find a program that draws on the best of Montessori, while also spending time on separation and socialization (skills that a pure Montessori class wouldn't focus on). Some traditional schools will include elements of progressive education, although in a true combined approach, the teachers will allow the academic work to evolve out of the kids' interests.

How to Assess a School’s Educational Philosophy

Look at its materials. Ask about the philosophy when you visit. But most of all, observe. Many schools are very clear about who they are and which philosophy they follow. Other directors will tell you that they use a mixture of progressive and traditional practices, but when you observe, you will clearly see that they favor one or the other.

Which Philosophy Is Best?

Children who attend a traditional or Montessori school are more likely to "graduate" with the types of skills that private schools will look for. Traditional schools teach the skills, while Montessori materials lend themselves to children gaining these abilities independently. That isn't to say that children attending a progressive, Waldorf, or Reggio Emilia school won't acquire these skills through those programs — many do. But if your child doesn't, you won't be getting a call from the preschool director raising a red flag that she can't draw circles and squares. They are more relaxed and believe that children will learn these skills when they're interested and developmentally ready.

One approach isn't necessarily better than another. My recommendation is that you visit each type of school and try to determine the program that feels right for your child and family.

Know your options — use Noodle to browse preschools near you.