Preschool Philosophy 101

Understand the many approaches to early childhood education.



Preschool Philosophy 101

Preschools subscribe to many different theories and philosophies of education. You may hear some of the following terms used to describe schools you're considering. Familiarize yourself with the various styles to help determine which one is the best fit for your child. Each school may interpret the philosophy a little differently; what's most important is finding one that's a good match for your child — one that will make his first school experience a positive one that inspires a lifelong love of learning.

  • Montessori
    Montessori is centered on establishing independence, self-esteem, and confidence while fostering learning at a child's own pace.

    This self-paced education is accomplished by changing the role of adults in the classroom from teachers of a whole class into that of "guides," as they are often called, for the students as individuals. According to the American Montessori Society, guides have four principle goals, which encompass what the Montessori method hopes to achieve. The guide strives to:
    • awaken your child's spirit and imagination;
    • encourage his normal desire for independence and high sense of self-esteem;
    • help him develop the kindness, courtesy, and self-discipline that will allow him to become a full member of society;
    • help him learn how to observe, question, and explore ideas independently.

The guide may introduce a lesson to the class as a whole, but will then focus on working with students in small groups as they investigate topics on their own in a carefully prepared classroom environment. This individualized attention means children with special needs — whether they are gifted or delayed — often do well in a Montessori environment.

  • Waldorf
    Waldorf programs strive to stimulate kids' bodies, spirits, and souls with a nurturing, homelike environment that engages all five senses. Rudolf Steiner, who founded the first Waldorf school in Germany in 1919, believed that small children learn best by imitation and their physical surroundings. Creative play is the most important means of learning in a Waldorf classroom, with a heavy dose of teamwork and togetherness. If your child attends a Waldorf school for many years, he will remain with the same teacher from preschool through 8th grade! The result is a deep, close relationship, one in which your child's needs are better understood from year to year.
  • Projects
    The goal of these programs is to let children learn by experimentation, exploration, and collaboration. Teachers and their charges tie the work they do in the classroom to real-world experiences and lessons. They play with materials that inspire exploration and pretend play, such as blocks and art supplies, and take lots of community field trips.

    In a projects-based program, children work independently. The teacher serves as a guide, providing advice or help when needed but largely standing back and letting the children decide how to handle a problem themselves. The children negotiate with their teacher about the rules and directions for the project and what they want to accomplish with it.
  • Community/Religious
    Many child-care centers, community centers, and religious organizations offer preschool programs. These typically feature the classic preschool experience you might remember from your own childhood, with an emphasis on both socialization and pre-academic skills. If age-appropriate religious instruction is important to you, you'll want to consider one of these programs seriously.

    These programs vary greatly depending on the philosophy of the director and teachers. They may include elements from several styles of programs (such as Montessori or Projects). To varying degrees, children will learn by playing and experimenting with language, toys, and art materials. Some schools may have a stronger emphasis on pre-academic skills and direct instruction, while others will offer a more hands-on curriculum.
  • Cooperative
    If you can't afford a traditional preschool, or can't find one with a philosophy that meshes with your own, consider looking for or even founding a cooperative school. These parent-run programs are usually less expensive than other schools (because of the sweat equity that parents contribute) and allow participating families to help decide what kids will learn and how.

    In a cooperative preschool, parents take turns doing everything from managing the finances to washing the windows to assisting in the classroom. Usually, a professional teacher oversees the classroom, but parent volunteers recruit and hire her, serve as her aides, and help develop the curriculum.
  • Reggio Emilia
    Many experts have hailed the Reggio Emilia approach as an exemplary system for helping children develop strong thinking skills. The primary goal of this method is to create learning conditions that help children develop these abilities through exposure to all matter of expressive, communicative, and cognitive experiences. Four guiding principles work together to meet this objective:
  • Emergent curriculum: Topics for study are built on the interests of the children, determined by discussions with the class and their families, and by areas that fascinate many children, such as puddles and dinosaurs.  
  • Projects: Children participate in in-depth studies of concepts, ideas, and interests. Such projects are often explained to the children as adventures, and can vary in duration from a week or two to the entire school year.
  • Representational development: Teachers present new ideas and concepts in multiple forms, such as print, art, drama, music, puppetry, etc. This variation is considered essential in making sure that all children (who have many different styles of learning) have the chance to understand what is being taught to them.
  • Collaboration: Groups both large and small are encouraged to work together to solve problems using dialogue, comparisons, negotiations, and other important interpersonal skills. Each child's voice should be heard within the group to promote the balance between a sense of belonging and a sense of self.
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Critical Thinking
Choosing Schools & Programs
Age 4
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Learning Styles
Early Learning