Preschool Philosophies At-a-Glance

waldorf? play-based? montessori? what does it all mean?

from The Savvy Source for Parents

Schools come in all different shapes and sizes, so wouldn’t it be nice if you could make some safe assumptions about certain preschool designs?

We’ve heard numerous complaints from parents disappointed that the school design they thought they’d chosen for their children was not at all what they got. There is enormous variation even among designs that supposedly follow a prescribed plan for values, materials, instruction and school organization. Some preschools do a design well, and others do not. That said, we know you’re hungry for any knowledge that can help you cut through the clutter of information about preschools, so here is help navigating the many different preschool designs. You most likely will find variations on these and other, less common designs available in your area.

Free Play or “Play-Based”

Philosophy: Young children develop full complement of cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills best when most of preschool day includes free play with materials that can be used individually or by small groups. Free play avoids decreased risk-taking and cooperation among young children, who may feel that they have “failed” when asked to do more structured work.

Common Practices:

  • Use of hands-on materials, art and self-initiated projects
  • Free play with limits set by number of children who are able to play at a particular station
  • Limited (or no) use of worksheets and limited focus on letters and numbers

May Best Fit Children Who Are:

  • Hands-on learners
  • Exposed to literacy and math outside of preschool
  • Self-motivated learners

Predominantly Teacher-Led Instruction (or “Structured” or “Direct” Instruction)

Philosophy: Young children will best be prepared for academic success if they are taught fundamentals of literacy and math directly, using teacher-lead instruction, worksheets teaching letter and number symbols, and the like.

Common Practices:

  • Use of worksheets to teach letter and number symbols, sounds and meanings
  • Whole group activities led by teacher
  • Some free play/choice time, but not as much as play-based preschools

May Best Fit Children Who Are:

  • Lacking exposure to literacy and math outside of preschool
  • Behind developmentally in cognitive areas
  • Not strong hands-on learners, prefer to learn by looking and listening


Philosophy: Develop culturally literate, self-disciplined children by nurturing their intelligence, independence, curiosity and creativity.

Common practices:

  • Classrooms are multi-age and students stay with one teacher for several years
  • Individual child choice about activities supporting individual learning styles
  • Materials are carefully structured to move individual children from one skill to the next
  • Task completion is valued and encouraged

May Best Fit Children Who Are:

  • Hands-on and visual learners – enjoy working with hands and visually stimulating materials
  • Not inclined to enjoy learning by listening and discussing (but some Montessori schools have many materials for small groups of students and encourage group “works” early – just ask)
  • Self-motivated learners
  • Advanced cognitively
  • Very hesitant to change and/or bond with new adults

Reggio Emilia

Philosophy: Emergent curriculum content and activities developed collaboratively by teachers and children to emphasize constructive thinking skills and the educational value of the planning and implementation process.

Common Practices:

  • Collaborative projects involving exploration, discussion and revision during process
  • Teacher is researcher who is an experimenter and learner along with children
  • Children choose activities with teacher input and support

May Best Fit Children Who Are:

  • Strong auditory learners, enjoy learning by listening and discussing
  • Strong hands-on learners, enjoy working with hands
  • Strong visual learners, stimulated by visually appealing environment
  • Exposed to literacy and math outside of preschool (academic content varies by program – just ask if this is a concern)
  • Self-motivated learners


Philosophy: Children learn best through experiences that awaken multiple senses and focus on capabilities.

Common Practices:

  • Students learn through experiences and personal exchange with teachers, rather than worksheets
  • Focus on developing intellectual, emotional, spiritual capabilities, not just content learning
  • Arts and physical activities used as learning tools
  • Intense study of one subject or topic over several weeks
  • Students stay with same teachers for many years

May Best Fit Children Who Are:

  • Strong hands-on learners, enjoy working with hands
  • Enjoy creative pursuits
  • Self-motivated learners
  • Exposed to literacy and math outside of preschool
  • Very hesitant to change and/or bond with new adults


Philosophy: Parents who know their own children’s needs can best guide a preschool toward excellence and integrate home and preschool life through significant, required parent participation in the preschool.

Common Practices:

  • Parents required to commit significant volunteer time to preschool operations
  • Strong parent community because of frequent contact at preschool
  • May use any design for curriculum and teaching method

May Best Fit Children Who Are:

  • Not applicable; preschool designs vary significantly

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