When I first started looking into preschool options for my 2-year-old, I realized a couple of things. One, I was somehow already behind—apparently should have put my child on a waiting list while he was in the womb—and two, decoding different styles felt like encountering a new language. Montessori what? Waldorf who? Not to mention trying to figure out how much it cost, teacher-to-child ratios, and the pros and cons of half-day versus full-day options for two working parents.
But I digress. According to some research, the type of preschool parents select may just be a preference thing, anyway, based on whatever fits a child’s personality or learning style. It all comes down to two core philosophies: most preschools subscribe to either discovery-focused activities or a more academically-based curriculum. Here are a few pieces of advice to keep in mind when choosing a program that’s a good match for your kiddo, as well as a quick breakdown of common options.
1. Make sure your child is truly ready for preschool
Almost all parents want to find the right preschool for their family, but it can depend on a lot of different factors, says early childhood education expert Joe Wiseman. “You want to move your child into a program that helps prepare her or his rapidly developing body, mind, and social skills for the complex environment and demands of kindergarten and later life,” he continues. “If your child is beginning to demonstrate the social and self-management skills to follow directions and engage in group projects, they are ready for preschool.”
2. Remember some elements shouldn’t vary across preschools
“Children are naturally curious, active, and eager to learn and try new things,” adds national education expert Tania Ferradino. “To keep them that way, preschoolers need a readiness curriculum that encourages playful learning. A strong preschool curriculum builds learning opportunities directly into play so that learning keeps pace with the growing child.”
Additionally, you should expect any preschool to focus on a few core activities no matter what: singing, playing, and drawing. “Singing, with movement, develops memory and language; social participation and imitation; rhythm; rhyme; and body awareness,” says Ferradino. “Playing encourages social skills, such as cooperation, taking turns, and following instructions. Hand-on letter play builds pre-writing skill, so children should learn letters (and numbers) in multi-sensory active play, such as making letters with dough, wood pieces, or magnetic stamps. And coloring or drawing with small crayons help children develop a good pencil grip.”
3. Ask questions to help make your decision
Peg Theobald, a mom and blogger in Grand Rapids, MI, suggests asking preschools any and all questions to help make a decision that’s right for your family. She outlines three that were most important to her: Is the school accredited? How are children with different abilities accommodated? And, what special programs does the school offer to your child? Of course, you’ll have your own list, but know it’s perfectly normal to roll through a laundry list of queries as you learn about different preschool options available to you.
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Montessori preschools promote independence and mixed-age settings
“Montessori schools are those that adhere to the Montessori Method: a child-centered educational approach to education,” shares Ais Her, director of schools at Fountainhead Montessori School in California. “The focus is on the learning triangle/triad of the teacher, child, and environment. Children use their individual choice, and interact with the teacher when they need support and/or guidance, in addition to utilizing their environment in order to develop him/herself. All materials, as well as the classroom, encourage independence, freedom within limits, and a sense of order, via guidance and preparation from the teacher.”
With this style, students usually focus on sensory-motor activities rather than memorization or repetition—and kids are encouraged to learn at their own pace. The research on this type of schooling shows mixed results: some studies suggest kids do better in them, while others indicate the opposite.
With this style, students usually focus on sensory-motor activities rather than memorization or repetition—and kids are encouraged to learn at their own pace.
One unique element of Montessori preschools? Multi-age groupings, which basically means that younger and older children are placed in the same classroom. That’s intentional, according to Her, based on the philosophy that younger children can learn from older children, and older children reinforce their mastery of certain concepts by essentially teaching the same concepts to younger students.
As for drawbacks, Her says the transition from Montessori to more traditional school environments can be tricky. “If students leave and go to another institution that does more desk work, they have a hard time completing work,” she notes. “Students are used to an environment that allows them to move around. In addition, students ask a lot of questions; they want to know the rationale behind things, so in these environments, students are ‘too’ social. In a Montessori environment, they are allowed to collaborate and work together to solve problems.”
Reggio Emilia preschools tend to be project-based around a child’s interest
Adam Cole, a music teacher at a Reggio-inspired school in Georgia, says this style is based on the idea that “children, even babies, are not empty vessels but people who bring their full selves to the school.” In his experience, the curriculum is child-initiated and directed; it aims to create learning situations rooted in hands-on discovery and invites kids to collaborate in group settings.
The curriculum is child-initiated and directed; it aims to create learning situations rooted in hands-on discovery and invites kids to collaborate in group settings.
For example, if your kid sees a dandelion outside and asks the teacher a question, it’s likely that he or she won’t be handed an answer—instead, a teacher might gently ask him or her to find out, and then that interest could evolve into certain projects or activities, like growing a garden. Also, it’s worth noting that there’s no formal Reggio Emilia certification process for instructors, and a lack of credentials or specific training might make some parents uncomfortable.
Waldorf preschools prioritize creative play with no homework or tests
With Waldorf schools, children don’t learn from any media, nor will they deal with homework, tests, worksheets, or even desks. Instead, kids spend a lot of time outside in order to engage in creative free play, social skills, and group activities. There’s a heavy focus on individualism and imagination, as to find out what kids are innately interested in or good at, and teachers offer direction accordingly.
With Waldorf schools, children don’t learn from any media, nor will they deal with homework, tests, worksheets, or even desks.
Two potential drawbacks stand out: there’s evidence that some Waldorf schools may lean toward an anti-vaccination viewpoint, and reading skills aren’t pushed until at least first grade.
Church or temple-run preschools are religious (obviously)
Another popular option involves church or temple-based preschools. These can vary widely in terms of classroom activities and religious messages, and some are open to children of any faith background. For this one, it completely depends on whether or not you’re already looking for this type of setting.
For this one, it completely depends on whether or not you’re already looking for this type of setting.
“We did a lot of research and decided upon a local, private Christian school that is very inclusive for kids of all backgrounds and abilities,” says Theobald. “Every parent and family ecosystem holds different beliefs and values. For our family, we are practicing Protestant Christians, and we want to raise our kids in this faith tradition. We also care deeply about practicing kindness, caring for the environment, and social justice issues. The Christian school we selected was a good fit for us, but a co-op preschool or Montessori program might be a better fit for other families.”
And that’s not all…
The above isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, and outside of those options, you may encounter the following types of preschools:
- Community organization: More like daycare than school, some local organizations like the YMCA, large companies, or science centers may provide preschool programs that aren’t affiliated with a specific educational approach.
- Co-op: For parents who want an extremely active role in a child’s school experience, along with more responsibility regarding business operations and decision-making around curriculum, cooperative preschools can be a great option.
- HighScope: A little lesser-known, this style focuses on something called active participatory learning based on child development research; it promotes math, reading, and science skills, as well as daily routines.
- Bank Street: Similar to play-based learning, this approach provides hands-on activities rooted in social studies; students set the pace and teachers help to guide.
But in general, trust your gut
Sarah Lougheed-Gill, director of admissions at a Los Angeles independent school, counsels hundreds of parents each year. Her best advice: tour several different preschools so you can see programs in practice, and then try to picture your child there.
Tour several different preschools so you can see programs in practice, and then try to picture your child there.
“Most preschools market themselves as child-centered and holistic,” says Lougheed-Gill. “Who wants to send their kid to a school that is not child-centered? Ask to spend time in the classroom or meet current parents. Can you imagine your child thriving in the environment at that school? Do you see yourself becoming friends with the other parents already enrolled? What do you remember most about your early childhood educational experiences? What do you want to duplicate from your childhood? What do you want to eliminate? By looking at facilities—clean, safe, secure—and engaging with the preschool’s facilitators—teachers, staff, administrators—parents will quickly discover which preschool feels like the right fit for them. Always trust your gut.”
This article was originally published on June 4, 2018 and has been updated for timeliness.