Early childhood education is a child’s first journey into learning and exploration. These are crucial years in a child’s life that can prepare them for a lifelong love of learning. Choosing the right preschool can feel like an uphill battle but with a little intentional effort, the end result can provide the child with a solid foundation of social/emotional, academic and physical development.
There are some initial questions to ask when choosing an educational program for your child. As their parent you know your child better than anyone, so your first question should be which philosophy best fits my child?
Below is a brief breakdown of a few of the different philosophies and corresponding methods for consideration.
- Traditional – Teacher directed
A traditional philosophy has a more structured curriculum with specific objectives for the children. Children learn from the adults, rather than through their own explorations. This method is a more task-oriented approach where a high level of teacher instruction and repetition is given. Often worksheets pertaining to subject matter are used to foster learning. Although free-choice periods can exist, the emphasis is on formal group instruction and less on independence and personal motivation. Creative and imaginative play is limited. Goals are built around teaching children basic academic skills like math and language with the primary focus on kindergarten preparedness. The idea is the child will leave ready for primary school and is prepared for placement testing and other state mandated progress exams.
- Progressive – Learning through play
In a progressive philosophy there is limited pre-planned curriculum. Children work at their own pace learning through play interacting with other children rather than the teacher (traditional) or the materials (Montessori). There is an emphasis on social/emotional development in a progressive classroom. They focus on building community through a relaxed and open setting. The progressive classroom is typically set up with centers and open-ended materials to promote independence, curiosity, creativity and imaginative play. These centers would be filled with intentional materials to promote all areas of development. The goal is for children to leave more independent, creative, confident and curious about what they will learn next.
- Montessori – Self-directed learning
At a Montessori school the prepared environment is the curriculum. The materials are set up to guide and teach the child. Each day provides a work period which is typically 3 hours where the child independently chooses their “work” and can move through it at their own pace. Most interaction is between the child and the materials. The teacher acts as a guide, initially showing them how to utilize the materials and then steps back and allows the child to explore and learn. These schools typically have mixed age groupings encouraging older children to help younger children. Children learn skills like cooperation, organization, independence, as well respect for the classroom.
- Reggio Emilia – Classroom as the teacher
The Reggio approach does not adhere to a pre-set curriculum, but instead it allows the curiosity and discovery of the children to influence the learning direction. Teachers partner with parents to assist with their child’s learning. The classroom is the “third teacher” and is set up with displays of children’s creations as well as centers devoted to dramatic play, art, writing, sand/water exploration, math, blocks and science. The teacher follows the interest of the child and expand on these interests through long term projects and discussions. Learning is documented through pictures, videos and notes. Children leave with skills in exploration and discovery.
- Waldorf – Hands on exploration
In a Waldorf school the idea is to educate the whole child. “Main lessons” are taught in blocks of time each day so the child has a deep understanding of the material. In the early years the learning is hands on and is done through cooking, art, projects, storytelling, singing, dress up, puppet shows and play. Typically, the teacher stays with the same group of children for their entire time at school. This leads to a strong relationship and consistency in learning. Waldorf provides community and teamwork, and creative play is the approach used daily.
Additionally, many unaffiliated schools or centers have the freedom to use a combination of approaches and can draw the best concepts from each one. Therefore, as you explore the possibilities, tour as many schools as possible to observe the classrooms in action.
Before you go, consider answering these questions:
- Does my child like organization, routine, more structure or less structure?
- Do they enjoy playing alone, one on one or in a group?
- Are they a visual or concrete learner or do they thrive more through creativity and imaginative play?
Finally, as you observe, be aware of how the children interact with one another, their environment, and the teachers and envision how your child would benefit from that school’s particular philosophy and approach to learning. Though these questions provide a great starting point as you consider how the various philosophies and methods will encourage your child’s unique personality, remember no one philosophy is right or wrong and regardless of the philosophy, your natural intuition and comfort level around the staff and school culture is an equally important indicator for determining the “best” fit.