Preschool Philosophies: Which One is Right for Your Child?

October 2, 2010

Ever get confused by all the different kinds of preschool programs out there? Jenifer Wana, mom and author of How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child: The Ultimate Guide to Finding, Getting Into, and Preparing for Nursery School explains the differences in this guest article.

When researching preschools, many parents think about location, schedule, and tuition when deciding where to enroll. Yet there are also major educational philosphical differences that should be considered.

The school’s program philosophy has a lot of to do with the kinds of learning goals the school emphasizes, how the teacher interacts with the students, and what kind of toys and materials are available in the classroom. Finding the right fit for your child’s personality and your family’s values will help make his preschool years a positive experience.


This preschool philosophy, also known as “developmental,” is the most common in the United States. These schools believe that children learn best through play. This builds confidence, creativity, and a love for school while kids learn about a wide variety of things in an age-appropriate way.

Different stations are set up around the classroom—a reading corner, a dramatic play area, a puzzle table, etc. Teachers and facilitate learning while the children play and explore. For example, if children start exploring the sand table, the teacher may take that opportunity to talk about pouring and measuring. Kids generally move freely from one activity to another, though the group comes together for circle time, story time, etc.

There is a strong emphasis on social skills and getting along with others by sharing, taking turns, and resolving conflicts with words instead of crying or hitting. Teachers facilitate these skills by helping kids negotiate who gets to play with a toy or which role each gets to assume in make believe play.


The Montessori approach is based on the concept that “play is the child’s work.” While these preschools focus on academics, the goal is to let learning happen naturally at the child’s own pace and to foster independence by allowing children to make their own choices and teaching them skills that foster self-sufficiency.

Classrooms are structured around particular areas: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Mathematics, and Culture (includes geography, science, and music). Within those areas are special toys called “manipulatives.” In the Math area, for instance, a child may learn numbers by tracing rough-textured numbers and saying the number as they trace. Teachers serve more as guides, demonstrating how to use the manipulatives, then stepping back to let the children explore on their own. To learn more, go to the American Montessori Society (AMS) at, Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) at, or International Montessori Index at

Reggio Emilia

Under the Reggio Emilia approach, a project-based curriculum is followed based on the interests of the students. If the students show interest in dinosaurs in the classroom, for example, the teacher will begin a dinosaur project and read dinosaur books, set up digging-for-bones activities, and do art projects about dinosaurs. In a couple of weeks or months, when the kids show interest in something else, the curriculum changes to follow their interests. To learn more, go to North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) at and Innovative Teacher Project at


Waldorf schools provide a warm, nurturing environment that feels more like a home than a school. The philosophy focuses on creativity and the arts and emphasizes cooperation. Arts and crafts and playing make-believe are strongly encouraged, as well as practical activities such as cooking and gardening. Toys used in the classroom are made of natural materials such as shells, rope, beeswax crayons, and wooden (never plastic) toys. Parents are encouraged to skip TV and computers at home. To learn more, go to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America at


This is a more structured approach focused on formal reading and math readiness skills. The idea is that preschoolers benefit by preparing for the rigors of kindergarten and beyond at an early age. Similar to what children can expect to find in kindergarten, there is a daily schedule of planned activities that is closely followed so each day is consistent and predictable. Play takes place during recess outdoors or perhaps during a free-play period, but classroom time is devoted to developing skills such as identifying colors, time measurement, problem solving, and other reading, writing, and math skills.

Cooperative or Co-op Preschool

Co-op preschools are run by parents, who do everything from assisting in the classroom and editing the newsletter to managing the finances and washing windows. There is typically a paid, professional teacher who leads the classroom and sometimes also acts as the director. Otherwise, everything else is done by the parents. For parents with flexible schedules, a co-op can be a great, affordable option as the “sweat equity” keeps the tuition cost low. These preschools are usually child-centered and play-based, and operate on a part-time schedule. For more information, go to the California Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools at

Religious-Affiliated Preschool

If you want your child to receive age-appropriate religious instruction in preschool, you might want to look at a school that is affiliated with a church, synagogue, or other religious organization. A religious-affiliated program incorporates some degree of religious content through stories, songs, etc. Most schools welcome students from all backgrounds, though some give strong preference to children within that particular faith and whose families are members of the congregation.

Language Immersion or Bilingual Preschool

In a language immersion or bilingual preschool, the class is conducted partly or entirely in a foreign language. You can find preschools that teach French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Italian, and Japanese, among others. Children learn languages easily at a young age and these preschools are designed to take advantage of that window. In a language immersion classroom, the teacher only speaks the language and rarely, if ever, translates, though she may demonstrate what she means when speaking. At a bilingual school, English and the other language may each be spoken about half the time either throughout the day or on certain days of the week.

If you’re not ready to commit to a language immersion program, there are also preschools that expose students to a second language through singing and storytelling, or through optional after-school enrichment classes.

When touring schools, keep in mind that each individual school may interpret a particular educational approach in their own way. Some programs also combine philosophies, taking ideas from several to create their own approach. Be sure to read each school’s mission statement carefully, and talk to the director during your visit to see how she personally describes the school’s philosophy.

Jenifer Wana is a Bay Area mom of two and the author of How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child: The Ultimate Guide to Finding, Getting Into, and Preparing for Nursery School.