6 Types of Preschool Programs

Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Waldorf—the preschool options seem endless. Here's how to choose a preschool program and philosophy that works for your child.

Geared for children between 3 and 5 years old, preschool programs can help build your child's academic readiness, help them learn important social skills, improve cognitive development, and prepare your child for school. But given all the available programs, how do you choose the best one for your little one's personality and learning style?

For starters, it's helpful to know that preschool programs tend to fall into two broad categories in the United States: play and discovery-based learning or more academically structured, says Linda Whitehead, vice president of education and development for Bright Horizons.

"The first philosophy is learning through discovery, which includes programs with a focus on child-directed activities," she explains. "Teachers serve as guides and plan activities based on children's developmental levels. The second philosophy centers on programs that are more academically based, and typically include drill and practice components."

Whether you choose a discovery-focused or academic-based program is up to your personal preference, as well as your child's individual needs, age, energy level, and maturity. It might also depend on the length of the program you want (full day or half day). To make the decision easier, check out our guide to six popular preschool philosophies and programs.

And keep in mind, although our list is numbered, it's not a list that reflects that one is better than another; each program has its own considerations for different children.

1. Montessori

Developed by physician and educator Maria Montessori, this comprehensive preschool program takes a developmental approach to learning. All teachers must have an early childhood undergraduate or graduate degree, as well as Montessori certification. The curriculum emphasizes nature, creativity, and hands-on learning with gentle guidance provided by the teachers. Children focus on activities that align with their interests, which develops independence and natural curiosity.

Overall, the goal of the Montessori method is to develop a child's senses, character, practical life skills, and academic ability. "If your child is accustomed to a more rigorous schedule or guided learning, this may not be the right fit," says Hilary Levey Friedman, Ph.D., parenting expert and author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. Many Montessori programs continue past preschool into the adolescent stage.

2. Waldorf

This preschool program is based on the teachings of Austrian writer Rudolf Steiner, and it strives to nurture a child's spirit, soul, body, and interests. The Waldorf program involves creative, hands-on group learning with a focus on rhythmic repetition in a supportive environment. Indeed, the formulation of daily and weekly routines, as well as the cozy atmosphere of the classroom, create a "home-like" environment for the students.

The Waldorf program seeks to generate a strong inner enthusiasm for learning and develop children's innate abilities and talents. It's especially useful for preschoolers who thrive with set schedules. Instruction is teacher-directed, and every teacher must be Waldorf certified.

3. Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia schools formed in Italy in the 1940s, and many preschool programs embrace this open-ended and child-led philosophy today. With an emphasis on exploration, the program focuses on the importance of community and self-expression. Students learn through art, projects, and activities that reflect their ideas and interests. There's also an emphasis on collaborative and cooperative classroom activities.

Teachers don't complete any formal Reggio Emilia training or credentialing. That's because Reggio Emilia is an overarching educational theory and practice, rather than a set method. Educators consider the students' intellectual, emotional, and creative potential when encouraging their self-guided learning.

4. HighScope

The HighScope Preschool Curriculum uses a carefully designed approach called active participatory learning. Children have hands-on experiences with their surroundings, which fosters the development of problem-solving tactics, conflict-resolution methods, and other important skills. Learning is supported through consistent daily routines and well-organized classrooms.

HighScope takes an academic slant with planned experiences in the basic subjects of math, reading, and science. It's based on past and current child development research. The backbone of the preschool program is "plan-do-review"—children plan out how to complete a certain project, work to reach their goal, and analyze the results afterward.

5. Bank Street

This developmental approach is based on the educational philosophy of John Dewym, and it focuses on a child's mental, social, emotional, and physical growth. In these preschool programs, the child is an active learner and gains knowledge about the world through experience. Students set the learning pace, and the teacher serves as a guide.

Comparable to play-based learning, the Bank Street approach teaches lessons through hands-on activities like building blocks, puzzles, clay, and dramatic play. Preschoolers often work in a non-competitive group environment.

6. Co-Ops

If you want to be directly involved with your child's school experience, consider a cooperative preschool, where parents and caregivers can work closely with the classroom teachers. In some settings, the parents involved can even choose a teacher to hire or alternate on a more homeschool capacity by rotating a lead volunteer teacher. Parents and caregivers might help with lessons, observe classroom behavior, and share in the business operation by serving on the school's board of directors.

A co-op can focus on any preschool philosophy that parents desire—or even combine multiple philosophies for a unique approach to learning. It's important to note, however, that co-ops require plenty of responsibilities and time commitments.

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