July 22, 2024


The Gods Made Home

How to Choose Between Montessori, Progressive, Traditional, Waldorf, Or Reggio Emilia Preschools

Types of Preschools from Which to Choose

When I sent my daughter to nursery school, I wanted the most nurturing environment I could find. I chose a wonderful, progressive program in downtown Manhattan. A few years later, when we were interviewing uptown for a selective girl’s school, the admissions director told me that when my daughter would be interviewed there, they would test her. She would be expected to draw circles, squares, triangles and rectangles. My eyes opened wide in shock and I said, “But my daughter doesn’t know how to draw those!” She looked at my daughter’s file and said (rather snootily), “Oh yes, your daughter went to one of those downtown play schools.”

I was offended that she viewed the school I loved so much that way. But what could I do? Meanwhile, I ran into a neighbor who had sent her daughter to a fancy uptown traditional nursery school. She was applying her daughter to the same girl’s school. So I said to her, “Guess what! The kids are going to have to draw circles, squares, triangles and rectangles to get in.” My neighbor said, “Oh, Erica can do that. They spent a whole month on a shape unit at her school.” In fact, Erica had produced an entire shape book for every major shape (including diamonds!) during that unit.

So, when you choose a nursery school for your child, whichever type of school you choose, remember that at the end, there is a test if you want private school or a gifted program. Even if you send your child to a regular ol’ public kindergarten, she will still be tested in the very early days for placement in slow, average and advanced ability groups. Some schools prepare kids for these tests and others don’t. Frankly, I probably would have chosen the same progressive school I chose no matter what because we loved it. But I wish I had understood from the beginning that there would be an important test at the end and if the nursery school didn’t prepare my child, I would have to.

Here are the five most common types or philosophies of preschools you’ll see – Montessori, Progressive, Waldorf and Reggio Emilia.

It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at a preschool in a church, temple, co-op, private or public program – they are all likely to have adopted one of these approaches to education.


Personally, I love Montessori schools and encourage you to tour one and see for yourself. Not only do kids learn a lot, but they are taught not to start a new project until they put the materials they were working on away. My daughter was always very messy and I have to wonder if she wouldn’t have been had I sent her to a Montessori school when she was very young.

Marie Montessori started her schools in the early 20th Century as a way to train severely retarded children. The materials she created were so effective that they were later used with normally intelligent children.

The goal of Montessori is to establish independence, self-esteem, and confidence in a child while fostering learning at his own pace.

In a Montessori classroom, the main interaction is between the child and the materials, not the teacher and the children. At first, the teacher demonstrates to the children the proper use of each set of materials. Then, the child can take the materials out, place them on a mat, and use them as the teacher taught her. When she is finished, she puts it away before starting another project. The emphasis is on self-directed learning.

Once the teacher has demonstrated the use of the materials, children work on them individually or in small groups. With this level of individualized instruction, children with learning delays or who are gifted often do well in a Montessori classroom.

The materials used in a Montessori classroom are built around three areas. 1) Practical life skills (folding shirts, tying shoelaces); 2) Sensory (handling geometric shapes, putting blocks into the right holes) and; 3) Language and mathematics (handling sandpaper letters and numbers, counting beads on a long chain). As you can imagine, children learn a great deal with this curriculum – numbers, letters, adding, subtracting, practical life skills, information and more.

The Montessori classroom is usually very bright, warm and inviting. There are usually several learning centers where children can explore via hands-on, tactile materials.

Children are of mixed ages, typically three to six-years-old, with the older children helping the younger ones. Kids are encouraged to work at their own pace and build their own foundation of knowledge. When they emerge from Montessori, they are cooperative, organized, respectful of other children’s work, and able to work independently.

Progressive (a.k.a. Developmental, Child-Centered, Bank Street Model)

This is the type of program I chose for my kids and we loved it. Here, the philosophy is that children need to explore and learn through imaginary play, art, and block building. The progressive classroom is usually set up as a series of “centers” where learning can take place using open-ended materials. There might be a fantasy play area, a cluster of easels with paint, a block corner, a water table, puzzle area and more. Teachers set these environments up in response to what they see the children are interested in. They move among the areas and encourage the kids to pursue their own projects and ideas at these centers. Play is considered the “work” of children and is taken seriously.

Here, there is no pre-planned curriculum that kids follow. Since teachers are following the children’s lead, what kids learn from year to year and between the morning and afternoon sessions may be different. Children work at their own pace, learning through play. The interaction is between the children as opposed to between the children and the materials (as with Montessori). At no prescribed points are children expected to learn any particular skill. In fact, specific learning through teaching is frowned upon. This explains why my daughter didn’t have a “unit” on shapes – This just wasn’t done in a progressive school.

Social interaction between children is very important in a progressive classroom. There is much talk about “community.” Separation between child and parent is seen as a major developmental step and a lot of time and energy is spent on this. The atmosphere is informal. Kids often call teachers by their first names and you would never find uniforms in such programs. The school is usually more relaxed about when a child should be toilet trained.

Children who attend progressive schools are usually more independent, curious, creative and likely to ask questions. They often score higher on tests of problem solving and curiosity, but lower on IQ tests. If your child will need to be tested for private school or a gifted program after attending a progressive school, you will want to be sure he has gained all the abilities IQ tests will assess.

In the traditional classroom, there is a structured curriculum with specific goals for the children. Goals are built around teaching children math, letters, numbers, sounds, shapes, problem solving, classifying, listening and more. The talk around the water table is most likely to be teacher directed instead of child led. Here, teachers instruct, direct, explain, and organize each lesson. Children learn from their teachers instead of their own exploration.

In this type of classroom, all the kids are likely to be working on the same activity at the same time. For example, at Thanksgiving, they may all work on putting pre-cut construction paper together to make turkeys. The emphasis will be more on the finished product than the process. If you go into a classroom and see a bulletin board displaying 20 matching turkeys, you are probably in a traditional school. At this type of school, kids might be working with worksheets to learn math and writing. There is an emphasis on school readiness.

Certainly there might be a free-choice period, but there is more emphasis on formal instruction. Children call teachers Mrs. X or Miss Y. You might find uniform or a dress code at this kind of school. At a traditional program, they will be strict about making sure your child is toilet trained before the age of three. Studies have shown that kids who attend traditional schools are less aggressive toward peers, more task oriented and do better on IQ and achievement tests. On the downside, they show less independence and initiative, their play is not as imaginative, and they score lower on tests of creativity.

Waldorf Schools

Developed by Rudolph Steiner in 1919, Waldorf programs aim to educate the whole child – “head, heart and hands.” Classrooms are warm and homey, creative play is the order of the day, with a strong dose of teamwork and community. The teacher stays with the same class from preschool through eighth grade, which leads to a strong relationship where the teacher truly knows your child.

Learning is hands on, through cooking, art projects, storytelling, singing, puppet shows, dress up and play. Academics are not emphasized in the early years, with reading readiness beginning in kindergarten and actual instruction starting in first grade. “Main lessons” are taught in blocks of 1.5 to 3 hours a day with each subject block lasting 3 to 5 weeks. This way, children experience the curriculum as deeply and vividly as possible. Activities that are seen as extras at many schools are core to Waldorf philosophy – art, gardening, and foreign language. In the early years,, much learning takes place through art versus lecturing and rote learning. All children knit and play the recorder.

In the early years, Waldorf schools don’t use textbooks. Instead, children have their own “main lesson books” which the fill out during the year, recording their experiences. Later, textbooks are introduced for certain classes such as math and grammar. Grades do not begin until middle school. Instead, teachers write detailed reports about each child’s development and progress.

The use of electronic media by young children, especially TV, is discouraged in Waldorf Schools.

Reggio Emilia Schools

Loris Malaguzzi founded the Reggio Emilia approach at a city in Italy called Reggio Emilia. Newsweek Magazine hailed them the best preschools in the world in 1991. Their approach sees children as being competent, resourceful, curious, imaginative and inventive.

In a Reggio Emilia school, educators play close attention to the look and feel of the classroom, which is often referred to as the “third teacher.” The goal is to create a room that is beautiful, joyful, inviting and stimulating. Children’s work is on display along with collections of leaves or rocks they have gathered from field trips. There is natural light, plants, mirrors, photographs and children’s work to capture the attention. Different centers are located throughout the classroom. They are devoted to dramatic play, art, writing, sand/water, reading, math, manipulatives, blocks and science. Much thought goes in to the design of a Reggio Emilia classroom in order to support their multi-sensory approach to learning.

After the teacher organizes the classroom in a way that is rich with possibilities, she invites the children to undertake exploration and problem solving. By observing the children, she learns what they are interested in and uses that information to act as a resource for them, asking them questions, discovering their ideas, helping them crate hypotheses and theories to test. There is no pre-set curriculum. Teachers and parents are seen as partners in learning with the children. Teachers document the children’s discussions, remarks and activities through notes, videos and photographs. This makes learning visible, helping parents understand what their children are doing, teachers understand the children better, and children see that their work is valued.

Long-term projects emerge out of spontaneous play and exploration with children. They may last from days to several months. Depending on children’s interests, topics for projects are decided (with the children’s input). Teachers bring in materials, books, questions, and opportunities for the children to explore the topic further. Exploration may take place through field trips, discussion, drawing, sculpture, puppetry, drama, shadow and dramatic play, and writing.

Combination Schools

Some schools use a mixture of the approaches mentioned above. You might find a program using the “best” of Montessori, while also spending lots of time on separation and socialization, which a pure Montessori school wouldn’t do. Some very structured and traditional schools will throw in a few elements of progressive into their program and say they are a combination school. This wouldn’t be a true combined approach unless the teachers are allowing the academic work to evolve out of the kids’ interests.

How do you know which educational philosophy a school follows? Look at their materials. Ask when you visit. But most of all, observe when you visit. Many schools are very clear about who they are and which philosophy they follow. Other directors will tell you they are are a mixture of progressive and traditional, but when you observe, you will clearly see they are one or the other.

Children attending a traditional or Montessori school are more likely to “graduate” with the types of skills private schools will be looking for. Traditional schools teach the skills and Montessori materials lend themselves to children learning these skills independently. This isn’t to say that children attending a progressive, Waldorf or Reggio Emilia school won’t acquire these skills through the program – many do. But if your child doesn’t, you won’t be getting a call from the Director raising a red flag that your child can’t draw circles, squares or triangles. These directors believe that children will learn these skills when they are interested and developmentally better.

One approach isn’t necessarily better than another. My recommendation is that you visit each type of school and determine which feels like the best fit. You may decide that your child is best suited for either a traditional or Montessori education. There are other factors you’ll want to consider in deciding on a preschool, but by exploring the various philosophies first, you’ll be able to rule out types of schools that don’t feel right for your child.