Understanding Preschool Designs

Eliza Clark
February 9, 2018

Becoming a parent involves a lot of learning. In the early days, we learn about nap schedules and swaddling and making baby food. In the toddler years, we study up on child-proofing equipment, managing tantrums, and potty-training. Come the preschool years, we're starting to feel that we really have mastered quite a bit of this parenting business. At the very least, we've acquired a lot of new lingo.

And then, what do you know, a whole new realm of mysterious terminology opens itself up before us as we begin to search for a preschool. All we're really after is a wonderful first school experience for our darling two or three-year-olds. But to get there, many of us first have to wrap our minds around the distinctions between Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia schools, Play-based versus Teacher-led instruction, and more. Where is the manual on all of this?

What follows is quick, Savvy guide to the most commonly found preschool designs. Before diving in, it's important to note that individual schools adhere to these designs in differing ways and enact them to varying extents. To understand how a particular school implements its stated philosophy, it is crucial to visit, observe, and ask questions. It's also important to know that many if not most preschools will not fall easily into one or another of these categories. Rather, lots of schools tend to borrow ideas and practices from a range of these designs to create their own unique approach. 

Even so, if you are in the midst of a preschool search, it is extremely useful to understand these major philosophies of early childhood education in order to ask smart questions about a particular preschool's orientation and influences. 


In a "play-based" or "free-play" school, children's choices and interests guide them through the day. The structure of the school day is minimal, encompassing perhaps a short "circle time" where the class comes together to read, sing or share, as well as snack, lunch and quiet time. Such preschools offer the full range of toys and activities - dress-up and pretend-play areas, art materials, books, blocks, and so on. Children move from one area to another as they please, with limits sometimes set on how many children may play at a certain station. Special projects may be offered to those who are interested, and teachers let the children's inquiries and fascinations guide them in exploring topics in more depth. Teachers see themselves as facilitators rather than guides of the children's learning and social development.

Structured or Academic

A structured or academically oriented preschool places significant focus on preparing children for the kind of classroom work they will be asked to do in a traditional Kindergarten. The days and weeks tend to follow a predicable schedule of circle time, a required activity, free-choice playtime, outside time, reading circle, etc. Some schools may offer a structured physical activity such as dance or gymnastics, or a language class. The weeks or months are apt to be organized around a teacher-chosen theme such as colors, nursery rhymes, oceans, gardens, and so on. Literacy and math skills are emphasized with worksheets, or, for example, by organizing activities around a "letter of the week." Children generally do have significant time for free play, but within the context scheduled school periods.


Montessori preschools derive their name and philosophy from Dr. Maria Montessori, an extraordinary pioneer in the history early childhood education. Born in 1870, she was Italy's first female physician, and understanding the development of young children became her life's work. A number of characteristics set Montessori schools apart. They offer multi-age classrooms encompassing a two or three-year age span with the idea that older children can nurture and be an example to the younger, and all can learn at their own pace rather than be pushed to keep up with all children of the same age. Each group of children stays with the same teacher over several years, forming a strong sense of community, also reinforced by a five days per week schedule. Maria Montessori's most profound insight was that young children teach themselves, so classrooms are organized around hands-on, self-directed, developmentally tailored projects and toys. Children are encouraged to focus on and complete the work they begin, with teachers as facilitators rather than instructors. Montessori programs aim to develop self-motivated, curious, and self-disciplined children. There is, however, a very wide range of ways in which the Montessori methods are put into practice in particular schools. For more, the web site of the International Montessori Index is a good place to start.


Waldorf education, based on the teachings of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, places focus on the development of the whole child - the heart, hands, body and imagination as well as the mind. Preschool activities include storytelling, puppetry and creative play; singing and movement; art; cooking; time in nature; and seasonal celebrations. Particular subjects are studied in depth over several weeks. Waldorf schools offer play materials made of natural substances (i.e. wooden toys), and strongly discourage television and computers for young children. Children tend to stay with the same teacher over several years, with the idea that a strong bond between teacher and child is the basis for learning. You can learn much more at the comprehensive site Why Waldorf Works.

Reggio Emilia

The Reggio Emilia approach to preschool was developed in the post-World War II years in Tuscany, Italy by parents seeking an educational antidote to the destructive forces of fascism and war. Reggio Emilia schools offer an environment of collaboration between teachers, children and parents with projects involving joint exploration and discussion. Teachers see themselves and learning and experimenting alongside the children, thereby imparting a model of constructive thinking skills. Making art is at the center Reggio Emila schools, as is the creation of a beautiful school environment. Children initiate projects and choose activities as a group, with teachers providing input and support, and documenting the work as it develops. There is also often a strong element of parental involvement in the classroom. For a wonderful description of the philosophy's implementation in American schools, see this 2007 New York Times article.


Cooperative preschools are run by parents seeking to give their children a strong sense of community, and a robust connection between home and school. Significant volunteer hours are required of every family, but in return the cost of these schools is significantly less than other programs. Many co-op schools have a professionally trained lead teacher who guides the classroom and the parent volunteers. The educational philosophies found at co-ops run the gamut, the common theme being that parents are their children's first and most important teachers.


Many state preschools use a "mandated curriculum" approach where the teachers follow a program that focuses on implementing certain curricular programs, such as the popular Creative Curriculum, which "balances both teacher-directed and child-initiated learning with an emphasis on responding to children's learning styles and building on their strengths and interests. Resting on a firm foundation of research, it has an environmentally-based approach that defines the vital role of the teacher in connecting content, teaching, and learning for preschool children and offers a practical, easy-to-understand approach to working with children and their families. It is a comprehensive curriculum with a clear organizational structure and a particular focus on interest areas."

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    I am in the process of becoming a teacher and this web-site has really been of a lot of help.

    over a year ago


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