Types of Preschool Programs for Your Child

April 1, 2021

How do you pick the right preschool program for your child? After taking into consideration location and budget, the next factor to evaluate is the actual type of preschool program. Choosing a preschool program is an important decision because it lays the foundation for your child’s education. You are also trying to find an environment that meets both academic and social needs. But when your child is so young it can be hard to determine which type of program is the best fit and there are so many to choose from. Some preschools use a combination of styles each preschool may follow a curriculum or philosophy with varying degrees of strictness. We give you an overview of each type of preschool program to help you identify the best option for your child. 


What is play-based learning?

Play-based learning focuses on using exploratory activities as the platform for learning. Essentially children are naturally inclined to play and play-based learning capitalizes on this quality to encourage learning. Play can be in the form of child-led or free play or teacher-guided. Your child is able to gain both academic and social-emotional skills through different activities that they are often excited to participate in without necessarily realizing that they are learning. For example, the simple act of building with blocks can be an opportunity for a child to practice counting, creating patterns, and testing scientific principles. If another child is also involved it allows both children to practice communication skills and taking turns. Play-based preschools often avoid things like worksheets and formal structured lessons at desks and instead allow children to learn with their whole bodies. 
Nowadays play-based learning is a component of almost every preschool. According to NAEYC, “Play helps children make sense of their world and gives them an opportunity to learn how to get along, think, communicate, make decisions, delay gratification, solve problems, and build confidence.” All children love to play making play-based programs a popular choice for parents. Luckily most preschool programs incorporate some form of play within their curriculum.

What to look for in a play-based preschool program:

  • A variety of activities or a classroom set-up with different sections with varying play-related materials
  • A large focus on social and emotional skills as well as academic skills
  • Teachers utilizing observation rather than worksheets or tests to assess a child’s skills


What is a Montessori program?

A Montessori program is based on Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician. One of the biggest qualities that attract parents to Montessori education is the focus on self-driven learning. In a Montessori environment, children are given free choice over what they work on, making it a very individualized learning experience.  The role of the teacher is to observe and offer guidance when needed. The classroom is set-up to give children as much independence as possible by keeping easy access to materials and furniture and tools that allow children to do things for themselves, strengthening their "practical life" skills. For example, you might see a sink at a low height so a child can wash their own dishes or a small-sized broom so a child can easily sweep the floor. Because of the focus on self-directed learning and independence, children grow up to love learning and parents see that as a huge benefit. 

What to look for in a Montessori preschool program:

  • Focus on practical life skills like sewing, cooking, and cleaning
  • Mixed-age classrooms
  • Teachers working with one child or a small group of children rather than teaching an entire class at once

Reggio Emilia

What is Reggio Emilia?

Similar to Montessori, Reggio Emilia preschool programs are focused on the child and child-led. Children learn through long-term projects where they are encouraged to observe and refine their approach. This type of preschool program places emphasis on deep comprehension rather than memorization. Projects often cover a multitude of topics which allows children to learn about how two subjects such as art and math can be intertwined. Reggio Emilia also emphasizes collaborative learning and gives every child the opportunity to have their voice heard. This allows children to learn from each other and continue to refine their ideas and work. 

What to look for in a Reggio Emilia preschool program:

  • Easy access to materials such as paper, clay, and other art supplies
  • Documentation of a child’s work over time to show refinement and progress
  • Strong parental involvement
Child at Forest Preschool


What is a Waldorf preschool program?

Waldorf education focuses on three main areas: thinking, feeling, and doing. The reason for this is to have children understand and recognize the world around them. Waldorf education incorporates a lot of music and art into the curriculum along with the outdoors. Children often spend time on activities such as playing musical instruments and knitting. Writing is taught before reading and often reading isn’t formally taught until six or seven. Waldorf preschool programs create a very warm and nurturing environment where children are able to explore the environment and not feel pressure to formally learn early on and to instead focus on creativity and imagination.

What to look for in a Waldorf preschool program:

  • Classrooms feel more like a home with wooden furniture and little to no technology
  • Art and music incorporated into the architecture and decor of the classroom
  • Teachers performing real-life activities such as gardening or knitting, allowing children to imitate these behaviors


What is a forest preschool program?

Forest preschools, also known as nature preschools, incorporate nature as a channel to teach children. According to the Natural Start Alliance “Nature preschools have all the same child development goals that more traditional schools have, but they also are committed to accomplishing those goals through experiences in and with nature and have an added goal of helping children begin to develop care and concern for the natural world.” School typically takes place outside in a forest or similar outdoor environment rather than an actual classroom. The outdoors play an important role in educating children by allowing them to explore and learn with all of their senses and they typically occur rain or shine. While playing outside has been a hallmark of childhood from the beginning of time, formal forest preschool programs have really grown in only the past few years. Forest preschool programs are very hands-on and child-led.

What to look for in a forest preschool program:

  • A location near woods or a large outdoor area
  • An emphasis on physical activity
  • Activities such as hiking, arts and crafts incorporating natural materials found in the woods, or building

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