For the past few months, my husband and I have been visiting various preschools, trying to decide on the “right” school for our daughters. To preface this discussion, our girls have been attending a childcare facility since they were 18-months-old, because we both work full-time. We had a nanny for the first 18 months, but once the girls began to walk and needed more socialization, we decided to put them in daycare/school/early childhood education center/preschool - what have you. Whether you’re on the hunt for a pre-kindergarten like we are now, or just beginning to think about preschool, here is my synopsis of the varying philosophies of early childhood education, as I saw them on the tours I went on.
Academic - The classrooms in academic preschools were orderly, spotless, and displayed all the things you would expect (A is for apple posters, calendars displaying the date & weather, and nametags neatly taped to desks). This type of preschool would fit into the most traditional philosophy of teaching and learning. The classrooms & days were structured, “teacher-directed,” and focused on formally preparing for kindergarten (learning letter names & sounds, how to count, etc.). Play happened during recess times and classroom etiquette was en pointe: raising hands, following instructions, and sitting at desks. The academic preschools reminded me of my own experiences with schooling.
Montessori – Montessori classrooms were also very orderly and clean, but the artwork on the walls had more variation than the ones in the more Academic classrooms. Children were quietly working at desks, some on math, others on reading. A few things that stood out as different/unique were the mixed age groups coexisting in one classroom, children choosing what they wanted to work on, and the concentration level of the children.
We toured a few Montessori schools and the most confusing part was that anyone can use the name “Montessori.” Therefore, XYZ Montessori, does not necessarily mean that they teach using the Montessori method. There is, however, a website (http://www.montessori.edu/) dedicated to providing detailed information on how to recognize real "Montessori.”
Play-based - In the play-based preschools, children were playing indoors and outdoors, with, what appeared to be, very little structure. The artwork displayed on the walls was varied and unique, and I did not see any traditional posters (alphabet, numbers, and calendars). Maybe two children were sitting at a desk at any given time, and teachers really took a back-seat, for lack of a better description. Play-based schools believe that children learn best through play, so children choose their own activities based on what interests them at the time. Teachers serve as facilitators whose role is to challenge children to expand upon their particular interests.
Waldorf - Children were working in small groups around the classroom and outdoors, and seemed to playing or engaged in other hands-on activities. Like the play-based school, the Waldorf school had unique artwork on the walls. Waldorf programs emphasize a “child-centered” philosophy, based on the idea of educating the whole child—body, mind, and spirit. They do not focus on academics, in the traditional sense, but instead offer a heavy dose of hands-on activities, imaginary play, and teamwork in a warm, nurturing environment that feels more like a home than a school. You can learn more about Waldorf preschools at www.whywaldorfworks.org.
I hope you found this superficial description of a few early childhood education philosophies helpful. If anything, it will give you a few new terms you can use in your Google searches.
The best advice I got on choosing a preschool was to go with your gut and do what makes sense for you (your child may be on the active side or more reserved, you may need longer hours, your child may not be potty trained, etc.). As time-consuming and confusing as this journey was and still is, it has been the perfect opportunity for my husband and me to openly talk about what we want for our children in schooling and in life.
I will end with a piece of unsolicited advice. Although parenthood is taxing, and we often feel like we cannot add one more thing to our days, start thinking about schooling early. Unlike elementary schools, preschools are not free and often have ridiculously long waiting lists. You will have many more options if you start the process early.