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From Montessori to Waldorf: What Are the Differences Between Preschools?

Say the words “preschool selection” to parents of young children and get ready for the war stories. Even if you don’t live in an area of competitive preschool admission, the transition into a non-parent-led environment is a big step. When I told my mother that I was writing about this, she instantly flashed back to the olden days, recounting her own struggles in finding complete information about what program would be best for me. “This was before the internet,” she told me (yes, I’m aware, Mom. Thanks.) “I had pages and pages of notes.” Then she and my dad decided to get out of New York City and she no longer needed her copious notes. Instead, she took her carefully compiled research and handed it all off to her mom group. “They were so excited!” my mom remembered happily. “All that information!”

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We take a lot of that access for granted now, but the preschool-selection process can still be confusing and hard to navigate. There are passionate advocates for every early learning philosophy, so the most important thing is knowing your own child. What works beautifully for one kid may be a train wreck for another. Additionally, remember that what was a great fit for one may not work for the next. Siblings are individuals and often have entirely different sets of needs. With that in mind, here is a handy-dandy overview of some of the most popular approaches, outlining some of the differences in philosophies to help you in the decision-making process.

Bank Street/play-based

Most schools say that they apply to this philosophy — “play-based” is a common buzzword of the moment. Parents should ask for explanation of what this really means — such as use of social interaction and experiential learning — when gauging a school’s approach. Melissa Dutcher, director of Mount Vernon Weekday School in Alexandria, Virginia, says that parents are often unclear about what this kind of learning looks like; it should be process-oriented vs. product-oriented (creative vs. reproductive). “Let them make their own picture of what they see — their own princesses, their own pirates, whatever that might be,” she says.

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This philosophy is as much about the parents as it is about the kids. Cooperative schools are parent-driven and typically have specific assigned responsibilities and expectations for involvement. The school depends on parents to assist within the school. Some may not depend on parents within the classroom, but instead assign responsibilities for grounds maintenance or other school-upkeep tasks. Dutcher taught in a school with this philosophy and saw some inconsistency, depending on who was in the room at any given time. She says that some parents like having a front-row view of what their child is experiencing and that some schools interview parents and children to ensure the best fit for their program.


This is a full-day program as opposed to many others, which are part-time, and is a national franchised program (not nonprofit) accredited by individual states. This philosophy emphasizes individuality and according to the Goddard website uses a play-based approach that is student-focused and teacher-led. The website also highlights the schools’ focus on building social skills and academic growth.


This approach is kid-driven; the true philosophy dictates completely child-led learning, so most apply the ideology with an understanding of teacher-directed balance. Therefore, most schools are more Montessori-influenced than purely applied. In the U.S., the Montessori approach is usually available only in early environments and some children may have difficulty later with the transition to a more structured environment.

Reggio Emilia

Child-focused and like Montessori in its belief that children are capable of self- direction and that curriculum should be adaptive to the students’ interests and needs, the Reggio Emilia philosophy focuses on bringing art and nature into instruction. It is centered on teaching children to understand their place in the world, particularly the natural world, which will in turn inspire them. Teachers are facilitators and mentors, but not leaders or planners — this comes from the kids. Playing and learning are entirely intertwined: no traditional “school” learning takes place.

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This approach, based on Piaget’s theory of child development, depends heavily on imitation and experiential learning. Waldorf schools use a foundation of daily routine, structure and predictability. Dutcher says that many play-based programs, including hers, utilize aspects of this approach. Her experience is that parents often expect to see elements of this, such as a daily schedule.

The options are many and varied; don’t be afraid to ask questions about the different programs, of the schools themselves and of parents whose children are already enrolled. Some facilities may also allow for prospective-parent observation or even a trial “playdate” for potential students — it can’t hurt to find out. In the end, the school where you and your child are comfortable, regardless of the name or pedigree, is best.

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