Understanding the varied preschool philosophies


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When choosing a preschool, most parents consider factors such as location, cost and schedule. Though these logistical factors are important, a school’s educational approach more directly affects the day-to-day experience of children at the school. The school’s philosophy determines what learning goals are emphasized, the way teachers interact with children, and what materials and toys are used in the classroom.

Preschools may use one or a combination of the following major approaches to early childhood education. Think about your child’s personality and learning style as you review these methods, and try to imagine how your child would fit into each environment.

Developmental (play-based) — This is the most common early childhood educational approach in the United States. Play and social interaction are emphasized, and children are grouped by age. The classroom is usually organized into different centers for learning such as housekeeping, blocks, table toys, art and sensory toys. Open-ended materials such as sand, water, blocks and art materials are also used. Children are encouraged to explore materials and express ideas through fantasy play and art. They can play alone or in small groups, and the whole group often comes together for songs, stories or other “circle time” activities. The teacher is more of a facilitator than instructor. Developmental classrooms are busy, noisy and interactive environments and are often informal.

Montessori — Based on the philosophy of Dr. Maria Montessori, who believed the goal of education should be to cultivate a child’s natural desire to learn, this approach emphasizes initiative and independence. Teachers graduate from a Montessori training program. They use specially designed sensory-based materials that progress from simple to complex and concrete to abstract. Teachers work as guides to teach children to use the materials and move them from one activity and level to the next. Children explore the materials independently and through interactive experiences and are encouraged to help teach other children. Practical skills such as cooking, cleaning and gardening are taught as well. A simple and aesthetically pleasing environment is maintained to help children focus on learning. Montessori classrooms are usually calm and quiet.

Reggio Emilia — Based on highly successful preschools developed by the townspeople of Reggio Emilia, Italy, these schools follow a project-based curriculum that flows from the interests of the students. Teachers observe what students are naturally curious about and then guide children through in-depth studies of concepts and ideas related to these interests. Such projects are often explained to the children as adventures, and teachers carefully document each child’s progress. Teachers present concepts in multiple forms such as print, art, drama, music or puppetry to ensure children with different styles of learning understand what is being taught. Children are expected to partner with their teachers and parents in the learning process. Reggio Emilia schools maintain aesthetically pleasing environments, and the classroom is often quiet and calm.

Academic (traditional) — Based on the idea that children benefit from early preparation for kindergarten, these programs de-emphasize social and emotional development in favor of academic skill development. Teachers give direct instruction that focuses on teaching basic skills such as identifying shapes, colors, letters and numbers, and other formal reading and math readiness concepts. Open-ended materials such as blocks, sand, water and art materials are also used. The day is organized around a specific schedule of work time, snack and outside time. Traditional classrooms are often quiet and formal.

Cooperative — More of a structure rather than a specific philosophy, these schools require parents to participate in the classroom, maintenance and administrative duties of the school. Typically a paid, professional teacher leads the classroom and sometimes serves as a director. Parents have a strong voice in how the school is run, and parent participation keeps tuition low. Various educational approaches are used.

Religious-affiliated — Religious-affiliated programs incorporate religious content into the curriculum. The degree of religious emphasis varies but may be presented in stories, songs and woven into academic lessons. Most schools welcome students from all backgrounds, though a preference is usually given to children within the faith and whose families are members of the congregation. These programs vary greatly depending on the philosophy of the director and teachers. Various educational approaches are used.

Digging deeper
In order to determine the educational approach taken by various preschools, start by requesting materials from each school and look at websites where available. Narrow the prospects by determining which schools work for your family in terms of distance, schedule and tuition. A comprehensive directory of Triad preschools can be found at PiedmontParent.com. From the homepage, click on Education/Schools under Directories & Resources, and then click on Preschools.

Once you have a manageable number of prospects, visit each school you are considering. Note application deadlines and schedule your visit accordingly.

The preschool director and teaching staff should be able to readily discuss the school’s educational approach and how this approach is carried through to the classroom level. Spend time in the classrooms observing how this approach is put into action.

Confirm your impressions of the school with others. Try to find parents at each school who can share firsthand experiences. Directors may give referrals, or you can look to friends, neighborhood email groups or social media. Ask these parents about the positive aspects of the school and the community of families whose children attend. Finally, ask them what they would change about the school.

Keep in mind that there is probably no “perfect fit” and that children thrive in many settings. Nonetheless, understanding a school’s educational approach will go a long way toward helping you choose a preschool that honors your values and meets the needs of your child. And doing your homework gives you more confidence in whatever choice you make.

Jan Wharton is a freelance writer and mother of three from Winston-Salem. For more information, visit JanWharton.com.

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