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Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilio, Play-based: What does it all mean?

As a parent, the educational approaches and influences used in daycare and preschool settings can be overwhelming to say the least.  While surfing around to find more information, we found this piece that was a nice, quick guide on different approaches: "Waldorf? Play-based? Montessori?  What does it all mean?"  The options, the options.  A few pretty common approaches include (linking to wikipedia only because it seemed easiest and comprehensive - forgive us; we're no experts ourselves!):

  • Montessori: focusing on child-directed learning, practical life, learning through discovery, and use of specific materials to further a child's independence and curiousity.
  • Waldorf: emphasizing imagination in early learning, with extensive time in guided free play in a homelike natural environment with natural materials.
  • Reggio Emilio: also giving children some control over their own learning, encouraging small group project work and self-expression where teachers and children work collaboratively.
  • Play-Based: creating an environment where children can safely explore and experiment and accomplish learning through play.

How to make sense of it all?!  What "method" works well with what "kinds" of children?  An urbanMama recently emailed, wondering about your thoughts, experiences and perspectives on these different approaches:

I was recently doing some light research on different pre-school education programs and it seems like the three most predominant schools of learning for kids this age are Montessori based, Waldorf based, and play-centered based.  I currently have my girls in a Montessori program, and we're very happy with it, but I'm curious about the other two.  Does anyone have any insight on these, either through personal or professional work experience?  Are there any early childhood education specialists who could weigh in on this?  When I try to search for more info online it's hard to separate fact and research from testimonials from pre-schools trying to sell their own programs.  Is there a method that seems to be better or worse, or is it, like many things, dependent on the needs of the individual child?


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As someone who went to a Waldorf school myself, I think the WS approach to early childhood is really lovely. I like the nature-based stuff they do, the imaginative play, the stories. (That said, Waldorf education is extremely teacher-directed in the older grades. It is not all funky creativeness, but quite didactic.)

More than the approach used, I think the most important thing in a preschool is the person running it and that person's way of interacting with kids. Kindness, modeling of peaceful conflict resolution, maintaining order and understanding children are what I looked for. (Oh, and folk songs. Lots of them!)

My kids thrived in a Montessori school that met all those requirements. But I have no doubt they'd have been happy in any other type of setting with a caring, nurturing, experienced teacher.

I agree, it just depends on who runs the school/center and how it is run, combined with what type of environment and teacher will work best with your child's temperament, and your family's philosophy. Also, Reggio is very art-based, and provides a lot of documentation.
Some and only some Waldorf schools: Cedarwood, Spindlewood, Apple Blossom's. Some Montessori schools: Franciscan Montessori Earth School, Harmony. Reggio based: Overlook Cooperative, Rowanberry, Opal School (inside the children's museum)and the Helen Gordon Child Development Center. Perhaps poking around their websites, or scheduling a tour to see these philosophies first hand would be helpful.Of course there are a billion websites and books as well, complete with comparisons/test scores (ugh) I am a go look see get a feel type myself.
Overall, as an educator and parent in Portland, I have been happy to see that there is a lot of blending of parts of all of these wonderful philosophies, where as other states I have lived are a bit more rigid and different from one another.

It can be pretty overwhelming to sort through all of the choices/philosophies and decide what's best for your child. It's also true as tiredmama points out that there are many schools (public included) that use some of these approaches or blend them.
Metro Parent has an article on their site that gives good basic info on the major philosophies, along with local resources and parents adding more information. http://www.metro-parent.com/education/many-schools-of-thought/

We just went through the process of looking for a preschool - ugh! I learned that it's important to look at your child and what would be the best fit for their needs and personality. We do have a lot of options here, and I liked some schools that just wouldn't be a good fit for our son.

I liked many things about the Waldorf schools we looked at, but a couple of them told me clearly that they didn't support extended breastfeeding or co-sleeping.

There's a showing of the new documentary Nursery University on Thursday night - we talked about it over on Activistas:


Check it out!

The definitions at the top of the post are technically all correct, but having been involved in alternative education for several years--each of those methods are radically different! I've had friends who had one child in a Waldorf school (it totally fit her personality) but the second one just didn't mesh. He was more logic/math oriented and needed a completely different setting! Then another friend was in a Montesorri school which they loved but their child was starving for basic 'kid-type' art projects!

The best thing you can do is:

1) visit a classroom (each one is different)

2) do some research on each philosophy (ask when you visit for materials/references).

3) accept that each type of school will have something they do well and something they do not. You as the parent are ALWAYS going to need to supplement your child's education no matter where they are. Make sure what's lacking is something you are willing/able to fill in. Everyone is different but here are some examples: In an art-based school you'll need to support your child in math/science development. In another school you'll need to provide outside art and music classes. And yet another you'll need to add nature appreciate and nature experiences.

Good luck!

Just to chime in on the play-based options locally. The cooperative preschools that are part of the state PCPO(Parent-Child Preschools of Oregon, I think) typically follow the play-bsed model.

My theory is that you can choose a philosophy that sounds like it might be a good fit, but that doesn't take the place of visiting and getting a feel for the school. Some schools are more "true to model" than others and can say and do things very differently.

And, like Kristi said, there will always be things about the school you like, and things you don't. Make sure you find a balance between what you really like, and what you can live with because you like the rest. Don't get sucked into the whole "well, it's x-philosophy so it must be right." If it's not working for you, move on.

And, don't get too stressed about all this. I hate to say it, but it is only preschool. It won't make or break your child!

Both of my children attended a cooperative preschool where families participate in the classroom and help run the school. This model worked for my children, but it also has helped me understand the importance of being involved in my child's education. This is now my philosophy at our local public school...parents have to help and be involved if possible.

Totally agree that you have to think about your childs needs and his/her fit with the teacher's style and class environment is more important than any of the philosophies. I wish I had focused on my child's fit with the teacher rather than embracing one philosophy over another when doing the initial pre-K search. We ended up pulling our son out of a program after two weeks b/c it was clearly a bad fit and starting again.

Fortunately, we found an *amazing* program for him with a teacher who is totally in touch with individual child needs, is an active communicator with parent and child and truly meets the children where they are. We feel like she is a partner in helping our child grow.

They actually have space in 4 year old class minimally for next Fall (though its a very small program). If anyone is interested, here is more info: It's a Reggio based coop program and opened in late 2008(http://www.urbanmamas.com/childcare/2008/11/a-new-preschool.html). The teacher used to be at Helen Gordon, has a few decades of experience and is always taking classes, reading the latest on child development and is a life-long learner. My only initial hesitation had been the co-op's affiliation with the Presbyterian church it is housed in but this has not been an issue at all.

Good luck with your search!

Ugh, sorry for the many grammatical typos above...writing too fast.

One more note on Kenilworth Preschool, it is part of the PCPO network and parents need to donate time on committees and in classroom in order to comply with co-op rules and to support the teacher.

Just curious as to opinions related to the best option for boys vs. girls. Clearly they have unique learning styles. Which one is best for whom?

Here's my personal opinion, and I know it won't fit for some. I feel especially strong about it with regards to boys. The play based models work for me (including Waldorf, although that's not the preschool we're in right now). Children learn so much, just by playing. Having pencil to paper activities available is fine, on their own terms, but I'm totally on board with making that an option for children and not a mandatory activity, station, whatever, at the preschool age. Done right, playing builds muscles needed for writing later on (fine motor skills development through legos), counting blocks, learning letters/sounds/words just through talking about the play you're involved in, acting out stories after reading a book, etc. Social skills, negotiating, motor skills, I just feel like those aren't a focus when we get so focused in on learning letters and writing. I truly believe you can introduce it early and repeat, repeat, repeat, or you can introduce it later, and it's just there, ready to come out.

Our little boy is thriving at A Beautiful Day Montessori, a jewel of an in-home, fully Montessori preschool in NE Portland. This was a shock to me, because I was sure either a Waldorf or a play-based preschool would be "just the thing" for him! So, for us, definitely was a matter of how our child fit w/a specific teacher, environment, & feel of a place. It's OK, by the way, to try a preschool & then, if it's not right, to be brave enough to switch. We did that, and while I was really worried about disruption/upsetting our son, the decision and transition were a lot harder on the adults than the child!

It's funny, because my kiddos would say that Montessori *is* play based, even though I understand that the label doesn't technically fit...they love being able to choose what they do, when they want to, with the materials...the Montessori materials are so kid-focused that my kids love them and view them as toys, while they are unwittingly developing important skills.

I've been an overwhelmed f/t working mama and my husband has had more contact with our child's care centers than I have. And we haven't had a lot of choice, we are at Helen Gordon Center(after 2 1/2 yrs on waiting list) as a student family who needs the price break. I feel it's a great center in many ways, though I do feel they are especially rigid about some things. But anyway I'd like to hear some thoughts on the child directed play thing, because I don't quite get it. If my 2 1/2 yr old son could, he would wheel around matchbox cars all day long. I have a hard time distracting him from it at home, and I know he gets a lot of it at school too. When I ask him what he did at school, it is always "played cars with ...." I know he does do other things, but the point is he'd rather do that if possible than anything else. I'd rather he found other things that expand his horizons. I don't see a lot of value coming from it, and to be honest it's not something that I enjoy enough to build a relationship over with him. So, I don't know that I'm all for the completely child directed free play model, if they have something like that available?

You describe my boys, keenbeen! Cars and trains, don't need anything else, as far as they're concerned. That said, when I let them loose at school, they actually do play with other toys. And, the teacher rotates toys so sometimes the cars aren't out and they have no choice but to play with other toys. Which they race, frankly, but that's just them! But, you'll still hear "I just played" when they come home. In any case, there's a ton of learning that happens with cars. We build tracks, draw tracks on paper (huge tracks!), build all kinds of jumps and hills with blocks (which actually requires alot of engineering and problem solving) we sort by color, we count, we identify various drivers of the cars and make up stories about them, make comparisons, read books about cars, write stories about cars, drive cars through paint and then onto paper......and on and on. Through cars, we learn to use fine motor skills, gross motor skills, cooperate by sharing the cars, negotiate trades, all those kindergarten readiness skills needed. We just don't leave the cars to go write letters and numbers because the teacher says we have to. That's the beauty of the play based models for me.

I should add, I don't particularly like playing cars. Yawn. But, my kids can identify every single car they see on the street. They don't quite have the years figured out, but I imagine that will be next. I can't fight that. It's their interest. I bring out crayons and markers, they draw for a few, and then they're having crayon races. I'm with you on broadening horizons, but when it comes down to it, it's what they enjoy. And, if they can play by themselves for more than 30 minutes at a time? I'm happy to keep the supply up.

We absolutely loved Harmony Montessori, We were part of the community there for 5 solid years as our 2 daughters were only 2 years apart. It is nurturing, flexible, and included lots of art and music in the curriculum. My daughters were well prepared for first grade at Corbett Grade School. It was well worth our commute.

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