Thinking about starting a preschool? One of the most important steps is to decide which type of early childhood program will suit your community’s needs. For most preschool types, the common denominator is play-based learning. From there, preschools vary by educational philosophy and organizational structure. Some have mixed-age classrooms. Others rely on parent volunteers, prioritize spending time in nature, or include religious instruction. With careful thought, all preschool types can be adapted to any program length, whether half-day or full. Read more about some popular preschool types below.
Named for a city in Italy famous for its high-quality preschools, Reggio-inspired programs are popular in the U.S. and have become synonymous with child-led, developmentally appropriate learning. Reggio programs celebrate and accommodate multiple intelligences (read about the “100 Languages of Children” here) and follow a flexible, emergent curriculum shaped by children’s interests. Teachers serve as facilitators, learning and exploring alongside children, making observations, and documenting children’s work through photos and classroom art gallery exhibits. Learning spaces are considered a “third teacher,” so a lot of thought is given to classroom layout and environment. This type of preschool is all about process rather than product, so if you choose the Reggio approach, steer far away from cutesy teacher-created arts and crafts templates. If it’s in your budget to travel to Italy, Reggio schools welcome visitors to see their approach in action.
You’ve heard of the Montessori approach, named after Italian educator Maria Montessori, but what differentiates it from other progressive, child-centered types of preschools? Montessori preschools are mixed-age, with three to six year olds typically sharing a classroom. Children have long blocks of time to work independently or with their peers; in Montessori settings, children learn through hands-on exploration, rather than teacher-led instruction. As with Reggio preschools, Montessori programs give careful thought to creating an inviting, developmentally appropriate classroom environment. Montessori teachers emphasize responsibility and independence. Children practice real-world skills such as cleaning up, putting on clothes, washing hands, and watering plants. Though it’s possible to use the Montessori label without accreditation, undergoing the American Montessori Society’s rigorous, multi-year certification process lends credibility and can help with quality control.
The co-op model emphasizes parent involvement in all aspects of school operations. Parents serve on the board, volunteer in the classroom, organize social events and workshops, and in some cases, manage everything from marketing to enrollment to payroll. In effect, parents have ownership over the school and work in partnership with teachers and other staff to tailor a program to their particular needs. Community spirit runs high at co-ops, which are typically small and close-knit. Co-ops tend to offer half-day programs, but some extend the day with “lunch bunch” and enrichment. An emphasis on volunteer labor keeps operating costs relatively low; however, ensuring that parent volunteers have the time and energy to invest in the school can be a potential hurdle.
Children at nature-based preschools spend the majority of the school day outdoors. The goal is for children to develop respect for the natural world early on, and grow up to be environmental stewards. While nature exploration is a key component of this preschool type, outdoor programs aren't all about roaming the wilderness. Many have outdoor classrooms that mimic indoor ones, with art, dramatic play, block, and music centers. “Anything that can be done indoors can be done outdoors” is practically a motto for nature-based schools. In most states, day care licensing rules have yet to catch up with this concept, and tend to focus on indoor spaces, which can make the licensing process a challenge. As with parent cooperatives, nature-based preschools mesh well with other educational philosophies. For example, nature has plenty of free Montessori-style manipulatives, such as acorns, sticks, and pine cones, for children to sort, count, and explore with their senses.
Waldorf kindergartens, as this type of preschool is known, are furnished cozily to resemble homes, and focus on arts, movement, and sensory exploration. Tactile activities, such as playing in sand and kneading bread dough, are key to the Waldorf experience. Like nature-based preschools, Waldorf kindergartens encourage splashing in mud, climbing on trees, and jumping on logs. This type of preschool is typically founded by a Waldorf-trained teacher and a group of parents, with guidance from an established Waldorf school, so establishing a connection to the Waldorf network and having a deep understanding of the approach is key.
Religious preschools are often affiliated with a church, synagogue, mosque, or other house of worship. They weave religious values and instruction into play-based programming. To establish a religious nursery school, seek a partnership with a house of worship that has yet to offer early childhood programming (beyond a weekend Sunday school) and has classroom space available on weekdays. Margie Pines, an acquaintance of mine, runs a Jewish preschool out of her home, so pursuing a home-based day care license is another option to consider.
Art, music, or Spanish immersion preschools are examples of programs with a special focus. Perhaps yoga and meditation will be key to the daily routine, or children will spend a lot of time cooking and baking. A niche can set your preschool apart, and appeal to a specific community interest.
Mixing and Matching
There’s no reason to choose just one preschool type. Margie Pines’ Jewish preschool is also nature-based, taking place almost entirely in her park-like backyard. St. David’s Nursery School, a church-affiliated preschool in the Chicago area, invites parents to join its board, co-op style. With Oak Leaf, the program I’m in the process of launching, I rolled three different types of preschools all into one: Reggio, parent cooperative, and nature-based. In many cases, a blend of different approaches is the way to go.
Liana is the founder and president of Oak Leaf Cooperative School, a nature-based preschool launching soon in the Chicago area. She is also a blogger, content writer for Jovial, and proud mom of twin toddlers.