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Maybe you once thought of preschool as a couple hours of educational babysitting, but now that your tot’s about to enroll, your Google search history is basically every permutation of "What is"  "Montessori," "Waldorf" and "Reggio Emilia" (not to be confused with the region in Italy where you had that amazing tagliatelle). Here’s a breakdown of three popular types of preschool and some of their key differences.  

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Young girl reading Dr Seuss book


Philosophy: Children learn best by doing. This means that kids are encouraged to engage in sensory activities (i.e., exploring by touch, sight and smell rather than just listening) and work as play (like cleaning and cooking).

Teachers: “Guides” work with children in small groups, teaching them how to observe and work independently. Academic subjects are introduced when the child seems ready, typically around age three to four.

Environment: A focus on letting children learn at their own pace means that most Montessori classrooms have multiple age groups, so your three-year-old can sit next to and learn from a five-year-old. 

Good for: Parents who want their kids to develop leadership skills, learn about responsibility and be more independent.

RELATED: 7 Things That Might Happen If You Send Your Kid to Montessori School            

Young children playing in sandbox


Philosophy: A play-based approach with a focus on imagination, teamwork and cooperation. Days are typically organized into a predictable routine (i.e., Tuesdays are for baking or Wednesdays are for gardening).  

Teachers: Learning occurs in larger groups and is run by the teacher. Academic subjects are introduced later, typically around age seven.

Environment: Nurturing and home-like, with wooden toys and natural materials. And outdoor play—no matter the weather—is an important part of Waldorf schools.  

Good for: Kids who thrive on routine and parents who want children to develop their individualism. A Waldorf preschool strives to teach kids how to think, not what to think.

Young boy playing with flower

Reggio Emilia

Philosophy: Cooperation, exploration and collaboration are the main pillars of the Reggio Emilia school, where teaching is project-based and child-led. For example, if kids are fascinated by the flowers outside, then a lesson might be structured around this to include gardening and planting.

Teachers: Co-learners who work together with children instead of solely instructing them. There is no set curriculum, as it evolves based on children’s interests.

Environment: Open spaces with lots of plants and light. Documentation is an important part of Reggio Emilia schools (to make learning visible), so walls are covered with children’s photos, artwork and writing.

Good for: Parents who want their children to become good citizens, with a particular emphasis on letting kids learn how to solve problems and resolve conflict.

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