Preschool Admissions – Montessori, Progressive, Traditional, Waldorf, or Reggio Emilia – Which Program is Right for Your Child?

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by Karen Quinn

When I sent my daughter to nursery school, I wanted the most nurturing environment I could find. I chose a wonderful, progressive downtown school. A few years later, when we were interviewing uptown for a selective girl’s school, the admissions director there told me that during my daughter’s interview, she would be tested, and expected to draw circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles. My eyes opened wide in shock and I said, “but my daughter doesn’t know how to draw those.” She looked at my daughter’s file and said (rather snootily), “Oh yes, your daughter went to one of those downtown play schools.”

I was very offended that she saw the school I loved so much that way. But she did. Meanwhile, I ran into a neighbor who had sent her daughter to nursery school uptown at Christ Church. She was also applying to the same girl’s school for her daughter. So I said to her “Guess what. The kids are going to have to be able to draw circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles to get in.” My neighbor said, “Oh, Erica can do that. They spent a whole month on a shapes unit at her nursery school.”

So, when you choose a nursery school for your child, whichever type of school you choose, remember that at the end, there is a test if you want private school or a gifted and talented program. And all kids take the same test, no matter where they went to nursery school. Some schools prepare the kids and some don’t. Frankly, I probably would have chosen the same school I chose then no matter what because we loved it. But I wish I had understood from the beginning that there would be an important test at the end, and if my nursery school didn’t prepare my child, I would have to.

I’m going to cover five of the most common types or philosophies of preschools you’ll see – Montessori, Progressive, Traditional, Waldorf and Reggio Emilia.

It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at a preschool in a church or temple, a co-op school, a public preschool (although these are becoming less available) or a private school – they are likely to have adopted one of these approaches to education.

Montessori

Personally, I love Montessori schools and encourage you to tour one and see for yourself. Not only do kids learn a lot, but they are taught not to start a new project until they put the materials they were working on away. My daughter as always very messy and I have to wonder if she wouldn’t have been had I sent her to a Montessori school.

Marie Montessori started Montessori schools in early 20th Century as a way to train severely retarded children. The materials she created were so effective that they were later used with normally intelligent kids.

The goal of Montessori is to establish independence, self-esteem, and confidence in a child while fostering learning at his own pace.

In a Montessori classroom, the main interaction is between the child and the materials, not the teacher and the materials. At first, the teacher demonstrates to the children the proper use of each set of materials. Then, the child can take the materials out, place them on a mat and use them as the teacher taught her. When she is finished, she puts it away before starting another project. The emphasis is on self-directed learning.

Once the teacher has demonstrated the use of the materials, children work on them individually or in small groups. With this level of individualized instruction, children with learning delays or who are gifted often fare very well in a Montessori classroom.

The materials used in a Montessori classroom are built around 3 areas. 1) Practical life skills (folding shirts, tying shoelaces), 2) Sensory (handling geometric shapes, putting blocks into the right holes), and 3) language and mathematical (handling sandpaper letters and numbers, counting beads on long chains). As you can imagine, children learn a great deal with this curriculum – numbers, letters, adding, subtracting, practical life skills, information and more.

The Montessori classroom is usually very bright, warm and inviting. There are usually several different learning centers where children can explore via hands-on, tactile materials.

Classes are of mixed ages, usually 3 – 6, with the older children helping the younger ones. Kids are encouraged to work at their own pace and build their own foundation of knowledge. When they emerge from Montessori, they are cooperative, organized, respectful of other children’s work, and able to work independently.

To see a Montessori teacher giving some basic Montessori lessons, click here. This is very interesting and I encourage you to check this out if you are considering Montessori.

Progressive (a.k.a. Developmental, Child-Centered, Bank Street Model)

This is the model I chose for my kids and we did love it. Here, the philosophy is that children need to explore and learn through imaginative play, art, and block building. The progressive classroom is usually set up as a series of “centers” where learning can take place using open-ended materials. There might be a fantasy play area, a cluster of easels with paint, a block corner, water tables, puzzle area and more. Teachers set these environments up in response to what they see that the children are interested in. They move among the areas and encourage the kids to pursue their own projects and ideas at these centers. Play is considered the “work” of children and it is taken seriously.

Here, there is no pre-planned curriculum that kids follow. Since teachers are following the children’s lead, what kids learn from year to year and between the morning and afternoon sessions may be different. Children work at their own pace, learning through play. The interaction is between the children as opposed to the children and the materials (as with Montessori). At no prescribed points are children expected to learn any particular skill. In fact, specific learning through teaching is frowned upon. This explains why my daughter never had a “unit” on shapes – This just wasn’t done in a progressive school.

Social interaction between children is very important in a progressive classroom. There is much talk about “community.” Separation between child and parent is seen as a major developmental step and a lot of time and energy is spent on this. The atmosphere is informal, kids often call teachers by their first names, and you would never find uniforms in such a program. The school is usually more relaxed about when a child should be toilet trained.

Children who attend progressive preschools are usually more independent, curious, creative and likely to ask question. They often score higher on tests of problem solving and curiosity, but lower on IQ tests. If your child will need to be tested for private school or a gifted program after attending a progressive school, you will want to be sure he has gained all the abilities tests will assess.

Traditional (a.k.a. structured, cognitive) School

In the traditional classroom, there is a structured curriculum with specific goals for the children. Goals are built around teaching children math, letters, numbers, sounds, shapes, problem solving, classifying, listening and more. The talk around the water table is most likely to be teacher directed instead of child led. Here, the teacher instructs, directs, explains and organizes each lesson. Children learn from them instead of their own exploration.

In this type of classroom, all the kids are likely to be working on the same activity at the same time. For example, at Thanksgiving, they may all work on putting pre-cut construction paper together to make turkeys. The emphasis will be more on the finished product than the process. If you go into a classroom and see a bulletin board displaying 20 matching turkeys, you are probably in a traditional school. At a traditional school, kids might be working with preschool worksheets to learn math and writing. There is an emphasis on school readiness.

Certainly there might be a free-choice period, but there is much more emphasis on formal instruction. Children call teachers Mrs. X or Miss Y. You might find uniform or a dress code at this kind of school. At a traditional program, they will be strict about making sure that your child is toilet trained before the age of 3. Studies have shown that kids who attend traditional schools are less aggressive toward peers, more task oriented and do better on IQ and achievement tests. On the downside, they show less independence and initiative, their play is less imaginative, and they are less creative.

Waldorf

Developed by Rudolf Steiner in 1919, Waldorf programs aim to educate the whole child – “head, heart and hands.” Classrooms are warm and homey, creative play is the order of the day, with a strong dose of teamwork and community. The teacher stays with the same class from preschool through eighth grade, which leads to a strong relationship where the teacher truly knows your child.

Learning is hands on, through cooking, art projects, storytelling, singing, puppet shows, dress up and play. Academics are not emphasized in the early years, with reading readiness beginning in kindergarten and actual instruction starting in first grade. “Main lessons” are taught in blocks of 1.5 to 3 hours a day with each subject block lasting three to five weeks. This way, children experience the curriculum as deeply and vividly as possible. Activities that are seen as extras at many schools are core to the Waldorf philosophy – art, gardening and foreign language. In the early years, much learning takes place through art versus lecturing and rote learning. All children learn to knit and play the recorder.

In the early years, Waldorf schools don’t use textbooks. Instead, children have their own “main lesson books” which they fill during the year, recording their experiences. Later, textbooks are introduced for certain classes such as math and grammar. Grades do not begin until middle school. Instead, teachers write detailed reports about each child’s development and progress.

The use of electric media by young children, especially TV, is discouraged in Waldorf schools.

Reggio Emilia Schools

Loris Malaguzzi founded the Reggio Emilia approach at a city in Italy called Reggio Emilia. Newsweek Magazine hailed them the best preschools in the world in 1991. Their approach sees children as being competent, resourceful, curious, imaginative and inventive.

In a Reggio Emilia school, educators play close attention to the look and feel of the classroom, which is often referred to a the “third teacher.” The goal is to create a room that is beautiful, joyful, inviting, and stimulating. Children’s work is on display, along with collections of leaves or rocks they have made from field trips. There is natural light, plants, mirrors, photographs, and children’s work to capture the attention. Different centers are located throughout the classroom devoted to dramatic play, art, writing, sand/water, reading, math, manipulatives, blocks and science. Much thought goes in to the design of a Reggio Emilia classroom in order to support their multi-sensory approach to learning.

After the teacher organizes the classroom rich in possibilities, she invites the children to undertake exploration and problem solving. By observing the children, she learns what they are interested in and uses that information to act as a resource for them, asking them questions, discovering their ideas, helping them create hypotheses and theories to test. There is no pre-set curriculum. Teachers and parents are seen as partners in learning with the children.

Teachers document the children’s discussions, remarks and activities through notes, videos and photographs. This makes learning visible, helping parents understand what their children are doing, teachers understand the children better, and children see that their work is valued.

Long-term projects emerge out of spontaneous play and exploration with children. They may last from days to several months. Depending on children’s interests, topics for projects are decided (with the children’s input). Teachers bring in materials, books, questions, and opportunities for the children to explore the topic further. Exploration may take place through field trips, discussion, drawing, sculpture, puppetry, drama, shadow and dramatic play, and writing.

Combination Schools

Some schools use a mixture of the approaches mentioned above. You might find a program using the best of Montessori, while also spending lots of time on separation and socialization, which a pure Montessori class wouldn’t. Some very structured and traditional schools will throw a few elements of progressive and say they are a combination school. That wouldn’t be a true combined approach unless the teachers are allowing the academic work to evolve out of the kids’ interests.

How do you know which educational philosophy a school follows? Look at their materials. Ask when you visit. But most of all, observe when you visit. Many schools are very clear about who they are and which philosophy they follow. Other directors tell you that they are a mixture of progressive and traditional, but when you observe, you will clearly see they are one or the other.

Children attending a traditional or Montessori school are more likely to “graduate” with the types of skills NYC private schools will be looking for. Traditional schools teach the skills and Montessori materials lend themselves to children learning these skills independently. That isn’t to say that children attending a progressive, Waldorf or Reggio Emilia school school won’t acquire these skills through the program – many do. But if your child doesn’t, you won’t be getting a call from the Director raising a red flag that your child can’t draw circles and squares. They are more relaxed and believe that children will learn these skills when they are interested and developmentally ready.

One approach isn’t necessarily better than another. My recommendation is that you visit each type of school and try to determine which type of program feels right for your child. You may decide that your child is best suited for either a traditional or Montessori education. There are still other factors that you’ll want to consider (that we’ll explore later), but at least you’ll have ruled out the types of schools that don’t feel right for your child.


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