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Academic vs. play-based preschools

Comparing academic and play-based preschools and daycares

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There are several different types of preschool programs. Some of these programs are quite academic, while others are more play-based. Yet others combine the two approaches.

When looking for a preschool or daycare for your child, it’s important to think about which approach is the best fit. To learn more about this, read our choosing a preschool guide. To learn more about preschools in general, read our preschool education guide.

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Academic preschools

Academic preschools and daycares focus on school readiness skills. They aim to prepare kids for the school years.

These preschools have a mostly teacher-led classroom. Teachers and staff guide kids through a tightly structured curriculum. They introduce kids to several subjects, including math, reading, writing, science, and nature.

Teachers sometimes give whole-class lectures or lessons in an academic preschool. Normally, though, these are shorter and more interactive than what you’ll find in the school years, especially at the upper levels.

While academic preschool provides quite a bit of formal instruction, it normally allows some unstructured time. This may include indoor free-play time or outdoor recess, where kids are free to choose what they want to do. It’s just that there will be less of this than in play-based preschools.

Play-based preschools

Play-based preschools and daycares are less structured. Kids are free to move around, choose their activities, and play with kids in class. They thus have plenty of free-play time. They also have lots of time for exploration, and open-ended and imaginative activities.

In a play-based preschool (also called "play schools"), kids tend to spend a lot of time interacting with other kids. They play games, explore the environment, and work on projects with their peers—one-on-one or in groups.

For most of the day, they can choose what they want to do. They can move between different areas or “stations” in the classroom, such as a kitchen, dressup, sensory, building, and arts and crafts area. These areas are changed often, such as every week or even every day. To learn more about the preschool classroom, click here.

Play-based preschools offer little formal instruction. Kids may, though, learn some basic math (such as numbers and addition) and language (such as letters and reading). Normally, though, this is done through short, interactive lessons and fun activities.

As Maureen Myers, executive director at Sprouts, a preschool in Toronto, Ontario, says "We don't sit down and teach by rote or repetition, but the ideas and concepts of letter recognition, language, math, and sciences are learned by very hands-on activities." 

The belief is that kids learn best through play. By interacting with their peers in different settings, they learn important social and emotional skills. They become more independent, mature, and capable. They also learn to reason, reflect (about themselves and others), and solve problems.

Academic vs. play-based preschool

Main similarities

  • Both approaches focus on early childhood education and development.
  • Both approaches aim to develop independence, maturity, and other important traits.
  • Both approaches offer plenty of learning opportunities.

Main differences

  • Formal instruction: Academic preschool provides more formal instruction. They give kids a thorough grounding in early math, science, reading, writing, and other subjects.
  • Curriculum: Academic preschools tend to have a more set curriculum. They follow quite strict guidelines for what material is covered.
  • Open-ended activities: Play-based preschools have more unstructured time. Kids can often choose their own activities in different areas of the classroom.
  • Play-based learning: Play-based preschool stresses learning through play and interacting with other kids. While most academic preschools have some free-play time, they make this less of a priority.

To learn more about the similarities and differences between various types of preschools, read our comparison guides. In separate articles, we compare Montessori to Waldorf, Montessori to Reggio Emilia, Waldorf to Reggio Emilia, Montessori to play-based, and Montessori to academic preschools. If you want to compare specific schools one-to-one, visit our compare hub.


Preschool questions (read our in-depth answers)


Answers to the question “What is the difference between academic and play-based preschools?” from school officials

“Academic preschools have teacher-led instruction and follow a curriculum. Whereas play-based preschools, it it often believed, allow the children to play freely, without guidance or instruction. However, this is not necessarily so. Many preschools combine play-based learning with direct instruction. This can spark curiosity and provide opportunities for students to engage directly with the environment and make sense of the world.” Vanessa Sjerven, teacher at Elmwood school (the early years program), in Ottawa, Ontario

“My point of view: children can play and learn in preschool. One does not preclude the other. Play is an integral part of learning the ‘academics.’ A school can be both academic and play-based without stressing the child with academics. Children should be encouraged to inquire, to question, and to play, to make sense of the world.” Nora Ibrahim, preschool teacher and IB PYP (Primary Years Program) coordinator at Académie de la Capitale, in Ottawa, Ontario

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