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Montessori vs. academic preschools

Comparing Montessori and academic preschools and daycares

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Below, we compare Montessori to academic preschools. This should help you to grasp their main differences and similarities. To learn more about preschool education in general, read our introductory guide.

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Montessori preschools

Montessori preschools have a self-directed curriculum. Kids mostly choose their own tasks and activities. They can also work at their own pace, one that’s suited to their stage of development.

Montessori schools emphasize concrete learning in the early ages, right up until the end of elementary school. Kids work with many different concrete materials, including manipulatives, which are self-correcting puzzles. As research shows, concrete learning engages many of our senses, which can improve our memory and reasoning. It can also inspire a love of learning.

Montessori preschools have a decentralized classroom. Teachers don’t stand at the front of the class, and kids don’t sit at desks. Rather, kids tend to walk around the classroom, visit different areas, and work at tables or on the floor.

There’s lots of interaction in a Montessori classroom. While kids can work on their own, they often work in small groups.

And a mixed-age classroom promotes lots of child-to-child teaching: older kids guide, mentor, and model behaviour to younger kids. In fact, this kind of collaboration is a hallmark of Montessori learning at all levels.

Academic preschools

Academic preschools focus on school readiness skills. They aim to prepare kids for elementary school and beyond.

In many ways, academic preschools resemble traditional schools. The learning environment is mostly teacher-led. Teachers sometimes provide whole-class lessons, and often provide direct instruction to help kids work through the curriculum.

Academic preschools normally offer some kind of formal instruction in math, reading, and writing, among other subjects. Kids learn their numbers, letters, shapes, and more.

Children have some free-play time in academic preschools. For instance, they’ll usually have at least two outdoor recess periods a day. Normally, though, they’ll have far less unstructured or free-play time than in play-based preschools (sometimes called "play school").

Montessori vs. academic preschools

Main similarities

  • Both approaches focus on early learning and academics
  • Both approaches offer lots of learning opportunities
  • Both approaches aim to promote a love of learning
  • Both approaches offer little free-play time (compared to play-based preschools)

Main differences

  • Concrete learning: Montessori preschools focus mostly on concrete learning. Academic preschools offer more abstract learning.
  • Curriculum: Academic preschools tend to have the same curriculum for all (or most) kids. Montessori preschools have a more individualized curriculum.
  • Pace of work: In Montessori preschools, kids mostly work at different paces. In academic preschools, kids mostly work at the same pace.
  • Whole-class lectures: Some academic preschools have whole-class lectures or lessons. Almost no Montessori preschools have these.


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, academic to play-based, and Montessori to play-based preschools. If you want to compare specific schools one-to-one, visit our compare hub.

We also compare these school types at all levels. In separate articles, we compare Montessori to Waldorf, Montessori to Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf to Reggio Emilia schools.


Preschool questions (read our in-depth answers)


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