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Montessori vs. play-based preschools

Comparing Montessori and play-based preschools and daycares

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Below, we compare Montessori to play-based preschools. This should help you get a strong grasp of their differences and similarities. To learn more about preschool education in general, read our introductory guide.

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Montessori preschools

Montessori preschools, like all Montessori schools, have mixed-age classrooms. Many have both a toddler preschool (for kids aged 0 to 3 (or 1.5 to 3)) and a primary class (for kids aged 3 to 6 (or 2.5 to 6)).

The curriculum in Montessori preschools is child-directed. Kids, with some help from the teacher, can choose their own tasks and activities. They can also work at their own pace, as they’re not constrained by a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

The learning environment in preschool (Montessori) is decentralized. Teachers don’t stand at the front of the class, and kids don’t sit at desks. Rather, kids can be found walking around the classroom, working at tables or on the floor, and interacting with each other and the teacher. They’re also free to work either on their own or in small groups.

Montessori preschools have lots of concrete learning. Kids work with a wide range of concrete materials, including manipulatives, which are self-correcting puzzles. Research has shown this is very effective. Concrete learning tends to engage many of one’s senses. This can improve memory and reasoning, and inspire a love of learning.

Play-based preschools

Play-based preschools (also called "play schools"), like Montessori preschools, are mostly decentralized. Kids are free to move around, choose their activities, and work at different areas or stations. Often, there is a dress-up, sensory, kitchen, and nature area, among others.

Play-based preschools have lots of unstructured time. Kids can choose from a wide range of open-ended activities. They spend lots of time interacting and playing with their peers. This is often pretend or imaginative play, such as playing dress-up or playing with dolls or figurines.

The belief is that children learn best through play. Through play they learn social skills, such as cooperation and negotiation. They also learn to problem-solve and reflect about themselves, others, and the environment.

While play-based preschools offer little, if any, formal instruction, some introduce academics. At the primary age (3-6), kids normally begin learning their letters and numbers, as well as some basic math, reading, and writing. This is mostly informal, though, and interactive.

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.”

Montessori vs. play-based preschools

Main similarities

  • Both approaches are child-centred: kids are front and centre
  • Both approaches have lots of interaction
  • Both approaches aim to promote a love of learning
  • Both approaches give kids lots of freedom to choose their own activities

Main differences

  • Academics: Montessori preschools focus more on academics than play-based preschools. Children are introduced to math, science, letters, and numbers at an earlier age.
  • Unstructured time: Play-based preschools have more unstructured or free-play time than Montessori preschools. Most Montessori preschools do, though, have some free-play time, such as outdoor or indoor recess.
  • Pretend play: Play-based preschools have lots of pretend or dramatic play. Some Montessori preschools discourage this kind of play.
  • Work: Most Montessori preschools have quite a bit of task-oriented work. Play-based preschools, meanwhile, have more open-ended play.
  • Materials: Montessori kids work with lots of concrete materials, especially manipulatives, which are self-correcting and have a solution. While play-based preschools have lots of materials, these tend to be more open-ended, such as blocks or arts and crafts materials.

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 academic 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 WaldorfMontessori to Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf to Reggio Emilia schools.


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