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.
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 (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.”
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.
Preschool questions (read our in-depth answers)