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What are the most common types of preschool programs?

A comparison of academic, play-based, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, and Montessori preschool

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Quick summary

  • There are many different preschool approaches in Canada. This includes academic, play-based, Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, community-based, and faith-based programs.

  • Montessori preschools tend to be more academic, while Waldorf preschools are normally more play-based. Reggio-inspired preschools offer a combination of academic and play-based learning. No school falls neatly, though, into any of these categories.

  • Academic preschools can help a child develop their cognitive, verbal, and perceptual skills. Play-based preschools can improve a child’s social skills, and allow them to learn through exploring their environment, and participating in activities that spark their interest.

  • Even within each of these categories, though, each private preschool program will have its own unique policies, practices, aims, and culture. You should look for a program that’s the right fit for your child.

 

Which is the right preschool program for your child? There are plenty of different types of preschools (and daycares and nursery schools) in Canada. Each of these has its own way of promoting early childhood development.

They also have different approaches to promoting learning. And some of these approaches are based on very specific and detailed educational and teaching philosophies.

Types of preschool

The main types of private preschools and daycares in Canada are play-based, academic, Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia, local community (or cooperative), and religious (or faith-based). That said, a preschool can use more than one approach.

For instance, it can be both play-based and Waldorf, academic and Montessori, or community-based and Reggio Emilia. In fact, it’s quite common for a preschool program to use more than one approach, or even to use a compromise approach (e.g., be partly play-based and partly academic).  

Below, we describe each of the main types of preschool education.

  • Play-based: Play-based preschool programs are based on the belief that young children learn best through play. Largely open-ended and minimally structured, play-based programs aim to develop social skills and a love of attending school.​​
     
  • Academic: Academic-based preschools are the most structured of the different types, and have a strong emphasis on math and reading readiness skills. These programs aim to expose children to what school is like, and prepare them for elementary school and beyond.
     
  • Montessori: A Montessori preschool is aimed at children ages three to six. It’s classroom is usually organized into five main curriculum areas: practical life, sensorial, language, math, and culture.
     
  • Waldorf: The early years of a Waldorf education usually focus on providing practical, hands-on activities and environments. They also focus a lot on play-based learning, and imaginative and creative activities. In some ways, Waldorf is similar to Montessori, as is the next type of preschool.
     
  • Reggio Emilia: This approach focuses on preschool and elementary school and is driven by the interests of the child. The curriculum is co-constructed by the child and teacher, and involves lots of open-ended projects and tasks that require creative thinking and problem-solving.
     
  • Community-based: These are usually for children between the ages of two and five, depending on the location. In Canada, many local community programs are cooperative, meaning parents volunteer as teachers’ aides on a regular basis (usually at least once a week). For this reason, these preschools are often cheaper than other options. Co-op programs can be play-based, academic, Montessori, Waldorf, or Reggio Emilia in approach.
     
  • Religious-affiliated: There are a number of programs for children of preschool age that are created and run by churches, or by religious schools of a number of different faiths and denominations (such as Christian, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic). Like community programs, religious or faith-based preschools can use any of the above five approaches (play-based, academic, Montessori, etc.)

 

Preschool questions (read our in-depth answers)

Comparing different preschool approaches 

Each preschool program has a different approach. They also tend to have different curricular focuses, developmental priorities, learning environments, learning activities, and costs.

Below, we compare play-based, academic, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf preschool programs side-by-side, in terms of specific criteria. Using our chart, you can learn the similarities and differences between these preschool types (click on links inside the chart to get more detailed information).

This should give you a better sense of what’s right for your child when choosing a preschool. Community- and faith-based programs are not included in the chart, since they tend to use one of the five approaches the chart details.

 

  Play-based
(24% of schools)
Academic
(36% of schools)
Montessori
(30% of schools
Reggio Emilia
(8% of schools)
Waldorf
(2% of schools)
Priority Outcomes
Learning mode
Learning materials
Teacher's role
Social interaction
Movement
Noise
Imaginative play
Arts and crafts
Emphasis on traditional academics*
May be suited for young children who...
  • Do well in a highly social environment
  • Have lots of energy and prefer being active to sitting
  • Do well in a noisy environment, with lots of activities taking place at once
  • Do well in a structured environment
  • Can sit still and follow the course of a lesson
  • Have demonstrated an early love of academic learning
  • Enjoy work on their own
  • Enjoy working in small groups
  • Have good attention spans
  • Can take directions
  • Are good academically
  • Have good social skills
  • Love hands-on exploring and problem solving
  • Work well in groups
  • Have a creative and/or artistic bent
  • Are highly imaginative and have creative potential
  • Enjoy playing in groups
  • Love nature
*This does not reflect "academic quality" or "academic rigour"—rather, it shows the emphasis placed on early math and reading skills relative to other developmental goals.

Academic and play-based preschools

Some preschools are more academic, while others are more play-based. Academic preschools tend to provide more focused learning. Play-based preschools tend to offer more free-play or free-explore time for kids, and focus more on social than cognitive development.

Keep in mind, though, many preschools offer a combination of academic and play-based activities. These programs don’t fit neatly into either category.

Academic preschools

Academic preschools offer structured learning, and focus a great deal on math, reading, and writing skills. These programs aim to expose children to what elementary school is like.

Academic preschools more closely resemble typical schools. Teachers direct the classrooms and lead students through pre-planned lessons and activities on math, science, writing, and other subjects. Children are taught about letters, numbers, shapes, colours, and more. While children are given some playtime, the main focus is on structured learning.

Benefits of academic preschools include:
  • Children like to learn. Beginning an education in a child’s early years stimulates learning.
  • They can help a child excel verbally, creatively, and cognitively.
  • They can help cultivate the skills needed for success in school experiences for developing linguistic skills, and perceptual and conceptual learning.
  • They can help develop positive attitudes towards authority, which will help with self-control and self-discipline.
  • They can encourage responsibility.

Play-based preschools

Play-based preschools (also called "play school") are based on the belief that young children learn best through play. Largely open-ended and minimally structured, play-based programs aim to develop social skills and a love of attending school.

Play-based programs mostly let children choose their own activities. Most don’t follow a standard curriculum and have few, if any, pre-planned lessons.

These preschools often have different stations where kids can engage in a wide range of activities. Such stations might include a reading, kitchen, building, and sensory area.

This setup lets children cycle through different areas and pick their own activities. While students aren’t taught through a set curriculum, they learn through play and develop different kinds of knowledge and skills.

Benefits of play-based preschools include:
  • A great way for a child to learn is through play. As long as a child knows what it’s like to play, he or she is probably ready for preschool.
  • Upwards of 20 percent of young children’s time and energy are typically spent in play.
  • Children love to have fun. When learning is “disguised” in playing and in games, learning is fun and challenging.
  • They can increase feelings of independence, self-confidence and security with adults and other children, and in a variety of situations.
  • Learning and understanding the world around them through play provide an opportunity to explore, experiment, discover and create.
  • Play encourages self-expression and promotes constructive outlets for emotions.

Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia preschools

Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia are three of the most common preschool approaches in the world. In Canada alone, there are thousands of preschool programs using one of these approaches. Find a private preschool near you.

Montessori preschools tend to be more academic, while Waldorf is typically more play-based. Reggio Emilia preschools tend to fall somewhere in the middle: they focus equally on play-based and academic learning and activities.

To be sure, no school falls neatly into either of these categories. Moreover, each Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia school differs in terms of its focus, aims, policies, and practices. That said, schools within each category often have many of the same features.

For one-to-one comparisons of different types of preschool, check out our guides. In separate articles, we compare Montessori to Reggio Emilia, Waldorf to MontessoriReggio Emilia to Waldorf preschools, academic to play-based, Montessori to play-based, and Montessori to academic preschools. To compare specific schools one-to-one, visit our compare hub.

 

Answers to the question “What is the difference between academic, play-based, Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia 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

“Waldorf and Montessori both use a curriculum that is developmentally appropriate, and both recognize and respect a child’s need for daily routine. They also both believe in child-initiated activity. The Montessori approach believes that children should work with manipulatives that will teach them concepts, with the teachers available to guide them in this learning. The Waldorf approach supports child-initiated play to cultivate healthy growth and learning in a range of areas, from gross and fine motor skills to the development of imagination and creativity.” Lylli Anthon, faculty chair of Halton Waldorf school, a Waldorf school in Burlington, Ontario

“Montessori is an integrated approach whose aim is to fulfill the needs of the whole child. Waldorf, like Montessori, aspires to educate the whole child, though concepts can be taught in a variety of ways. Reggio is a project-based program, where the lessons are based on the interests of children.” Marcel Pereira, director of Century Private School, a Montessori school in Richmond Hill, Ontario

“Waldorf and Reggio Emilia both use a curriculum that is developmentally appropriate and believe in child-initiated play. In the Reggio Emilia approach, lessons are based on the interests of the students and are project-based. Child questions that arise through play (such as “How does a flower grow?”) are turned into lessons by the teacher, resulting in a project for the students. The Waldorf approach supports child-initiated play to cultivate healthy growth and learning in a range of areas, from gross and fine motor skills to the development of imagination and creativity.” Lylli Anthon, faculty chair of Halton Waldorf school, a Waldorf school in Burlington, Ontario

“Waldorf early childhood educators believe that children learn through imitation. Meaningful work and chores are part of the day. Rich opportunities are provided for children to explore the social and natural worlds through self-initiated free play. It is understood that a strong rhythm and routine helps children to feel secure and calm. Waldorf preschools include a consistent and predictable rhythm filled with song and activities that bring joy and goodness to the children’s play.” Jennifer Deathe, director of admissions at Waldorf Academy, in Toronto, Ontario

“The underlying idea of Montessori is that children are individual learners, with teachers as guides. Children participate in a variety of hands-on activities. Montessori fosters personal responsibility by encouraging children to take care of their own personal needs and belongings, such as preparing their own snacks and cleaning up their toys. A wide range of ages may learn together in one classroom, and children are encouraged to help each other learn.”  Lee Venditti, director of J. Addison, a Montessori school in Markham, Ontario

Series: Preschools

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