Preschool education in Canada
The Our Kids guide to preschool and daycare programs
Preschool is geared for kids who are too young to attend kindergarten. Most kids who attend a preschool program are between 3 and 5 years old. Some programs, though, accept children as young as 1 or 2.
Preschool is sometimes called “daycare,” “childcare,” or “nursery school.” Often, though, it differs from these other options in that it focuses more on early learning and academics. Preschools aim to prepare children for the school years: elementary school and beyond.
Types of preschool programs
There are many different types of preschool programs and approaches in Canada. This includes academic, play-based, Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, community-based, and faith-based programs.
- Play-based: These programs (sometimes called "play schools") aim to develop social skills and a love of attending school through minimally structured activities.
- Academic: These programs are the most structured of the different types. They place a strong emphasis on early learning and school readiness.
- Montessori: These programs have a child-centred approach: kids have lots of freedom to choose their own tasks and activities (with teacher guidance). They also focus a lot on concrete learning.
- Waldorf: These programs offer plenty of practical, hands-on activities. They also stress arts and crafts, creativity, and imaginative and play-based learning.
- Reggio Emilia: These programs have a co-constructed curriculum: children and teachers choose tasks and activities together. They also have lots of open-ended projects that require critical and creative thinking.
- Community-based: These are local programs. They’re normally cooperative, meaning parents volunteer as teachers’ aides on a regular basis (usually at least once a week).
- Religious-affiliated: These programs are created and run by religious institutions or schools, and are faith-based. They include Christian, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic preschools.
Below, we compare play-based, academic, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf preschool programs side-by-side, in terms of specific criteria. Using our table, you can learn the similarities and differences between these preschool types (click on text inside the chart to get more detailed information).
(24% of schools)
(36% of schools)
(30% of schools)
(8% of schools)
(2% of schools)
|Priority Outcomes||Socialization, pre-academic skills
Activities are encouraged that are intended to cultivate important social skills such as cooperation and sharing. They often divide up activities into different stations such as a home or kitchen, science area, and sensory and building areas. Such "student-centred" play facilitates not only the learning of social skills but also indirectly facilitates the learning of verbal skills, object recognition and early math, among other things. Further Reading
The focus is on learning letters, numbers, vocabulary, basic math, literacy and other preschool academics. Children are also taught to distinguish shapes and colours, tell the time, as well as other skills. The aim is to prepare children for traditional schooling. Further Reading
|Independence, confidence, and a love of learning
Learning at one's own pace is a priority. Children are encouraged to complete challenging tasks on their own that require deep concentration and focus. This fosters independence and the ability to make responsible decisions. Ultimate goals include a stronger sense of pride and accomplishment, stronger leadership skills and a stronger sense of self. Further Reading
|Curiosity, problem-solving skills
Teachers and children co-construct their learning environment. Children are encouraged to participate in activities that they find stimulating and engaging. Learning typically takes place through free-exploration and projects tailored to the learning interests of children. The aim is to promote intellectual curiosity and develop higher-order cognitive skills  such as analysis, synthesis, and the ability to solve problems in creative ways. Further Reading
|Socialization, practical, and pre-academic skills
A lot of time is spent away from desks on hands-on, practical activities that are intended to cultivate children's mental and physical well-being. Children participate in a variety of multi-dimensional learning activities that allow them to learn in a 'holistic' way, in a way that engages their bodies, brains and emotions. Children learn in a way that is stimulating and practical. This cultivates a love of learning. Further Reading
|Learning mode||Small-group activities
This is a child-centred approach. Children are encouraged to choose minimally-structured activities that are stimulating and enjoyable. Little emphasis is placed on teaching children through direct instruction, unlike academic preschools. Further Reading
|Whole-class lessons and activities
This is a teacher-directed or teacher-centred approach. Children learn in a more structured way than the play-based approach. The teacher plans activities and guides children in doing them. Teachers devise general lesson plans and teach children through direct, sit-down instruction. Further Reading
|Individual and group tasks
Very little direct instruction is given. Learning is first and foremost independent: tasks are given with concrete solutions that it is possible (at least in principle) for children to discover on their own. Learning is geared toward task-oriented work rather that play-based activity, since, it is believed, children are capable of and in need of serious work with considerable responsibility. This educational philosophy sharply diverges from that of play-based preschools such as Waldorf. Further Reading
This is a project-based approach. Lessons are primarily based on the interests of children. Children are encouraged to find and complete projects on their own. There is a self-guiding curriculum  at work here where students learn the curriculum through independent exploration and projects that are tailored to their interests and that they help select. Further Reading
|Group and individual activities
This is a play-based approach. It involves devising a predictable structure and providing children with a dependable routine such as designating certain days of the week for particular group activities like music or art. Children are in mixed-age classrooms with the same teacher for multiple years. There is an emphasis on appropriate social interaction and cooperation in group activities. Children aren't introduced to formal reading skills until the first grade, and a standard grading system is not used. Also, typically no technological media are used in the classrooms.
These include toys, building blocks, home and kitchen items, books, arts and crafts materials and sensory elements such as water and sand. These materials are often placed in different stations or areas of the classroom which children can rotate between.
These include books, writing pads, math sheets, colour, shape and number identification materials, and arts and crafts materials such as sketch pads and paper, paint, glue and scissors. In schools with more resources, learning materials might include technological media such as televisions, computers and smartboards (interactive whiteboards).
|Concrete materials and manipulative puzzles
Children use 'manipulatives', a special kind of Montessori toy that is self-corrective, meaning that a child knows if they assembled a puzzle correctly, for example, based on the toy fitting together, not because someone showed the child how to do it. Other materials include books, building blocks, alphabet cutouts and sandpaper letters. Further Reading
|Project-specific, arts and crafts
Some standard arts and crafts materials are used, including sketch pads, paper, paint, glue and scissors. In other cases, children may explore the environment as part of a specific project by looking at flowers or plants, or explore cooking by setting up a restaraunt in a kitchen. They may, then, produce art work to consolidate their understanding of particular concepts or ideas.
|Natural and practical, and arts and crafts
Some standard arts and crafts materials are used, including sketch pads, paper, paint, glue and scissors. Most importantly, children are encouraged to use whichever arts and crafts materials enable them to best explore their creative interests. Other materials include books and building blocks.
|Teacher's role||Observe and guide
The teacher mostly observes, while children play and interact in play stations. They sometimes guide and intervene to enhance cooperation between kids or provide a learning opportunity. Further Reading
|Give direct lessons
Quite a bit of direct instruction is given. Plenty of time is reserved for the teaching of letters and sounds, numbers, shapes, vocabulary, and object identification, among other things. The main aim is to prepare kids for the school years. Normally, though, there’s not a traditional classroom setup (with desks, a chalkboard, and so on). Further Reading
|Observe and guide
Few, if any, whole-class lessons are given. Teachers spend lots of time observing children doing challenging independent and group work. They offer guidance and advice in only when necessary. This promotes independence and student-to-student teaching and learning. It also promotes social development and character traits like independence and responsibility. Further Reading
|Participate and guide
Teachers and children co-construct the learning environment. Few, if any, whole-class lessons are given. Rather, teachers observe students engaged in activities, and provide support and guidance. They also post students’ work in the class, and document and track students’ progress in other ways.
|Mentor and guide
Teachers instill a sense of enthusiasm in learning. They encourage students to do hands-on activities that are stimulating and enjoyable. Teachers, and parents, select unique activities for children that suit their learning needs and interests. They also sometimes help students complete activities. Further Reading
There’s lots of free play and physical activities, with some structure. This means there tends to be lots of interaction in this setting.
Some time is allowed for free play and exploration. The main focus, though, is on early learning and academics. Thus, while there’s some social interaction between kids, there’s less than in play-based programs.
The focus is on independent and group work and concrete challenging learning tasks. This there will be some social interaction in this setting, but less than preschools with a play-based approach.
A combination of play-based and academic opportunities is provided. This allows for some social interaction, around the same amount as academic preschools.
There’s plenty of opportunities for play-based activity. This allows for quite a bit of social interaction, though not quite as much as some play-based preschools.
Most of the time is allotted to minimally-structured play and exploration. This means there’s often lots of movement and physical activity in this setting.
Lots of focus is placed on learning, which sometimes involves sit-down instruction. Often, then, there’s minimal physical activity in this setting.
Kids work in a structured environment on challenging concrete tasks. In some cases, they’re not given much free-play time. That said, kids also are free to move around the classroom, and work on different individual and group tasks. This means there’s often quite a bit of physical activity in this setting, though not as much as play-based preschools.
Teachers and students co-construct the curriculum based on students' needs and interests. Some of the focus, here, will be on play-based learning. This means there’s likely to be a fair amount of physical activity in this setting, about the same as Montessori preschools. Further Reading
Lots of play-based learning opportunities are provided. This allows for quite a bit of physical activity, though not as much as some play-based preschools.
Lots of time is allotted to free play and physical activity. This setting is often quite a noisy one, then.
Much time is spent on direct, sit-down learning. Some time, though, is reserved for free or semi-structured play. This means there will be some noise in this setting, though usually much less than in play-based preschools.
The primary focus is on challenging individual and group work. While there will be some social interaction, it will mostly be structured by the class and the curriculum. This setting tends to be quieter than many other preschools, then.
The curriculum is constructed based on students' needs and interests. This allows for a combination of quiet sit-down learning and more active play. This setting tends to be somewhat noisy, then. It’s more noisy than Montessori preschools, but less noisy than play-based preschools.
Plenty of play-based learning and activities are provided. There is also, though, some more focused, sit-down learning (the amount determined by children’s learning needs and interests). This setting can be quite noisy, then, though often not as noisy as preschool programs.
Lots of time for free play, minimally-structured activities, and social interaction. This encourages plenty of imaginative and dramatic play, both in groups and independently.
The major focus on direct instruction and sit-down learning reduces the amount of imaginative play. While there is some social interaction and activity, it’s less than in play-based preschools. This leaves some time for imaginative play, but not a ton. In this setting, for instance, a dramatic play area is usually not provided.
The main focus is on concrete learning. Children are encouraged to do challenging tasks, independently and groups. These preschools also normally discourage pretend play, so that kids stay connected with reality. There is often little pretend play in this setting, then. That said, some Montessori preschools have moved away from this way of thinking.
Kids have lots of freedom to choose their own activities. Many choose to work and play with other kids. This gives quite a bit of opportunity for dramatic and imaginative play.
A strong emphasis is given to play-based, away-from-the-desk activities. Also, the aim is to develop a child's body, mind and soul. This is often done through artistic and creative activities, such as role playing, modelling, acting, stories, and plays. This means there’s often tons of imaginative and dramatic play in this setting. Further Reading
|Arts and crafts||Medium-high
Plenty of time is allotted for free exploration and minimally-structured physical activity. Plenty of arts and crafts materials are often provided as well. Children are often encouraged and choose to do arts and crafts in this setting.
There’s lots of focus on sit-down learning. This leaves less time for the exploration of individual interests such as arts and crafts.
There is a heavy focus concrete learning. Most of these preschools also tend not to allocate or designate time for arts and crafts (though some do). This leaves less time for art and other creative activities. Further Reading
There is a flexible curriculum which focuses on learning paths more than learning outcomes. This gives kids plenty of freedom to do as arts and crafts and other creative endeavours. Further Reading
Students have quite a bit of freedom to choose their own activities.There’s also a major focus on cultivate imagination an creativity through the arts. This gives kids tons of opportunity to pursue creative activities such as arts and crafts. Further Reading
|Emphasis on traditional academics*||Medium-low
A large amount of time is allowed for free exploration and minimally-structured physical activity. This does not leave as much time for traditional preschool curricula, such as the learning of letters and sounds, numbers, and shapes, and reading and math.
The main focus is on learning and academics. This preschool’s curriculum often involve the learning of letters and sounds, numbers and shapes, and reading and math. Further Reading
The main focus is on challenging individual and group learning tasks, tailored to individual needs and interests. This leaves lots of opportunity for early academics, such as reading, writing and math. In fact, this starts to become a major focus at the upper preschool level (primary school). Further Reading
There’s quite a bit of focus on developing children’s intellect. This is often done through open-ended projects. This makes academic learning, such as reading, writing, and math, a fairly big focus. Further Reading
There is a big focus on hands-on, practical learning activities, and artistic endeavours. Moreover, traditional academics is usually delayed until grade 1. This means there’s very little emphasis on academic subjects such as reading, writing and math in this setting. Further Reading
|May be suited for young children who...||
|*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.
Preschool pros and cons
Preschool can be a great option for many families. It has numerous benefits. It also, though, raises some potential concerns. Note, the pros and cons of preschool will vary depending on the type of program, the approach used, school policies, teachers, and more.
- Early learning: There are many well-known advantages of early childhood education (preschool), including inspiring a love of learning.
- Teachers: Teachers often have training in early childhood education. Many are Registered Early Childhood Educators (RECE).
- Social interaction: Your child will have lots of opportunities to interact with kids of different ages. This can help them learn, grow, and mature.
- Activities: Your child will be exposed to a wide range of activities, including art, music, dance, and sports.
- Structure: A daily routine can help your child thrive.
- Elementary admissions: Preschools can help your child gain admission to elementary programs. Many elementary and primary schools look favourably on a preschool education.
- Easier transitions: Exposure to a regular routine early on makes for a smoother transition to formal schooling later on.
- Lack of one-on-one time: Although preschools tend to have low teacher-to-student ratios, it isn’t one-to-one. And the importance of one-on-one time for some kids cannot be disputed.
- Learning too early: Some preschools, it’s claimed, force kids to learn too early. This is a special concern with academic preschools. Learning subjects, such as reading, writing, and math, before one’s ready, can lead to frustration and interfere with a love of learning.
- Separation anxiety: Many young children find it difficult to separate from their parents. Some may need more personal attention and may not be ready to attend school.
- Less social opportunities: Some preschools, especially academic ones, have less social activities. These programs also have less play-based learning.
- Too rigid: Many preschools don’t allow children to attend when they’re sick. Some are also closed during the summer and statutory holidays and may not offer before- or after-care programs.
- Ineffectiveness: Some critics argue that preschool programs have little, if any, impact on academic success. Whatever advantages preschool kids have over those without a preschool education, it’s claimed, normally disappear after grade 2.
Preschool questions (read our in-depth answers)
Most preschools have similar educational goals. They aim to foster age-appropriate growth and learning, and challenge and stimulate children. They also aim to prepare kids for the school years.
While they vary in their teaching and learning approaches, most preschools cover similar ground. They normally teach a number of core subjects and skills.
Subjects and skills taught (among others):
- Creative arts
- Social skills
Preschools use a number of different pedagogical approaches. Many preschools use more than one of these approaches, or a combination of several.
- Play-based learning: learning is built around uninterrupted blocks of play time (common in toddler preschool).
- Curriculum-based learning: learning is focused on academic skills (common in academic preschool).
- Theme-based learning: learning is based on weekly themes (e.g., animals, colours, seasons, etc.).
- Experiential learning: learning is based on practical outcomes both in and outside of class.
To learn more, read our preschool curriculum guide.
Preschool isn’t mandatory in any province in Canada. Moreover, the government provides little funding for preschool, so you’ll likely need to choose a private program.
Luckily, private preschools are normally quite affordable. They’re usually on the lower side of private school tuition. Most charge between $450 and $1300 a month or between $5400 and $16,200 a year. Their pricing is similar to daycare and childcare centres, as well as nursery school.
To learn more, read our preschool costs guide.
Choosing the best preschool
Assuming your child is ready for preschool, you’ll want to find the right one. You should look at several preschools and choose one that’s the right fit for you, your family, and your child. Luckily, there are private preschools in Ontario, BC, Alberta, and Quebec. This includes the cities of Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Mississauga, Oakville, Vaughan, Scarborough, and Brampton. Find a preschool near you.
Selecting the best preschool involves looking at both general and individual factors. General factors concern a school’s overall suitability, for any child. Individual factors are specific to you and your child. They relate to your family’s beliefs, values, and needs.
General factors to consider
- Licensing: Is it licensed or accredited by an appropriate federal or provincial institution in Canada?
- Safety: Does it have a safe environment with proper supervision? What policies are in place and precautions used to ensure your child’s well being?
- Discipline: How does it deal behaviour issues? Are kids disciplined in any ways, and if so, how?
- Class size and teacher-to-student ratio: How large is the class? What is the staff-to-child ratio?
- Hours: What time does preschool begin and end? Are before- and/or after-care offered? Is preschool open during holidays and/or summers?
- Communication: Is there an open line of communication with directors and staff? Who do you go to with your questions or concerns?
Individual factors to consider
- Location: What city is it in? How close to you is it? Is it easily accessible by car and public transportation?
- Cost: How much does it cost? What exactly does this cost include? Are financial aid, subsidies, or sibling discounts offered?
- Values: What are the main values it aims to promote? How does it aim to promote these values?
- Environment: What type of learning environment is used? Are their different areas or stations of the classroom? What kinds of materials are in the classroom?
- Teaching approach: What is the teaching and learning approach? Does it offer more academic or play-based learning (or an equal combination of both)?
- Specialized learning: Does it offer individualized learning? Does it tailor teaching to specific students, where appropriate? Or is teaching more of a “one-size-fits-all” approach?
- Special needs: Does it offer support for kids with special needs? If so, which special needs, and how does it support these children?
It's important to select the right preschool for your child. Luckily, there are lots of great resources to help you in your search.
- Choosing school guides: To learn more about choosing private schools (including a private preschool), check out our choosing guide on OurKids.net. If you’re interested in Montessori preschools, check out our Montessori choosing guide.
- Private school expos: Private school expos are a great way to learn about the best preschools near you. We have annual expos across Canada: in Toronto, Halton-peel, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary. At these expos, you can meet with lots of private preschools, ask them questions, and learn whether they might be right for your child.
- Preschool guides: To learn more about different kinds of private schools and preschools, check out our comprehensive guides. Our guides to Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia schools cover these school approaches in great depth. We also have articles on Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia preschools. Finally, check out our comparisons of Montessori to Waldorf, Waldorf to Reggio Emilia, Montessori to Reggio Emilia, academic to play-based, Montessori to play-based, and Montessori to academic preschools.
- Parent discussion forum: Another great resource in your preschool search is the Our Kids parent discussion forum. The forum is the ideal place to discuss preschools (and other types of schools) with other parents, education experts, and school officials.
- What makes for the best preschool?
- What are the most common types of preschool programs?
- Daycare and childcare
- Montessori vs. Waldorf preschools and daycares
- Montessori vs. Reggio Emilia preschools
- Waldorf vs. Reggio Emilia preschools
- Montessori vs. play-based preschools
- Montessori vs. academic preschools
- Academic vs. play-based preschools
- What is the ideal preschool learning environment?