Picking a Preschool
Some preschools are housed in a church or synagogue; others are in community centers, YMCAs or independent facilities. But where your child’s school is located isn’t as important as the underlying values and principles that direct the program: the school culture and philosophy that guide the director, teachers and others involved in the program.
Teaching philosophies vary. Some preschools place a high importance on the academics of early learning — preparing children intellectually for kindergarten and the early elementary years. Others emphasize play and social interaction. And some may lie somewhere in between.
Below are a few of the common preschool teaching philosophies you might encounter in your search. Become familiar with the general methods or philosophies before attending an open house or informational meeting. Then ask specific questions to find out more about a particular school’s focus and underlying philosophy.
Learning through play
Learn-through-play preschools operate under the belief that young children learn best in an unhurried environment in which they learn through play, games, stories, art, puppetry and social interaction. “Age appropriate” is often what you hear in discussions about this method. A large block of time is reserved for children to choose activities, and recess is a prominent part of the daily program.
These preschools, which are also known as child-centered classrooms, encourage children to develop at their own pace by encouraging them to follow their own interests and goals. These schools also adopt a problem-solving approach to social or disciplinary problems.
The beliefs of Dr. Maria Montessori, an early childhood educator in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, are the founding principles of the Montessori method. Montessori believed children learn best from other children, rather than lectures from an adult. In a Montessori preschool, it’s not uncommon to find younger students mingling in the classroom with students two, three or four years older.
In a Montessori preschool, students progress at their own pace and are free to move around the classroom to explore and learn. They may work alone, in pairs or in groups, and most Montessori preschools encourage children to choose their own projects. Snack time may be determined by the student, and cleanup is considered his responsibility.
Founded by Dr. Rudolph Steiner in the early part of the 20th century, the Waldorf method is probably the least known of the preschool curriculums. Steiner believed education should engage the minds of children, as well as their bodies and spirits.
The Waldorf preschool emphasizes teaching through the arts and hands-on learning. In a traditional Waldorf school, students stay with the same teacher from preschool through eighth grade. Toy chests and bookshelves are stocked with all-natural toys made from wood and natural fibers. Plastic toys and Crayolas generally are not available. Instead, students often use beeswax and other natural products.
Also called content-centered schools, the academic method devotes less time to free play and more time to whole-class activities with specific instructional goals. In an academic preschool, students are prepared for kindergarten and the early years of elementary school by learning to sound out letters and by participating in early writing activities. Early math also is emphasized in a content-centered school, and discipline may be less flexible than in a learn-through-play curriculum or other teaching methods.
Parents and children work together in a co-op, or cooperative, preschool. In co-ops, parents contribute time, energy, talent and ideas to the school. Parents are likely to help develop the class curriculum, teach on a regular basis, and develop the school’s rules, guidelines and disciplinary action. Parents may even be responsible for finding a location for the school, paying the bills, hiring the staff, etc.
Parents work in the classroom under the guidance of the teacher or director. Just how much time parents must contribute varies. Some require parents to help weekly; once or twice a month may be sufficient for others. Because of the parental support, child-adult ratios are typically very low in a co-op setting.
Jennifer O’Donnell is editor of Tidewater Parent in Norfolk, Va.