Popular preschool philosophies and methods

Parentree-editors 2008-11-06 14:28:58

Ever wondered what terms like Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, academic, play based etc. that preschools throw at you really mean? Here are some popular preschool or early childhood education philosophies that Indian preschools adopt and adapt. This information can help you as you select a preschool or deal with your child’s preschool.  You can also apply some of these ideas at home.

Most preschools in India are academic (formal and structured ABCs etc.) and some might adapt some methods and materials from Montessori and play-based philosophies. Though recently, has been a spate of Indian preschools adding elements of Reggio Emilia and Waldorf methods as well to the mix. Many times many of these are nicknamed “New age schools”.  It is important to wade through all the jargon and focus on what these philosophies are and how can they be applied effectively.


The Montessori  system was started in the early 20th century by an Italian physician and educator called Maria Montessori. The term Montessori is not trademarked and can be interpreted and applied differently. In different countries, different Montessori schools are affiliated to and certified by different professional organizations. Some examples are the AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) and AMS (American Montessori Society). AMI is the more traditional one and AMS is the one that has incorporated more recent methods.

But in India, there are no professional organizations that certify Montessori schools or teachers. The term Montessori is used loosely and even misused by different preschools (primary schools as well) in different ways. That is why understanding of Montessori methods and their application is important.

Montessori focuses on building on a child’s natural drive for independence, self-esteem, imagination, polite behaviour and curiosity. Here are some key practices in a Montessori school:

  • Montessori experts feel that kids learn best unassisted by adults and by learning by doing themselves and from their peers. That is why most Montessori schools have:
    • Mixed-age kids in a class. They learn from each other.
    • Teachers are more like “guides”.
    • The organization might be different in different schools to facilitate this. In some preschools, concepts will be taught in a class and then broken into smaller groups where kids can explore on their own and with other children.
    • Because of the focus on individual and group learning, there might be fewer teachers or “guides” and the teacher/child ratio might be slightly lower.
  • The learning environment is self-paced. That is why it works very well for most kids - from delayed to gifted.
    • Each child learns at her pace. Most times the children chose their activities or ‘works” as they are called in Montessori method.
  • Focus, depth and completion of activities or “works” are encouraged.
    • Some might be stricter about completing projects and some might not be as strict.
  • The learning environment is structured
    • The environment is carefully set up with special materials.
    • Montessori also has special methods and materials to teach children writing, reading, math, geography, sciences and practical life (eating, wearing clothes etc.)
    • Many Montessori preschools also focus on cursive writing and the kids learning cursive writing first.
  • Emphasis is a lot on hands-on learning and learning with all the senses. Some examples in the classroom are:
    • Instead of learning ABCs by rote, playing with plastic alphabets.
    • The educational materials or toys used will be very tactile. For example, clay etc.
    • Learning about animals by feeding them and taking care of them. Learning about plants by watering them.
  • Children are encouraged to be independent and responsible. For example children will be encouraged to:
    • Eat their food and fill water in their glass by themselves.
    • Kids are taught to tie their shoelaces and put on their clothes themselves at an early age. There are special materials and methods to teach these.
    • Clean up the mess they make or put away the toys they play with. Different schools do this differently. For example, some schools might want kids to put the toys in the right basket and some might want the toys to be in a common basket.
  • Montessori materials are famous the world over and are in many classrooms. They encourage children to learn by doing, learn at their own pace, in a structured manner, and at their own pace. Some examples:
    • Manipulatives: beads and beans
    • Self-correcting materials

Reggio Emilia (also called Reggio Emilio)

Reggio Emilia was started in 1945 in the city of Reggio Emilia to rebuild Itlay after the World War II. It was an early childhood education scheme started by the city but with a lot of community cooperation. The primary goal is to create learning conditions that boost a child’s innate curiosity and abilities. Like Montessori, it is also a whole-child focused (integrated physical, social, intellectual and emotional development). Some key practices:

  • Dual role of teachers:
    • Teachers are advisors and set up the learning environment but teachers alsolearn from children.
    • Teachers focus on observing the children and their group dynamics, reflecting and documenting their observations for all to learn.
      • For example, teachers might write the stories the children say and document their group conversations and dynamics. The documentation is put on the walls at the children’s eye levels and shared with all—the teachers, parents and the children.
  • Environment as the “third teacher”. First and second being parents and teachers.
    • The environment is carefully set up to encourage curiosity, creativity and group interaction—for example having tents for group of kids to interact.
    • There is lot of emphasis on aesthetics, nature and the outdoors.
    • Many Reggio influenced preschools will have “indoor/outdoor” spaces where the indoors and outdoors are seamlessly linked
      • For example the classrooms might be designed to be light and airy and might even open to an area with a roof where kids can play on rainy days and still get fresh air.
      • Natural materials like stones, shells etc. are used in art and craft along with traditional glue and colours.
  • Emergent Curriculum. The topics are originated by children and framed by teachers. For example if the teachers observe that the children are interested in rain puddles, they might have themes and projects about rain.
  • Project based. The children originated topics will be framed as projects spanning weeks or even months based on the interest of the children. They class will explore rain in books, paintings, discussions, collecting rain water etc. This enables more hands-on and in-depth learning.
  • 100 languages of children. Different children learn in different ways. That is why teachers explore and present ideas in different forms – puppets, painting, drama, story telling etc.
    • Read the popular Reggio Emilia book “The Hundred Languages of Children” by Carolyn Edwards for understanding the Reggio philosophy more.
  • Exploration, creativity and expression are encouraged.
    • Children are encouraged to explore different media. For example, instead of just sticking sequins on paper, they will have choices of feathers, dry flowers and leaves etc as well.
    • The “work” of children is also put on the walls at the children’s eye level. The teachers might write the stories or anecdotes they say and put on the wall. This way the children feel pride in their work and learn from each other.


The first Waldorf school was started by Rudolf Steiner, a scientist and an educator, in 1919 in Germany. He believed that children learn best my imitation and their physical surroundings. The Waldorf method focuses on stimulating the bodies, soul, spirit and imagination of children in a nurturing home-like environment. Like the Montessori  and Reggio Emilia methods, Waldorf also focuses on the whole-child. Some common beliefs and practices:

  • Creative play.
    • Emphasis on pretend play, dress-up—activities that give a free rein to the imagination
  • Emphasis on teamwork and group play.
    • Also forging close relationship with teachers and other children. Many Waldorf schools will focus on teachers being with the same children for years.
    • Teachers might play a larger role than Reggio Emilia or Montessori schools.
  • Harmony with nature. Children learn from nature.
    • Many will have emphasis on organic food.
    • No or restricted television and computers.
    • Use of natural materials and toys. Sometimes even plastic toys may not be allowed.
    • Emphasis on routine. For example children might have scheduled activities like cooking, dress-up, painting etc.. This might be different from Montessori and Reggio Emilia where children might be able to choose activities.
  • There is heavy parental involvement to create a Waldorf environment for the children at home as well.


Academic preschools have a big focus on preparing children for primary school and even on getting into primary schools.  Most Indian preschools have a high proportion of academics in their mix. Though these days, schools are adding more play and other elements to their methods.

  • The schedule is structured
    • Separate time for “work” and play. More time typically for “work” and less for play
    • There are time periods for math, alphabet, art and so on
  • Academic preschools are like typical Indian grade schools where there is emphasis on formal education. The bulk of the time is spent on
    • Formal learning of ABCs and math using worksheets
    • Primary means of learning are worksheets and pencil and paper.
  • The curriculum is rigidly defined and is mostly teacher-directed and push-down vs. child initiated.


Also called child-centered and developmental. These schools believe that children learn best through play. Some key beliefs and practices:

  • Children are encouraged to learn through activities appropriate for their stage of development.
  • Of course heavy on play. Lots of unstructured time to play and opportunity to choose when, what and who to play with.
  • Most of the time the children have choice of activity but there might be times when children get together for story-time, circle-time or to focus on some activity.
  • Many of the play-based schools are influenced by Montessori, Reggio or Waldorf philosophies and might apply these methods and materials.
  • There may be theme-based activities for children. The themes can be both teacher and child initiated.
  • Reading and math readiness skills may be learnt by informal play-based activities.
  • Some play-based schools might add some level of formal learning as well. This is common especially in India because of parental and societal pressure to get into select primary schools.

Also see

Preschool - Importance, Right age, How to select and other common questions


1. American Montessori Society

2. Association Montessori Internationale (AMI)

3. Assn. of Waldorf Schools of North America

4. Italian Reggio Emilia site (in English)


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