The different preschool programmes and how they differ


Are you wondering what type of preschool is right for your child? Read on to find out the difference between a Montessori and a Waldorf school, for instance, and to pinpoint an early education philosophy that will best suit your child.

The Montessori programme


Founded by paediatrician/psychiatrist Maria Montessori in 1907, Montessori school programmes (there are over 40 Montessori centres operating in New Zealand) emphasise the importance and connection of all living things, and the need for each person to find meaningful work and his or her own place in the world. Children learn about other cultures, animals, and plants in addition to reading, language, and mathematical skills.

Teachers — or "guides," as they are called — take their lead from each child, whom they believe will learn at his or her own pace. Montessori programmes encourage a child's sense of independence: Children are always asked if they want to try a task, if they need help doing it, or if they feel they aren't ready. Guides also like to involve parents closely in their children's education — the teacher-student-parent bond is carefully cultivated.

In the classroom

The Montessori curriculum focuses on five areas:

  • Practical life — Children learn how to tie their shoes and put on their coats, prepare their own snacks and drinks, go to the bathroom without help, and clean up after themselves if they spill something.
  • Sensory awareness education — Exercises make sure children use all five senses to learn. For example, a child studying about Autumn gathers leaves and feels how brittle they are.
  • Language arts — Children are encouraged to express themselves verbally and are taught to trace and recognise letters as a precursor to learning reading, spelling, grammar, and handwriting skills.
  • Mathematics and geometry — Children learn about numbers through hands-on learning using concrete materials, such as the golden beads that represent the hierarchy of the decimal system.
  • Cultural subjects — Children learn about other countries (geography), animals (zoology), time, history, music, movement, science, and art.

All the disciplines are tied together in complementary ways. Toys and other developmentally appropriate learning materials are laid out in the classroom so a child can see what her choices are and then pick a task — called "work" — according to her interests. Work options include books, puzzle games, art projects, toys that test spatial relations, and more. When they're done, children put their work back on the shelves and move on to something else. The daily schedule allows time for children to play alone or in groups.

Guides work with children as a group and one on one, but most of the interaction is among the children. In a Montessori centre, teachers aren't the only instructors. Older children often help younger ones learn how to master new skills. That's why each class usually includes children from a two-to-three-year age span.

The length of the day depends on the school and the age of the students. A typical Montessori preschool programme runs from 9 a.m. to 12 or 12:30 p.m. Most offer afternoon/early evening care, too.

Who it's best for

"Children who want a hands-on learning environment suited to their own needs," says Ana Pickering of Montessori Aotearoa New Zealand. Special needs children thrive, especially those with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or other learning or psychological problems, because of the individual attention teacher’s pay to each student.

Montessori centres believe in teaching children about a wide range of cultures, and most actively seek a diverse student body. If you'd like your child to be exposed to children from all walks of life, this might be the place. Most Montessori centres take children starting at age 3 or 4, and prefer that they are able to go to the bathroom on their own. Some facilities offer limited programmes for infants and young toddlers.

For more information

Go to the Montessori Aotearoa New Zealand website at

The Reggio Emilia approach


The Reggio Emilia approach is an educational philosophy focused on preschool and primary education. It was developed after World War II by a psychologist Loris Malaguzzi, and parents in the villages around Reggio Emilia in Italy. Following the war, people believed that children were in need of a new way of learning. The assumption of Malaguzzi and the parents was that people form their own personality during early years of development and that children are endowed with "a hundred languages" through which they can express their ideas. The aim of this approach is teaching how to use these symbolic languages (eg., painting, sculpting, drama) in everyday life. The programme is based on the principles of respect, responsibility, and community through exploration and discovery in a supportive and enriching environment based on the interests of the children through a self-guided curriculum.

In the classroom

In the Reggio approach, the teacher is considered a co-learner and collaborator with the child and not just an instructor. Teachers are encouraged to facilitate the child's learning by planning activities and lessons based on the child's interests, asking questions to further understanding, and actively engaging in the activities alongside the child, instead of sitting back and observing the child learning. "As partner to the child, the teacher is inside the learning situation" (Hewett, 2001).

Some implementations of the Reggio Emilia approach self-consciously juxtapose their conception of the teacher as autonomous co-learner with other approaches. For example:

Teachers' long-term commitment to enhancing their understanding of children is at the crux of the Reggio Emilia approach. Their resistance to the American use of the term model to describe their program reflects the continuing evolution of their ideas and practices. They compensate for the meagre pre-service training of Italian early childhood teachers by providing extensive staff development opportunities, with goals determined by the teachers themselves. Teacher autonomy is evident in the absence of teacher manuals, curriculum guides, or achievement tests. The lack of externally imposed mandates is joined by the imperative that teachers become skilled observers of children in order to inform their curriculum planning and implementation.

Who it’s best for

Here are three tips to help you determine whether a Reggio Emilia preschool is the best choice for your child.

1. You Want Your Child To Feel Empowered

2. You See the Classroom as a Learning Community

3. You Want to Be Active in Your Child’s Education

For more information

Go to the Reggio Emelia Aotearoa New Zealand website at or the Reggio Emelia Provocations website at the New Zealand Council of Educational Research article

The Waldorf (Rudolf Steiner) approach


According to Rudolf Steiner, founder of the first Waldorf school at the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919, a person is made up of three aspects — spirit, soul, and body. The more than 750 Waldorf programmes around the world aim to stimulate and develop these three elements in young children by immersing them in nurturing surroundings. Children are encouraged to engage in creative free play rather than watching TV and videos and playing computer games because those activities get in the way of using all five senses to absorb and actively engage in life.

In the classroom

Waldorf early childhood teachers try to create a comfortable, homelike environment that offers children plenty of opportunities to freely imitate what they see and to indulge in creative play. Daily activities range from painting, colouring, singing, and reciting poems to modelling with beeswax, baking bread, building houses out of boxes, sheets, and boards, and dressing up and pretending to be parents, kings, and magicians.

Who it's best for

Waldorf programmes tend to be more group-oriented than those at Montessori schools, for instance. If your child thrives on order and rhythmic repetition, this may be the best option. But a Waldorf education can benefit almost any child. Waldorf teachers believe that even children with special needs can bring something important to a group. However, the programme is not recommended for children with severe developmental disabilities. Note that Waldorf programmes, particularly for younger children, do not favour the use of books or reading.

For more information

Web site:

Other types of preschools

Hundreds of independent preschools and childcare centres around the country don't follow any one of the preceding approaches to the letter, but instead mix and match various elements of them to form their own programme. Activities and curricula based on the work of Jean Piaget, a Swiss development / education pioneer who died in 1980, are also popular.

If you're considering a preschool without a strong affiliation with one of the groups just described, ask what the school's philosophy is in the interview to determine whether it will suit your child. See our preschool interview sheet for specific questions to ask.

Many parents also opt for church or temple-run programmes, which can vary widely in their philosophies and classroom activities. Some make learning about the religion a part of the daily routine; others barely touch on any religious messages. If you're considering a church-based programme, visit the centre and talk to the teachers so you can find out more about their approach. For more information, go to:

Community organisations, including the YMCA, often have preschool programmes as well. Some large companies also have in-house programmes. These programmes may be more likely to function as daycare for older children than structured early childhood education environments, though. Be sure to dig around and find out if the one you're considering offers what you want for your child.

Some parents who feel like they can't find the perfect fit for their child opt to join a parent-run Playcentre. In these centres, parents take turns volunteering as teachers and caregivers. All of the members meet and agree on what activities the children will pursue. It takes a lot of time and energy, but running a Playcentre can be very rewarding. For more information, go to the New Zealand Playcentre Federation’s website:

No matter what type of preschool you choose, the most important thing to think about is whether your child will be happy there. The main goal is for your child to enjoy his time with other children and to develop a curiosity and love of learning. Formal education will come soon enough.