April 19, 2017

I am NO EXPERT on early childhood education.

Which is why I would have really appreciated an overview guide like this a year ago, when I was neck-deep in preschool research. It can be a daunting task. There is still so much I don’t know, but my goal is to give new parents an idea of what kind of things to consider when getting started on preschool research. I want to help you narrow down your goals and organize your thinking. I’ll talk about the different factors you might consider as well as some of our thinking as we worked through our decision for our preschooler.

Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any one best philosophy or type of preschool for all kids. I think they all offer different and wonderful ways for your child to grow, and you should find something that works best for you and your child!

Where do I start my research?

Your preschool decision can be as simple as finding the closest preschool to your house, or finding one on the way to work. You visit and it’s warm, welcoming, and the kids are thriving. GREAT. Done. You are so efficient!

Others go with the recommendations of friends, which is a great place to start. Your friend raves about her child’s class and school. You visit, it’s just lovely, and you see her child thriving there. Sure, why not? Easy peasy, you are done!

If you’re like me, though, you take about 100 factors into consideration, weigh each one (using an Excel spreadsheet), agonize over how important each one is (both now and in nine months, when she would actually be enrolled), and flit back and forth as you get input from friends, the Internet, reviews, and your “gut feeling” after you’ve toured the school (not to mention the pressure of waiting lists!).

Sometimes, I really wish I were not that parent, because the first two scenarios seems so simple and everyone I know is still very happy with it. The best advice I got from a friend was, “Jo, don’t overthink it.”

So maybe you should do yourself a favor and stop reading right now ;). But if you must, then press on. Good luck. And really, try not to overthink it.

Different Types of Preschools

In my research, I came across five main different types of preschools: traditional, play-based, Montessori, co-ops, and home-based. While most preschools have elements from more than one category (i.e. “play-based co-op”), these are teaching philosophies and styles you might want to grow more familiar with.

Traditional preschools are what most of us probably experienced as kids. You have a group of same-age kids that are dropped off in a classroom. The time there is structured, and kids spend the morning doing arts and crafts, music, story time, and learning about the calendar, weather, numbers, and ABC’s. They have some outdoor time, snacks, and plenty of opportunity for socialization and making friends. There is at least one teacher who manages the class and activities, and a major goal is to prepare your child for kindergarten.

Play-based preschools are similar in a lot of ways, but there is a lot more space for the child to make decisions based on their own interests. There is a lot of free play, and a teacher’s role is more to guide a child in their learning rather than to lead in direct instruction. Teachers usually set out several activities including art, science, nature, dramatic play (play kitchen, dress up, etc.), blocks and toys, sensory bins (rice bin, water table, etc.), and others for the children to choose from. If you search children learn through play, you’ll find plenty of material advocating the use of play to teach!

While this may seem chaotic, or can even be seen as glorified babysitting to some, it can be very effective when done thoughtfully. It was something I sought for my own daughter because I know my own tendencies to be too detailed and too instructive in our day to day life. I try to monitor myself, but I knew it wouldn’t be the same as actually dropping her off somewhere to safely explore, play, learn, and grow on her own.

Montessori preschools seem to be everywhere, and for good reason! The Montessori method was developed by Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, and continues to thrive today. The philosophy is that “play is a child’s work,” and in the Montessori classroom, children learn at their own pace. A Montessori classroom is a neat and highly organized space with beautiful and thoughtful materials. There is a great emphasis on responsibility and children choose their own activities, work on them mostly by themselves, and are expected to put them back with care.

Montessori is great for parents who value order, concentration, coordination, and independence for their child. Parents are surprised their children know how to hang up their own jacket, care for a plant, choose their own work, carefully clean up, and return each material to its proper place. Also, a tip from a former Montessori teacher: “Be sure to ask if all the teachers are certified under the American Montessori International (AMI) or American Montessori Society (AMS). Often you’ll find only the director and a couple teachers are certified.”

Co-ops are parent participation schools, and often seem to have some combination of the words “observation nursery school” or “parent nursery school” in their titles. There is usually one main teacher who leads the time and organizes the activities, and parents join in to help in various ways, such as teaching, cleaning up, providing snacks, or administrative work. Most co-ops I have come across are play-based. In my experience, this option works mostly for families with at least one parent that only works part-time or that stays home full time. They also tend to be less expensive since parents put in a lot of time to make everything work.

Parents are able to gain insight by observing their own child and other children during class time. Both programs I’ve participated in also had a parent education aspect to it, where parents would head to a nearby room for a short meeting with the teacher while their children continued to play in the yard or classroom. This departure also served as an opportunity for clingy children to begin easing into separation from their parents, which seemed to work really well for some families.

I enjoyed our weekly co-op while I was able to carry my infant son around in the baby carrier while I attended class with my daughter. However, I wasn’t able to manage this format anymore once my youngest grew more mobile (and heavy!), and we eventually had to drop out. Many co-ops offer a 2x/week or 3x/week format that only requires parents to attend once a week, but I don’t really know how you can manage that with a squirmy younger sibling in tow!

Home-based preschools can also be a great option. One parent mentioned to me that teachers who run home-based programs are always extremely passionate about what they are doing, and that they would only do it if they really loved it. That makes sense to me, since signing up for a job as a teacher on a separate campus seems a lot less involved than taking kids into your actual home!

Do note that a home-based preschool is not the same as a daycare in someone’s home. All the home-based preschools I have observed have the same elements and schedule as a regular preschool- circle time, activity time, snack time, outside play time, etc. The environment is similar to a traditional preschool with ample educational supplies (not just toys), kid-sized furniture, and student work hanging on the walls. It just happens to run out of someone’s home instead of a separate building.

Wait, there’s more!

While I focused on five major categories of preschools, there are a lot of other preschool philosophies out there, and they all have great things to offer. Some schools have other focuses, such as bilingual, academic or faith-based. They are kind of self-explanatory, but worth a mention. Many of these have overlapping philosophies with other categories. For example, in our area, there are many bilingual Montessori preschools and traditional or academic Christian preschools. This really comes down to what you personally are hoping for your child!


I always assumed I’d send my child to a Montessori school- everyone else was doing it, and my mom always talked about how she sent my brother there and he turned out pretty amazing. Once I jumped into the rabbit hole that is preschool research, though, it wasn’t such a simple decision for me. While I wanted my daughter to grow in independence, concentration, and responsibility, I also wanted her to have the space to make a mess (outside of my house…), the freedom to play in sand and ride on scooters, and to be in an environment where she had to learn to work with other kids everyday. I felt the play-based program was a better fit for our goals at the time.

Once you have figured out which type of preschool or philosophy is most in line with your goals for your child, there are yet a few more things to consider. Stay tuned for next week’s post as I offer more ways to overload your mind with way too much preschool information! You’re welcome.

Have you had experience with any of these types of programs? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, and I think other parents would benefit from it too!





Brown, Laura Lewis. “Comparing Preschool Philosophies: Play-Based vs. Academic.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 07 Nov. 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.

Brown, Laura Lewis. “Comparing Preschool Philosophies: Montessori, Waldorf and More.”PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 07 Nov. 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.

“Cooperative Preschools – Is This for My Family?” Cooperative Preschools – Is This for My Family?, Parent Cooperative Schools International. Parent Cooperative Preschools International, 2010. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.

Personal interview. 16 Apr. 2017.



8 responses to “Starting Your Preschool Research, Part I”

  1. Wendy M says:

    I am enjoying your articles, especially on working with children who have disruptive behaviors. I teach 5 year olds in a church’s traditional and cooperative preschool. We have three separate classes for 3, 4, and 5’s. Parents help out once a month, not weekly, and grandparents, aunts, uncles, sitters, etc are all welcome to fill the family’s spot. We plan lessons around themes, mostly having to do with nature and the world around them. We do a lot of singing, stories, art, and sign language.
    I LOVE my family helpers! They are such a great source of ideas and they learn to know and care about each child in the class. We are winding down now, and for some, we are seeing them in the classroom for the last times. That will be hard for all of us. The parents benefit from seeing their child with others, and seeing how their child is progressing. The children benefit from learning to share the attention of their parents, especially valuable to an only
    child. We work together, take field trips together, and the class families get to know each other and make friends. I feel so grateful to have such a supportive and caring environment and the feeling is mutual. I love seeing how interested the children can be in each new subject!

    • joellen says:

      Thanks so much, Wendy! So great to hear how a traditional style co-op works! I love that everyone pitches in to serve the children. It sounds like there is a wonderful sense of community and that you guys are having a great time all together! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Nancy says:

    Wow, amazing. Thank you so much!!!

  3. Kathryn says:

    I was in Montessori from pre-k through 5th grade. I am a HUGE fan. If your child is self-directed, Montessori is absolutely the way to go. But it’s not for everyone – my oldest (5) needs more direct intervention due to special needs, so he’s in a private school specifically for kids like him (high-functioning autism) instead. We’ll see what happens with my youngest… (He’s not 1 yet, so it’s a little early to decide on his school. Which doesn’t stop me from thinking about it, of course.)

    • joellen says:

      You’re absolutely right that we need to consider each individual child and their needs and find something that suits them best! Thanks for sharing about that, and I hope you find a great fit for your next child, too!

  4. S.K. says:

    Love this post! Informative, helpful, and funny too 😉