Montessori vs. traditional preschool: How to choose

What's the difference between Montessori and play-based preschool or daycare? Here's what you should know—and how to pick the best care for your kid.

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For many parents, one of the first questions that comes up when choosing preschool or daycare for their kids is whether they should opt for one that uses the Montessori method or one that features a play-based approach. Here are some of the key differences—and what else you should consider before you decide.

The philosophies
The Montessori method: The Montessori Method of Education was created by Maria Montessori, one of Italy’s first female doctors, in the early 1900s. Montessori had a keen interest in human development. Based on her observation of children from different cultural, racial and socio-economic backgrounds, she developed a new approach to education. It soon spread to other countries and continents. Canada’s first Montessori school opened in 1912, and today there are more than 500 across the country.

Montessori schools believe that play is a child’s work. Their programs are child-directed, emphasizing active, self-paced, individualized learning. Children choose activities based on their interests and “work” for uninterrupted blocks of time. Teachers observe and track their progress, and facilitate their use of materials. Through this approach, it’s thought that children become more confident, independent, self-regulated and self-disciplined.

Play-based: Play-based centres are based on the belief that kids learn best through play. These preschools may be more teacher-directed, although playtime is open-ended and unstructured. Children take part in a wide range of play-based activities, including pretend play, and teachers respond with educational lessons. Kids also develop their problem-solving, co-operation, conflict resolution and social skills.

The environments
Both Montessori and play-based preschools can have supportive, carefully designed environments. Montessori preschools are typically organized into five curriculum areas: language, math, practical life, sensorial and culture. Play-based centres may also be arranged into areas or stations based on activities or themes.

Carol Anne Wien, a former Montessori teacher and professor emerita from the Faculty of Education at York University in Toronto, notes a key difference in terms of structure: “A traditional school environment tends to be highly structured in terms of time—if you know what time it is, you know what the children are doing—but it’s loosely structured in terms of space. Montessori is the reverse: highly structured in space and loosely structured in time. If you know where children are in the room, you know what they’re doing, but the time is free. In play-based child care, teachers tend to swing between letting the children play and doing teaching activities.”

Montessori environments tend to be quieter, calmer and less stressful than play-based ones, which some children may find too loud, colourful or high-stimulus, says Wien. No matter which type of preschool you choose, she says, “Look for a tranquil environment, one in which the colour comes from the children and their activities and paintings. Be very wary of an environment that’s filled with red, yellow and blue, and heavy, heavy doses of print or cartoon characters, et cetera, because those are very visually harassing for the child and will tire the child out.”

The benefits
“A huge benefit with Montessori is that the child is active within their own pace and rhythms,” says Wien, adding that kids who seem distracted in a conventional setting may flourish if allowed to set their own rhythm of activity. “Children in Montessori programs also tend to become highly self-regulated. That’s a major advantage, because it’s considered, at this time, a huge criterion for success in school—not intelligence but the capacity to self-regulate.” (Self-regulation means how quickly a person returns to a calm state after experiencing stress.)

In play-based settings, Wien says, kids’ imaginations can really flourish, and so can their social skills, such as generating friendships and working things through with friends in play. “Those are both positive things, too. I would say Montessori is less likely to tolerate symbolic or imaginative play. You’d get more socio-dramatic play in a play-based child care centre, which is also a good route to self-regulation.”

Your child’s behaviour and personality may influence your decision. Some children do better in one setting or the other. “If you have a highly active little boy who loves to play airplanes and build with blocks, I’d put him in a play-based program,” says Wien. “If you have a shy child that hangs back and you’re not sure what they’re interested in, I’d put them in a Montessori program where they have this rich, rich environment that may draw them out in ways you haven’t seen before.”

Making the decision
Remember, both Montessori and play-based centres help kids prepare for kindergarten and develop a love for learning, and both must meet regulations set by your provincial or territorial government. Both philosophies can offer excellent programs and weaker ones, too—you can’t decide by philosophy alone.

In fact, Wien does not recommend that parents necessarily choose between Montessori and play-based preschool or daycare. “The main criterion is to go to the centre and look for the quality of the relationships among the educators and the children, and the educators and each other, and of course with the parents,” she says. “That will tell the parent whether they want their child in that program.”

For many parents, the decision comes down to practicalities, such as distance and availability—not every community has a Montessori school. Factors such as a preschool’s cost, schedule, capacity, nutrition, physical condition, reputation, staff credentials and accreditation may outweigh other considerations. (Note that “Montessori” is not copyrighted, and anyone can open a school under that name. You’re best off choosing one accredited by The Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators or one that’s a member of Montessori Quality Assurance, administered by the Association Montessori Internationale (Canada).)

When touring preschools, ask about staff qualifications, particularly those of the preschool’s leaders. Also find out whether they provide professional development: “A good centre will do that,” says Wien, “and the best centres tend to have the most professional development, on an ongoing basis.”

And, of course, examine the physical environment and ask about activities. Wien rattles off a checklist: “Is it clean, well organized and uncluttered? Is there a quality of beauty there? Do they take the children outside? What’s the quality of the playground and outdoor experiences, the quality of the food? Do they have a little studio for arts-based activities?” she asks. “I wouldn’t be worried about whether it’s Montessori or play-based.”

Read more:
15 questions to ask on your daycare tour
What to do if your preschooler won’t stop crying at drop-off
Home daycares versus larger daycare centres: pros and cons

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