Preschool 101: Different Types of School Structures and What They Mean

Considering the preschool options available to your toddler? Depending on where you live, you may have a wide array at your disposal. The first step is decoding what defines each type of school, because the names aren't necessarily intuitive. We've broken down the basic tenants of five different types of preschool programs that may be available in your area. Of course, talk to the directors of the individual schools that you're considering for a more specific overview of what their facilities have to offer.


According to the American Montessori Society, Montessori education is student-led and self-paced but guided, assessed, and enriched by knowledgeable and caring teachers, the leadership of their peers, and a nurturing environment. Named for Dr. Maria Montessori, the Italian physician who founded this approach to learning more than a century ago, Montessori comes with its own vernacular — check it out if this philosophy is of interest to you. According to the AMS, there are five core components of a Montessori education:

  1. Trained Montessori teachers
  2. The multiage classroom (classes with three-year age spans are designed to "facilitate mentorship among the students and encourage leadership development")
  3. The use of Montessori materials
  4. Child-directed work (students have the opportunity to self-select what they'd like to work on)
  5. Uninterrupted work periods (children are given extended blocks of time to work on what they'd like, at their own pace and without interruption)

The premise is an education that develops all aspects of the individual child — cognitive, emotional, social, and physical.


According to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, Waldorf schools "offer a developmentally appropriate, experiential, and academically rigorous approach to education." Developed by Rudolf Steiner and Emil Molt in 1919, the Waldorf philosophy has its roots in anthroposophy, or "the belief that humanity has the wisdom to transform itself and the world, through one's own spiritual development." Thereby, the approach aims to unlock each individual's potential to further develop humanity.

Waldorf schools integrate the arts in all academic disciplines and aim to "inspire life-long learning in all students and to enable them to fully develop their unique capacities." Music, dance, theater, writing, literature, legends, and myths are all considered critical components of the Waldorf experience, meant to cultivate students' intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual capacities "to be individuals certain of their paths and to be of service to the world."

Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia also has its roots in Italy and started in the city of the same name in the 1940s. While it shares overlapping values with Waldorf and Montessori schools, it's not a philosophy with a set system of beliefs, according to Reggio Emilia focuses on the educational importance of community and free inquiry as its primary values. The core components of a Reggio Emilia education include the following:

  1. The child as an active participant in learning (students are encouraged to follow their own interests)
  2. The learning environment plays a significant role (most Reggio classrooms include a studio filled with materials such as clay, paint, and writing tools to explore concepts they are learning in a hands-on way)
  3. The teacher, parent, and child are collaborators in the learning process (the Reggio Emilia approach includes parents as a key component of their child's learning, offering opportunities like conferences and special lectures for the school community)
  4. Learning is visible (teachers use a variety of documentation methods, like cameras, tape recorders, and journals, to track children's thoughts and ideas as they progress throughout their schooling)

Bank Street

In 1916, the Bureau of Educational Experiments (BEE) was founded by Lucy Sprague Mitchell; her husband, Wesley Mitchell; and colleague Harriet Johnson. Their purpose was to "combine expanding psychological awareness with democratic conceptions of education," according to the Bank Street College of Education. In 1950, the BEE was renamed the Bank Street College of Education, and it has since become a leader in progressive education. With a belief that it is the educator's role to meet students "where they are" to help them develop and realize their unique potential, Bank Street students are afforded meaningful learning opportunities best suited for their learning and growth. The Bank Street credo, as established by Sprague Mitchell in the early 1950s, includes the following:

  1. A zest for living that comes from taking in the world with all five senses alert
  2. Lively intellectual curiosities that turn the world into an exciting laboratory and keep one ever a learner
  3. Flexibility when confronted with change and ability to relinquish patterns that no longer fit the present
  4. The courage to work, unafraid and efficiently, in a world of new needs, new problems, and new ideas
  5. Gentleness combined with justice in passing judgments on other human beings
  6. Sensitivity — not only to the external formal rights of the "other fellow," but to him as another human being seeking a good life through his own standards
  7. A striving to live democratically, in and out of schools, as the best way to advance our concept of democracy

Parent-Led Co-Ops

For those looking for a more customized approach to learning, consider joining or forming a cooperative preschool. This involves a group of families with similar philosophies hiring a trained teacher to provide their children with a quality preschool experience, according to Parent Cooperative Preschools International (PCPI). The preschool is administered and maintained by the parents, who also assist the professional teacher(s) in the classroom on a rotating basis and participate in the educational program of all the children.

This is often appealing to parents who want to play a direct role in their child's early education and form a community with other families who share similar values. PCPI offers a wealth of information, resources, and even grant opportunities if this is a route you're interested in exploring.

While these are certainly not the only types of preschools available to families across the US, it's a good starting point to familiarize yourself with the types of approaches out there. There are also plenty of schools that pick and choose elements from multiple early education philosophies. While educating yourself is one piece of the equation, the most important thing is the vibe you get when you visit the schools. Be sure to ask plenty of questions, ask to see the classrooms, meet the teachers, and speak with parents of children currently enrolled there. The right school is out there for your little one — good luck in uncovering it!