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What Preschool Fits Your Family: Montessori, Waldorf, or Co-Op?

Ms. Meyers is a former preschool and kindergarten teacher who holds a master's degree in special education and writes about early childhood.

Whether it's Montessori, Waldorf, or play-based cooperatives, parents should choose a preschool that promotes creativity, curiosity, socialization, and hands-on learning.

Whether it's Montessori, Waldorf, or play-based cooperatives, parents should choose a preschool that promotes creativity, curiosity, socialization, and hands-on learning.

Finding the Right Fit

As a long-time preschool and kindergarten teacher, I get amused by parents who are obsessed with finding the best preschool for their child. Their quest involves looking for a Utopian-like place with unicorns grazing in the meadow out back and teachers helping kids bake bread (gluten-free, of course) in the recently renovated kitchen.

I advise these moms and dads to take a chill-pill and relieve themselves from the stress brought on by chasing something that doesn't exist. They need to understand that there is no best preschool. There's only the preschool that best fits the needs of their youngster and them.

Knowing Your Kid

I learned this the hard way with my own son. After an exhaustive search, I chose a play-based cooperative for him. I was thoroughly sold on this place with its experienced director, 1 to 4 adult-student ratio, child-centered environment, and learn-by-doing approach. On paper it was everything I wanted for my youngster, but it turned out to be a bad fit.

You see, my son has autism (high-functioning) and this school was just too noisy and loosey-goosey for him. He needed direct instruction, one-on-one attention, and structured activities. As a mom, I felt like a failure for making the wrong choice—for not understanding what my son needed when I knew him best.

Looking for a Strong Philosophy

In the years that followed, I became a preschool teacher and learned a lot about early childhood education. Most significantly, I discovered how important it is to choose a school with a strong philosophy. After all, preschool teachers come and go (there's a huge turnover in the profession) but a philosophy is constant. It's the framework that's needed to make a multitude of decisions about the curriculum, discipline, social skills, parental involvement, nutrition, creativity, and play.

A shared philosophy is what turns a preschool into a community of like-minded people dedicated to giving their youngsters the best possible experience. It's what gives the school its identity and purpose. So if you're looking at preschools, here are three excellent ones to consider but remember only you can decide what fits best for your family.

1. Montessori: Calm, Thoughtful, Orderly

If you want to start a successful business in my hometown of Bend, Oregon, it's wise to open a brewery, a yoga studio, a pot dispensary, a bike shop, or a Montessori preschool. The Montessori philosophy is so popular here that a charter elementary school recently opened based on its teachings. Why are so many well-educated parents sold on this method for their little ones?

Montessori offers an alternative to the pushed-down approach that's used at many preschools today. At these places, teachers adapt the elementary school curriculum and thrust it upon kids who aren't ready for it. Montessori, conversely, is developmentally appropriate with far-reaching goals.

Its aim is for students to become active learners who acquire a lifelong hunger for new information. Instead of emphasizing letters, sounds, numbers, and counting, it promotes curiosity, discovery, and critical thinking. Children are given long blocks of time to explore in a deep, meaningful way instead of jumping from one activity to another.

I didn't attend preschool as a child but, if I had, Montessori would've been an ideal match for me. As an introvert, I would have thrived in the calm and orderly environment. I'd have benefited from the multi-age groups, peer learning, and guided discovery. My son with autism also would have enjoyed it.

Kids, inundated these days with advertisements and commercialism, get a welcome reprieve from that at Montessori. Instead of the standard mass-marketed toys (Star Wars, Disney, and My Little Pony), Montessori uses specially designed materials. They contribute to the soothing environment, free of Hollywood violence and gender stereotypes. Because they're not based on a TV show or movie, these materials let kids use their imaginations instead of working off a pre-existing script conceived by adults.

For moms and dads who are intrigued by this approach, I highly recommend How to Raise an Amazing Child the Montessori Way. Whether parents want to send their child to a Montessori preschool or implement its philosophy in their homes, this book is the perfect resource. It's choke-full of activities to build a youngster's confidence, independence, and curiosity. I used it with my younger son, and it made every day an adventure for both of us.

This video explains how Montessori instills a love of learning by letting children choose their activities and explore deeply.

2. Waldorf: Holistic, Healthy, Creative

Just like Montessori's passionate supporters, Waldorf parents can't imagine educating their children with any other philosophy. While I've heard them called granola and hippy-dippy by their detractors, I personally know them as strong-minded moms and dads, solidly committed to this holistic approach. They're convinced its emphasis on educating the whole child (body, mind, and soul) is the best fit for their families.

For many of them, Waldorf is much more than a preschool where they send their kids. It's a way of life that they practice in their homes as well. Some of them continue to send their children to Waldorf all the way until high school graduation.

These parents seek an alternative from academic preschools—those that offer foreign languages and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), have children write in workbooks, and provide teacher-centered instruction. Like Montessori supporters, Waldorf enthusiasts look at the big picture, not quick fixes.

They want their youngsters to be treated as unique and creative beings, not just test scores. They want an education that fosters imagination instead of stifling it. They want their children to grow into well-rounded adults and contributing citizens, not just Ivy League graduates and Silicone Valley employees.

Unlike many preschools today that have computers in the classrooms, Waldorf stands firm against technology in the early years. Instead, it focuses on music, art, storytelling, drawing, painting, and rhythmic games. It emphasizes real life experiences: playing, cooking, baking, gardening, and knitting rather than virtual ones. Like Montessori, youngsters are encouraged to initiate their own play and learning experiences rather than getting spoon-fed by teachers.

This video explains how a Waldorf education promotes children's imaginations and instills a love of the natural world.

3. Play-Based Cooperatives: Safe, Engaging, Democratic

As I mentioned earlier, my older son attended a play-based cooperative. While it wasn't the best fit for him, I fell in love with its together we're better philosophy. Moms and dads took turns working there as parent helpers, each with their own station to run. One helped with an art activity. One assisted outside with the tricycles and sandbox. One supported the painters at the easels. One supervised the dramatic play area, and one oversaw the sensory table.

This freed up the director to float from room to room, inside and out, and touch base with each child. She'd handle any conflicts, make sure everything was running smoothly, and ensure all kids were happy and engaged. Our cooperative, with its 4 to 1 student-adult ratio, gave the children a wide-array of stimulating opportunities to learn, explore, and play—all in a safe and cheerful environment.

Like many cooperatives, ours followed the philosophy set forth by the well-respected National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). The NAEYC promotes developmentally appropriate practices. These involve kids engaging in pretend play, making their own choices, learning from discovery, and interacting with peers. NAEYC recommendations are based on the latest research from experts in early childhood education, not politicians and bureaucrats.

A cooperative is ideal for parents who want to be actively involved in their child's education. In addition to working in the classroom, moms and dads set the policy for the school and serve as president, vice-president, treasurer, and secretary. It's a democracy with everyone having a voice.

Our cooperative held monthly meetings to discuss the operation of the school. At these events, the director also spoke about young children at each stage of development. Because a cooperative requires time and commitment, it's not a good fit for those who already feel overwhelmed with other responsibilities. If you're willing to devote your energies, though, it's a fantastic place to bond with your child, meet like-minded parents, and develop a social network.

This video explains how play-based cooperatives are affordable and have an unsurpassable child to adult ratio.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers