Picking Preschools – What Does the Jargon Mean?

Picking Preschools — What Does the Jargon Mean?

Every first time parent eventually faces the day when they have to pick a preschool for their child. It’s an important time, and there are many factors to consider in choosing the right place. Most of all, you need a place where your child will be happy and safe while developing the skills needed for kindergarten. But you also have to consider the family’s scheduling and commuting needs. It is easy to lose sight of priorities, however, when you begin your research. You will encounter schools that describe themselves as Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Multiple Intelligences, academic or curriculum based schools, and schools associated with a particular religion. Despite degrees in education and having taught in several local private schools, as a parent myself, I found the jargon difficult and the process intimidating. Even now, with my own preschool, I find it difficult to know how terminology translates into practice. I hope this article will help with your choice and lessen the mystery behind the language.

How to Start

Make a list of possible schools within reach of home or work; get a sense of whether the school is one that you can consider based on price; feel (too institutional? too lax? too little natural light? too little outdoor space?) and scheduling. On the Broadneck peninsula, there are several preschools, including my school, Best Beginning. Each has its own feel and its own educational philosophy. There are several important criteria in choosing a preschool no matter which theorist or curriculum.

  • 1. First, teacher training is crucial to successful teaching.
  • 2. Find out who your child’s teacher will be and visit the school to meet him or her.
  • 3. Ask yourself if this person appears to like and respect children.
  • 4. Think about the size of group/school that will be best for your child.

A larger school will often give your child access to special services like separate music/science and art teachers. A small group and school will likely allow more direct interaction with your child’s teacher and quicker action if a problem arises. Small may be safe and cozy; large may be exciting and challenging. As a parent myself, I wanted my child’s first school experience to be fun and positive and prepare him for the years of schooling and friendships ahead.

Once you are comfortable with the school’s overall features, the descriptions below will help you make sense of their philosophies.



Montessori schools are based on the practices of Dr. Maria Montessori, a teacher and physician of the early 20th century. Montessori believed that learning occurs physically, mentally, and through the senses. She drew her philosophy from observing children across ages and cultures. Through her research and scientific mind, she developed a list of childhood universals that exist no matter where a child is born or raised. Montessori felt that a child’s learning was fundamentally different from an adult’s and that each child went through sensitive periods in which they were most interested in certain concepts. Montessori taught that all children have an absorbent mind characterized by a desire to learn, and all children learn through play/work, all pass through several stages of development, and all want to be independent.

Montessori — as the term is used for preschools — typically means the child will be offered many choices of structured, independent learning activities. Montessori classrooms are usually divided into several areas of learning that include practical life, sensorial, language, mathematics, and cultural. Child-sized furnishings and independent access to materials are a must. Natural materials are used for centers and they are often simply and beautifully made. Materials must be neatly displayed and labeled so that children learn where things belong. The child is allowed freedom within the environment to choose what he/she will engage in. Children are given blocks of uninterrupted work time and may progress at their own rate using the materials. Montessori classrooms typically have mixed age groupings. In this setting, older children learn teaching and nurturing skills while younger children observe methods of learning and playing that they had not yet considered. The role of the teacher is to control the environment but not the child; the child has a natural drive and desire to learn. The teacher observes the child, removes obstacles to learning and will sometimes work individually with children.

One of Montessori’s strengths is in individual achievement driven by the child’s interests: Dr. Montessori placed less emphasis on learning in a group, social dynamics and imaginative play. Traditional toys (like trucks, planes and dolls) are not usually part of a strictly Montessori environment. Keep in mind that there are many variations within schools using the Montessori method. Some schools include Montessori materials as a piece of their educational program while others are based solely on her practices.

Reggio Emilia


The term Reggio Emilia refers to techniques that were learned in the town of Reggio Emilia, Italy after World War II. Parents in this village felt that during the early childhood years, children were in the process of determining who they were as individuals. To this end, the program is based on the principles of respect, responsibility, and community. The interests of the children themselves drive the curriculum. Inherent in the Reggio method are a child’s need for multi-sensory learning, that children must have many ways and forms to express themselves, that children must be able to guide the topics of their learning, and that children must be able to explore both material and interpersonal relationships in their learning. The focus is on viewing the child as a competent, inventive learner who will find his/her own path to learning. The teacher’s role is one of co-learner and collaborator with the children.

Somewhat in contrast with Montessori’s method, collaboration on learning projects between students and students and teachers is part of the framework for effective learning. The environment and arrangement of the Reggio classroom is extremely important for setting the tone to learning. The walls hold photos of the children and their language while learning. Special efforts are made to display the child’s life and the classroom life within the space. Spontaneous representations of learning are encouraged through many types of media, and children often revisit and reflect on the learning that occurs. Natural objects, like rocks, shells and plants as well as lots of natural lighting are used in the classroom. Also important are things that create transparency with the light (such as mirrors, light tables, and glass bottles).

Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences


Some schools emphasize the works of Dr. Howard Gardner and have programs built around his theories on multiple intelligences. Dr. Gardner was the first to point out that popular theories of a singular intelligence quotient as measured by IQ tests were too narrow to capture people’s many abilities. IQ tests typically test only a child’s linguistic and mathematical abilities. Gardner identified eight important intelligences that individuals possess to varying degrees, and believed that each area was one in which emphasis should be placed in teaching. These are:

  • Linguistic (word smart)
  • Mathematical (number smart)
  • Spatial (spatial, graphic design, architecture, builder)
  • Bodily-kinesthetic (body smart-actor, dancer, athlete)
  • Musical (music smart-recall melodies, tonal patterns)
  • Naturalist (nature smart)
  • Interpersonal (people smart-easily perceives, moods, motivations of others)
  • Intrapersonal (self smart-self aware, knows limitations and strengths)


In schools that adopt Howard Gardner’s theories, learning centers are designed to appeal to the range of intelligences as are the activities used. Children are given the opportunity to approach learning through one of their higher ability levels and practice learning through a range of modalities. As with the other theories, children are viewed as capable and intelligent.



In a play-based program, the children have freedom to use the toys and materials in a creative way. These schools usually include dress up and costume areas for children to become involved in imaginative play. There are fewer scheduled transitions during the school day. However, these programs usually include a group time, outside time, snack and lunch. There is ample time for children to become engrossed in a project or play idea. Children may move from one area to the next as they complete their play. Special projects are offered to children who choose to be involved but participation is rarely required. Teachers are available to guide the children in learning based on their own interests. Teachers also help to facilitate social development through play.

Academic and Curriculum-based

An academically focused preschool is primarily concerned with helping children get ready for the type of work and schedule they will encounter in kindergarten. The schedule of the day includes group time, play time at centers, individual work time, (often at desks or small tables), outside play and story time. The school year is organized around predetermined themes (such as holidays, colors, and the beach) and letters of the alphabet. Worksheets are often given to reinforce academic skills and further prepare children for kindergarten level work.

Curriculum based schools may be more developmentally focused or more academically focused depending on the curriculum. Developmental curriculum addresses all the areas of development of the young child including physical, cognitive, language, and social. These developmental needs are met through activities in math, science, social studies, reading, language, art, music, and movement. These curriculum take into consideration the stage of development of a three versus a five year old in planning. Themes of interest to preschoolers are used to teach early academic readiness and social skills. In Maryland, the Creative Curriculum is a popular choice. This curriculum organizes developmentally appropriate learning by interest areas in the classroom such as blocks, house corner etc. and the curriculum includes a developmental checklist for teachers to reference. Another curriculum used in Maryland is the Maryland State Curriculum. This academically oriented curriculum delineates specific objectives and skills in each area of learning (math, reading, language, science etc.) that the state feels the preschool child should master prior to kindergarten. The teachers and the school implement the daily lessons that will impart this knowledge to their students. The Maryland State Curriculum aligns with the Maryland State Assessments.


I hope this helps in the process of picking out a preschool for your child. Parents often desire a school where children are recognized as individuals, and where they have fun while broadening social and academic horizons. Each child and each school is different. At Best Beginning, I implement the best practices from many theories, with extra emphasis on Montessori materials, art and natural sciences. Remember, you know what your child needs and you know your child best! Good luck!

Stefanie Schwenk, M.Ed., runs Best Beginning, LLC out of her home in Cape Saint Claire.

Preschool Education

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