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Early Childhood Education Choices
When it comes to early childhood education, many preschools subscribe to a number of different philosophies and theories. In order to make an informed decision, you should familiarize yourself with the options and choose a preschool that’s a good match with your child. You want his or her early childhood school experience to be a positive one that inspires a lifelong love of learning.
Early Childhood Education: Montessori Preschool
The Montessori preschool is focused on teaching children at their own pace while fostering independence and self-esteem. The education process for each child is self-paced, with teachers acting as “guides” for each individual student. According to the American Montessori Society, the principle goals of the guides are to:
- Awaken each child’s imagination and spirit.
- Encourage each child’s self-esteem and desire for independence.
- Help each student develop the courtesy, kindness, and self-discipline in early childhood that will allow him or her to become a full member of society.
- Teach each child to observe, question, and explore ideas independently.
In general, a guide will introduce each lesson to the class as a whole. At that point, the students are usually broken up into small groups and encouraged to investigate the topic on their own in a carefully prepared and monitored classroom environment. This individualized attention means that students with special early childhood needs—whether gifted or learning delayed—often fare well in the Montessori environment.
Rather than foster an atmosphere of competition, Montessori preschools try to promote a spirit of cooperation among the children. Older children are encouraged to help and mentor younger students, teaching compassion and instilling the important early childhood lesson that there is no shame in asking for help.
Early Childhood Education: Waldorf Preschool
Waldorf preschools focus on engaging all five senses in an attempt to simultaneously stimulate each child’s body, soul, and spirit. Rudolf Steiner, who founded the first Waldorf school in 1919, believed that imitation and creative play were vital teaching tools during early childhood. The Waldorf philosophy also focuses heavily on teamwork and togetherness. In fact, students who remain at the same Waldorf school for the duration of their early childhood education may have the same teacher from preschool to eighth grade. The result is a close student/teacher bond in which the child’s needs are better understood with each passing year.
Waldorf preschool and early childhood programs are group-oriented and more focused on routine than Montessori schools. At an early childhood age, the Waldorf classroom encourages a love of learning through dramatic play, art projects, singing, stories, cooking, and other activities. The classrooms are natural, with no televisions, computers, or plastic toys. Since the Waldorf experience focuses on all of the sense, the common wisdom is that children benefit more from the sight, smell, and feel of natural materials.
Children with special needs are usually welcome in Waldorf schools, but the tighter regimen and schedule may not address their needs as well as a program offering more individualized attention.
Early Childhood Education: Projects-Based Preschool
The goal of a projects-based program is to let children learn through exploration, experimentation, and collaboration. Teachers guide the children through their projects while tying the lessons back to real-world experiences. Children play with materials that inspire pretend play and exploration, such as clay, blocks, and other art supplies. Projects-based programs also include frequent community field trips.
By introducing these extension activities to students during their early childhood, the projects-based approach is attempting to accomplish the following goals:
- Increase knowledge of fundamental concepts by making them interesting to learn.
- Improve early childhood behavior by allowing students to learn independently and in cooperation with others.
- Improve dispositions and attitudes about learning.
- Discourage the negative attitudes that might hinder a child’s educational development down the road.
As with the Montessori program, teachers act as guides, encouraging children to work independently. Teachers will provide advice or help when needed, but generally stay back and allow the children to handle project-related problems themselves. Children are encouraged to negotiate with their teachers about the directions and rules for a project, and what they hope to achieve or accomplish with it.
Early Childhood Education: Community/Religious Preschool Program
A number of community centers, child care centers, and religious organizations offer early childhood/preschool programs. Typically, these classes feature a traditional focus on both socialization and pre-academic skills as children are made ready for kindergarten. In addition, these classes may also include age-appropriate religious instruction.
The philosophies and teaching styles of these programs vary greatly, depending on the directors, teachers, and the institution itself. Some may incorporate elements of other programs (such as Montessori, Waldorf, or projects-based). Some may place a higher emphasis on pre-academic skills and direct instruction, while others may offer a more interactive curriculum. Before enrolling your child, you should talk to the director or teachers and make sure their approach fits well with your child’s temperament and your goals for his or her early childhood education.
Early Childhood Education: Cooperative Preschool
If you’re having trouble finding an affordable preschool, or one with a teaching philosophy that meshes with your own, you might consider a cooperative school. These early childhood programs are run by parents, which not only makes them less expensive (provided you’re willing to volunteer some time), but gives you a direct say in what the kids learn and how they learn it.
Most cooperative preschools have a professional teacher overseeing the classroom, assisted by volunteer parents who serve as aides and help develop the curriculum. Parents also volunteer to share other duties, from managing the finances to washing the windows.
Participating in a cooperative preschool requires a good deal of commitment from you as a parent, but many families feel the time and energy are worth it. Apart from the financial benefits and the direct influence you have over your child’s education, a cooperative school allows you to work with like-minded parents and to observe your child as he or she learns and socializes during early childhood.
Early Childhood Education: Reggio Emilia Preschool
The Reggio Emilia program has been hailed by many experts as an excellent system for developing strong thinking skills during early childhood. This is achieved through four guiding principles:
- Emergent Curriculum: Study topics are developed based on each child’s individual interests, or in areas that tend to fascinate children in general (such as dinosaurs). Teachers use this information to put together a customized curriculum for the class, deciding what projects are best suited for the students, what materials will be required, and how to best get the parents (or even the community) involved.
- Projects: Children participate in in-depth studies, which are presented to them as “adventures.” These adventures can vary in length from a week or two to the entire school year. Children are encouraged to approach these projects on their own, with the teachers standing by to act as advisors if necessary.
- Representational Development: New ideas and concepts are presented in a variety of formats, such as print, music, art, drama, etc. This ensures that all of the children (many of whom may have different learning styles) have a chance to grasp what’s being taught.
- Collaboration: Children participate in both large and small groups to solve problems by using dialogue, negotiations, comparisons, and other interpersonal skills. Children are encouraged to participate in these group activities so that they may develop a sense of belonging, as well as a sense of self.
The key to Reggio Emilia curriculum is flexibility, with the teachers adjusting the dynamic of the classroom to help the learning process. Teachers carefully observe and track the growth of the children, as well as the sense of community in the classroom. By determining what does and doesn’t work, the teachers can adapt their curriculum in whatever way best helps the early childhood learning process.