Teaching and learning

What Are the Different Types of Early Childhood Education?

Your guide to the different types of preschool programs and curriculums.
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September 15, 2023
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • A clear definition of what a curriculum is
  • From Reggio Emilia to Parent Co-ops, I have created a quick break down on what distinguishes some of the different preschool programs and curricula
  • I clarify the differences between Reggio Emilia, Waldorf and Montessori
  • How to help parents choose the right preschool program for their little ones.

First things first, 

What is a curriculum?

You can think of a curriculum as like a roadmap. It is a collection of planned activities and lessons that help preschoolers acquire skills and develop social and emotional skills. A curriculum is built with end goals and desired outcomes in mind. Simply, as defined by NAEYC, a “preschool curriculum is based on what most preschoolers should know and be able to do.” 

There are different types of preschool programs, and this will directly influence the curriculum. In other words, “how” and “what” children are taught is directly related to the early childhood education program they attend.  

So, naturally you may be asking…

What are the different types of early childhood programs?

I’ve decided to share a quick break down of the more common types of preschool programs available, including:

  1. Reggio Emilia
  2. Waldorf
  3. Montessori
  4. HighScope
  5. Parent Cooperative, or Co-ops
  6. Bank Street
  7. Religious or Faith-based

Reggio Emilia

As described by Jane Racoos, Reggio Emilia’s curriculum is built on the belief that “children are competent, confident and capable beings from birth.” Therefore, teachers should use activities and lessons to encourage and cultivate each child's unique imagination and curiosity.

A Reggio Emilia curriculum is more flexible and encourages exploration through hands-on projects and collaboration. This is so teachers can embrace each child's individuality and curiosity. Additionally, a core belief of the Reggio Emilia approach is the idea that “the environment is the third teacher” - the environment, such as the classroom layout and the outdoor playground - is critical to fostering a child’s imagination, exploration and learning.

So, in brief, a Reggio Emilia curriculum:

  • Is driven by the child’s curiosity and imagination
  • Is initiated and guided by the children
  • Encourages creativity, imagination and expression
  • Is filled with hands-on activities
  • Considers the environment a “third teacher”

A preschool boy playing with a music instrument.


Waldorf was founded by Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, and has now become an education approach in schools of all ages around the world. Sunbridge Institute describes the Waldorf “learning process [as] essentially threefold, engaging head, heart and hands - or thinking, feeling, and doing.” 

Waldorf programs emphasize warmth and nurture and fostering the spiritual being. The curriculum integrates art across disciplines, and also includes practical skills like cooking, gardening and other domestic activities. 

A Waldorf preschool environment is entirely play-based, with a mixture of structured and self-guided play. The more traditional skills, like reading and writing, are not explicitly taught in a Waldorf preschool curriculum. Instead, games, art and music focus on developing the child as a social, emotional, spiritual, creative being.

In short, a Waldorf curriculum: 

  • Emphasizes creativity, art, and imaginative play.
  • Limits use of technology and media in the classroom.
  • Focuses on rhythm and routine in daily activities.
  • Delays introduction of reading and academics in favor of play-based learning.
  • Commonly encourages teachers to stay with the same group of children for several years to build strong teacher-student relationships.

Interested in learning more about Waldorf programs? I found Paper Pinecone's blog really helpful. 


Montessori preschools emphasizes individualized and independent learning. Dr. Montessori strongly believed that moving and learning are integral to one another. 

As the American Montessori Society explains that this approach “encourages self-directed learning that promotes self-confidence, independent thought and action, and critical thinking, while fostering social-emotional and intellectual growth.”

More specifically for the preschool level, there is a stronger focus on “peace, social justice, and global citizenship,…fostering respect for all people and living things, and helping children learn the tools for peaceful conflict resolution.

Therefore, a Montessori classroom is customized by teachers to foster each unique child. Also there are specially designed Montessori toys, objects and materials to promote motivation, attention and responsibility. For instance, classrooms will be filled with smaller furniture and lower shelves so children can be independent and autonomous (of course the teachers are there to assist and guide them as needed!)

In short, a Montessori curriculum:

  • Encourages independence and self-directed learning.
  • Uses specially designed materials that are created with a specific learning goal in mind, and encourages hands-on exploration
  • Has a structured environment with a strong emphasis on order and cleanliness.
  • Commonly includes long periods of uninterrupted work time so children can work at their own pace, become fully immersed, and self-correct.
  • Believes a teacher’s role is to guide learning, offer encouragement and tools, introduce new lessons and levels of difficulty when appropriate for each unique child

The big ideas

What’s the difference between Reggio Emilia, Waldorf and Montessori?

  • All three approaches value the child's individuality and unique learning style
  • Waldorf and Montessori have a more structured approach compared to the Reggio Emilia approach
  • Montessori and Reggio Emilia emphasize hands-on learning and exploration, while Waldorf focuses on artistic expression and imagination
  • Waldorf and Reggio Emilia have a stronger emphasis on the role of the environment in learning compared to Montessori


HighScope preschool programs emphasize active learning. The curriculum is built on five basic principles: active learning, positive adult-child interactions, a child-friendly learning environment, a consistent daily routine, and team-based assessment. Also, the curriculum follows a “Plan-Do-Review” process as an overall framework to foster decision-making and problem-solving skills.

A HighScope curriculum:

  • Places active learning at the core to help children develop socially, emotionally, make decisions and acquire academic skills
  • Emphasizes adult-child interactions to promote verb and nonverbal communication and scaffolding children’s play
  • Creates a classroom environment with open-ended materials to allow children to engage in self-guided play and learning
  • Has daily routines and structured time for individual and group play, assist with clean up and develop general self-care skills
  • The "Plan-Do-Review" process to engage children in goal-setting and reflection.
  • Includes ongoing assessment through observation and documentation of children's experiences.

A preschool girl playing with a camera in a classroom.

Parent Cooperative, or Parent Co-ops

In Parent Cooperative preschools, parents actively participate in their child's education, from assisting with overall school management and administration to teaching. 

A co-op is usually begun by a group of families who share similar beliefs, opinions and philosophies about early childhood education. Together, the families hire teachers and continue to support and oversee the overall business operation. 

Simply, parents cooperate, and collaborate to create this preschool program. It is attractive to parents who are extremely hands-on, as parents are frequently in the classroom and attending school with your child, or even assisting the teacher with leading the daily activities and lessons. 

The basics of a Parent Cooperative program includes:

  • Parent involvement in teaching and school governance.
  • Shared responsibilities among parents and teachers.
  • Strong sense of community and collaboration across families and teachers.
  • Opportunities for parents to actively participate in their child's education.
  • Supervised play and hands-on learning in music, literature, language, science and arts. 

If you are interested in learning more about this type of preschool program, I found Parent Cooperative Preschools International (PCPI) very informative! 

Bank Street

The Bank Street approach - also sometimes referred to as the Development-Interaction approach - was founded by Lucy Sprague Mitchell who believed “how” children learned, not “what” they learned, was more important. 

Bank Street curriculum is highly individualized, and focuses on holistic development - emotional, social, physical and intellectual. For example, education consultant, Shnieka Johnson, describes how flexible the curriculum is: 

“‘Teachers that use the Bank Street approach are aware of the whole child, their engagement with the world and their interests. This can lead to meaningful learning,’ says Johnson, who offers the following example. A moment at free play when children pretend to deliver the mail can become a whole unit on the postal service, how our mail gets to us, how to write a letter, mapping a route and so on. It may even include a field trip to the local post office. ‘The curricula can be individualized based on the children’s interests and stage of development. The children are allowed to learn through interaction.’”

The classroom environment is best described as ‘organized chaos,’ with play-based learning as the main activity. 

The Bank Street curriculum:

  • Recognizes that all children learn best when actively engaging with materials, ideas and people
  • Educators meet each child where they are at
  • Educators are conscious of experiences and interests outside of the classroom that could influence a child’s personal development and learning journey
  • Strong emphasis on social-emotional development.
  • Uses child-centered play to help direct lesson plans and activities
  • Emphasizes teachers as researchers who adapt curriculum based on ongoing observations

I found Christine Hernandez’s article helpful, specifically when she broke down activities for learning different disciplines. 

Religious or Faith-based

Religious or faith-based preschool programs incorporates their specific religious beliefs and philosophies into their curriculum. The curriculum is not only about religion, but instead, the teachings are incorporated throughout activities and lessons. Teachers and students are encouraged to speak openly about, and practice, their faith. 

Faith-based programs are aligned with a particular religion's values and beliefs, but in general any faith-based curriculum includes:

  • Integration of religious teachings, values, and practices into the curriculum.
  • Emphasis on moral and ethical development based on religious beliefs.
  • Religious holidays and rituals may be incorporated into the program.
  • May include religious texts and teachings in the curriculum.

So those are some of the more popular types of preschool programs, but if you’re like me, you may still be a bit confused on what the difference between Montessori, Reggio Emilia and Waldorf preschool curricula are…

Wooden toys and play-doh in a classroom

How can you help parents choose the right program for their child? 

Choosing the right preschool curriculum for a child is a decision that should be based on their individual needs, interests, and learning style - it should be a program that will best support their overall child development. Of course, it should also be a program that is best suited for parents and how they want to be involved in their child’s early learning years. 

With a variety of options out there - traditional, play-based, academic - it can be overwhelming. Encourage parents to take their time, and do some research. Remind them not to rush this decision, as it needs to be a program that aligns with the family’s values and the child’s educational goals.

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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