Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Starting the Preschool Hunt

The February issue of Indy's Child has my article on different preschool philosophies, and  here is the Cincinnati Parent version.

Starting the Preschool Hunt

Tips for Finding the Perfect Learning Environment for Your Child
by Krista Bocko

February 01, 2011

Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire." –W.B. Yeats

When it's time to enroll your child in a Preschool, choosing the right preschool is often a difficult decision to make. The wide range of options available presents new methodologies of teaching of which parents may be unfamiliar. However, learning about the different options is fascinating and informative because Indianapolis offers a host of preschool programs and philosophies.

Here are seven preschool philosophies that may be right for your child.

1. Montessori

Philosophy: Italian educator Maria Montessori founded the philosophy in 1907, one of its premises being that children are capable and individual learners. Teachers guide and intervene when necessary.
In the classroom: Working within mixed age groups, children help each other to become independent in an environment prepared in such a way as to foster success. The clock doesn't reign in the classroom and children may engage in their work for as long as they choose.

Teacher talk: "For most of us our school experience was a blizzard of paper work—much of it boring and the waste of a good tree! The goal is to facilitate the child's ability to learn on her own in a multi-sensory fashion. It's not only a philosophy, but a lifestyle," says Vivian Cain, Head of Montessori Academy of Indianapolis. Cain also points out, "In a traditional school, children ages 3 years to 6 years use a lot of workbooks and work sheets (what Montessori calls busy work); whereas, Montessori uses hands-on concrete materials without workbooks and worksheets."

A little more info: A school may use the Montessori name without being affiliated with either the Association Montessori Internationale or the American Montessori Society and there are many shades as to how strictly the school adheres to original Montessori principles.

2. Waldorf
Philosophy: Founder Rudolph Steiner opened his first school in Germany in 1919. Waldorf emphasizes play-acting, stories, and open ended and imaginative play.
In the classroom: Natural materials in the classroom are emphasized—toys are made of cloth and wood and the environment is unhurried, calm and low tech.
A little more info: Waldorf programs are regulated through the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. The AWSNA holds the trademark rights to use the Waldorf name and any variation of the Waldorf name, e.g. "Waldorf inspired." There are currently no Waldorf schools in Indiana, though there are playgroups that practice the Waldorf philosophy (see sidebar).
3. Reggio Emilia
Philosophy: Named after a city in Italy where the townspeople first developed the philosophy, Reggio Emilia was instituted after World War II and is a fairly unstructured learning environment. Teachers are viewed as collaborators in learning and students are encouraged to explore their natural curiosity.
In the classroom: Parents, as their child's first teacher, are viewed as an integral part of Reggio and often volunteer in the classroom. As in Montessori, teachers are there to guide students, who are then encouraged to take the lead in their own learning and pursue their own interests.
Teacher talk: Ron Smith, Director of the Warren Early Childhood Center, says, "The children have opportunities for problem solving and critical thinking. Through projects, children pursue their own interests and the arts are fully integrated with other parts of the curriculum."
At The Children's Museum preschool, both the Reggio and Montessori principles are integrated. Director Cathy Southerland says, "the children participate in project work by their daily exhibit visits. As they explore topics and skills that interest them, they begin to advance their thinking skills, demonstrate increased socialization and practice early literacy skills."
A little more info: A significant emphasis is placed on community and collaboration of teachers, students and parents in Reggio. Teachers often photograph children at work to document their creative process as well as the finished product.
4. Project-Based
Philosophy: Similar to Reggio Emilia in that it is another fairly unstructured, student led learning environment, teachers guide and work with children to plan projects that lead to learning in a positive, spontaneous way.
In the classroom: A real-world connection is emphasized with field trips and hands-on learning being and integral part of the learning process. Children are active and self-motivated learners, free to follow their own interests with their teacher acting as a guide.
Teacher talk: "We are Unit-based, which is somewhat like project based. Some activities may vary but many are the same from year to year, which is a little different. It could also be termed 'play-based' as the children are busy with hands-on activities and move around the room. Our emphasis is on instruction for high ability learners," says Francine Clayton, head of early childhood at Sycamore School.
A little more info: Project-Based Learning is one aspect of the Reggio Emilia influence, along with many others, but can also be implemented in classrooms that don't utilize the Reggio philosophy

5. Play-Based/Traditional
Philosophy: Many preschools fall under the play-based umbrella where the order of the day is encouraging free play. An emphasis is placed upon cooperation, sharing and other social development tactics.
In the classroom: Toys and materials encouraging open-ended and imaginative play, such as dress up clothes, musical instruments, toy kitchens and play food, blocks, puzzles and books should be prevalent.
Teacher talk: "I enjoy this philosophy because it maximizes the huge learning potential of the child's first five years. I have seen how it prepares children for success when they reach elementary school," says Marsha Hearn-Lindsey, director at Day Nursery.
"We believe in our Balanced Learning philosophy, which is a balance between a Montessori and a traditional approach. 'Love, laughter and Happily Everafter' is what we wish for all the children," says Valerie Hall, director at Primrose School at Bridgewater

A little more info: Play-based schools can run the gamut from being more academic focused to being more social-based, to everything in between. Free play and experimentation are both important, and some schools are more structured than others.
6. Cooperative
Philosophy: Co-op preschools involve the whole family. Parents share in running the business operations of the school and meet monthly for a parent meeting. Under teacher guidance, parents also log hours volunteering in the classroom.

In the classroom: Co-ops are often play-based, and children are encouraged to interact and problem-solve together, as well as to develop their autonomy through choosing what activities to participate in (e.g. choosing whether to play outdoors or indoors). Parents volunteer on a regular basis in the classroom.
Teacher talk: Carol Shipley, 4s teacher and assistant director at Meridian Hills Co-op says, "One of the many aspects that I love is the team-building between teachers and parents. After the holidays, a parent brought in a large bag of packing peanuts and there was a high energy level, so the peanuts were stuffed into pillowcases and became amazing punching bags! They loved that."
A little more info: Play dates become easy, with parents and children knowing one another from the classroom. Tuition is often half that of other preschools, making it more affordable, especially for families with more than one preschooler enrolled.
7. Community/Religion
Philosophy: The philosophies and curriculum of community and religious preschools will vary based on the program, so it's key to visit and ask questions. Often the programs are play-based (see above).
In (or out of) the classroom: Depending on the school and amenities, children in community preschool programs may have access to museums, gymnasiums, pools and playgrounds.
Teacher talk: "Young children learn best by doing. Our primary role is to provide an appropriate learning environment and many firsthand experiences that invite children to investigate, represent and share," says Erin Mills, director of early childhood Education at JCC.
A little more info: The Y, JCC, and maybe even your local recreation department all may offer preschool programs. Many churches offer preschool programs, as well.

Krista Bocko is a freelance writer and lives in Noblesville with her husband and four children. She can be reached at

Local Examples

While there are hundreds of preschools in the Indianapolis area, here is a brief list of examples. For a complete list of preschools, visit

Reggio Emilia

Warren Early Childhood Center

St. Mary's Child Center

Both schools are part of the Indianapolis Reggio Collaborative along with Butler University.


Maria Montessori International Academy and
Full day, half day, extended care and summer programs are offered.

The Children's Museum Preschool (Reggio/Montessori), 317.334.4119

Meeting in 14-week semesters, the current semester runs through April 29. From 1-3 times weekly children can learn in the world's largest classroom—The Children's Museum, participating in project work inspired by their museum visits.

Primrose School at Bridgewater (Montessori/Traditional)


There are no formal Waldorf preschools in Indiana, but there is a local Waldorf Community that hosts Waldorf-based play dates and community events. Contact IndyWaldorf community at indywaldorf

Play Based/Traditional

Day Nursery

Seven locations throughout central Indiana offer a full day, year round program to meet the needs of working parents

Early Childhood Education at Sycamore School for Gifted Children


Two hour classes include letter and sound recognition, science, art, gym time and the Handwriting without Tears® curriculum.

Project Based

Early Childhood Education at Sycamore School for Gifted Children


Meridian Hills Co-op

Indiana Council of Preschool Cooperatives


JCC Early Childhood Education

The JCC is open to everyone regardless of faith, ethnicity or financial circumstances.

Choosing the preschool that is right for your family

• Many children will thrive in more than one style of preschool, which is important to keep in mind if you're the parent of more than one child in preschool at the same time. Keep in mind that many preschools offer sibling discounts.

• Visit the different preschools you're considering to observe the classes and speak with the director. Take into account your child's temperament and try to imagine how your child will assimilate into that particular setting.

• Select the approach that you feel is best for your child and your family.

• Preschool programs may also be limited based on your schedule and needs. Many follow the school calendar, however, some are year round. Some offer classes every day and some are 2-4 times a week.

10 Signs of a Great Preschool from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)

1. Children spend most of their playing and working with materials or other children. They do not wander aimlessly, and they are not expected to sit quietly for long periods of time.

2. Children have access to various activities throughout the day. Look for assorted building blocks and other construction materials; props for pretend play, picture books, paints and other art materials, and table toys such as matching games, pegboards, and puzzles. Children should not all be doing the same thing at the same time.

3. Teachers work with individual children, small groups, and the whole group at different times during the day. They do not spend all their time with the whole group.

4. The classroom is decorated with children's original artwork, their own writing with invented spelling, and stories dictated by children to teachers.

5. Children learn numbers and the alphabet in the context of their everyday experiences. The natural world of plants and animals and meaningful activities like cooking, taking attendance, or serving snack provide the basis for learning activities.

6. Children work on projects and have long periods of time (at least one hour) to play and explore. Worksheets are used little if at all.

7. Children have an opportunity to play outside every day. Outdoor play is never sacrificed for more instructional time.

8. Teachers read books to children individually or in small groups throughout the day, not just at group story time.

9. Curriculum is adapted for those who are ahead, as well as those who need additional help. Teachers recognize that children's different background and experiences mean that they do not learn the same things at the same time in the same way.

10. Children and their parents look forward to school. Parents feel secure about sending their child to the program. Children are happy to attend; they do not cry regularly or complain of feeling sick.

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