What’s the Difference Between Montessori and Traditional Preschool?

Some of the most common questions parents have when looking for an early childhood program focus on the difference between Montessori and traditional preschool. Parents want to understand how Montessori differs from other programs, why those differences matter, and which is the right fit for their child.

There are many factors to consider when selecting a program for your child and, depending on where you live, your options might be few and far between or overwhelmingly abundant. Understanding the core differences between Montessori and traditional preschools will help you narrow your focus and find the program that makes sense for your family.

The Difference Between Montessori and Traditional Preschool #1: Child-directed vs. Teacher-directed

A common misconception about Montessori is that the children “get to do whatever they want” with no structure or boundaries. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it certainly might look that way, if you are used to a more traditional school model that places the emphasis on the role of the teacher.

In a traditional preschool, the teacher is the central figure in the classroom. She is guiding children through various station activities, group activities, and through the schedule of the day. She is responsible for making sure that everyone participates in different activities and for ensuring that all the children meet the guidelines set by the school or determined by the curriculum.

In a Montessori classroom the teacher follows the lead of the child. Children learn at their own pace and are guided by their own interests. This means that children are free to make choices about how they spend their time, but not without some boundaries set by the teacher. The role of the teacher in a Montessori classroom is multifold:

  1. She prepares the classroom environment to appeal to each child’s innate curiosity.
  2. She observes a child and determines which lessons would be a timely fit — one that appeals to their interests and teaches a new concept or reinforces a learned concept.
  3. She invites a child to a lesson, shows him how to use the materials independently.
  4. That child is then free to select that material again on his own.

In a traditional preschool classroom, the teacher is the leader of the pack. In a Montessori classroom, she is the guide.

A child works with math materials. Difference between Montessori and traditional preschool.
A child learns her teen numbers with this interactive math material.

The Difference Between Montessori and Traditional Preschool #2: Work vs. Play

Traditional preschools are generally play-based, meaning that a child will spend much of their day playing with toys and in familiar settings. A typical preschool classroom has “centers” designated for different types of play or skills. There’ll be a dress-up area for social and imaginative play, a block area for building, an area for puzzles, etc. Children will have time during their day to choose different activities, but much of the schedule is pre-determined, so children will rotate through centers, as well as participate in group activities, like story time or art.

In a Montessori classroom, the materials on the shelf are called “work,” not “toys,” and after receiving a lesson from the teacher on how to use a work, a child is free to select that material at any point throughout the morning or afternoon work period. At any given moment in a Montessori classroom you can observe children engaged in math, language, art, and geography studies. Because they have chosen the work themselves, they are invested in it. They are excited about it and they’re learning something!

Maria Montessori believed, through observation and years of working with children, that children were like little sponges: capable of soaking up incredible amounts of knowledge when given the right environment. She designed her materials and precise techniques to maximize a child’s desire to learn. Children love to learn and do challenging things — it is fun for them and feels a lot like play!

A child writes words with the Moveable Alphabet. Difference between Montessori and Traditional Preschool.
Learning to read and write is fun with colorful manipulatives, like the Moveable Alphabet!

The Difference Between Montessori and Traditional Preschool #3: The Classroom Environment

A traditional preschool classroom is filled with colorful toys, brightly colored posters and wall decorations, colorful rugs, tables, and chairs. The shelves are filled with toys, games, and other familiar items. A child has access to blocks, dolls, cars, puzzles, etc. For a play-based center, you can expect to find lots of color!

A Montessori classroom will look a little different. There will be more muted tones and less visual stimulation. Any wall art or decorations will be placed lower, so as to be at the children’s eye level, and all furnishings will be child-sized. The classroom might be busy and active, but it should also feel calm and peaceful.

The Montessori classroom is divided into different curriculum areas: Practical Life, Sensorial, Math, Language, and Cultural (Art, Science, Geography). There might be a reading corner or a peace corner, and there should be a variety of seating options and work spaces available. Children spend their morning moving through the classroom at their own pace, selecting work that appeals to them, receiving lessons from the teachers, and having fun with their friends. At the end of the morning, the class gathers for circle time and prepares for the next part of their day.

A teacher leads circle time. Difference between Montessori and Traditional Preschool.
Gathering for circle time at the end of a busy morning.

Choosing Between the Two

Knowing some of the key differences between Montessori programs and traditional preschool programs is the first step. Once you get a feel for the different options in your area, ask around! Recommendations from friends and online reviews can help you get a sense of which programs are a better fit for your family.

Once you’ve narrowed it down, take a tour. Websites can only do so much. To get a better feel for a school you have to visit. Ideally, a tour will take place during a typical school day and you’ll get a sense of how your child will spend her day.

Take your child’s needs into consideration. Will a bright, colorful, noisy classroom overwhelm your sensitive child? What about your high energy child? How does the program take into consideration different needs and personalities? There are no wrong questions, so be sure to ask as many as it takes to get the answers you need. Happy school hunting!

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