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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Questions? Call us at 703-481-6678 or email us through the form below.

Aftercare Program

For families that need additional childcare after school hours (8:00am to 3:00pm), we offer an Aftercare Program that runs from 3:00 to 5:30pm. To participate in aftercare, students must be enrolled as a student at CHMS in our Full Day program*.

Aftercare is a Montessori-friendly extension of our school-day program. Children enjoy additional time on our playground, eat a school-provided snack, and participate in different games, crafts, and activities throughout the week. Our program is run by our Montessori teachers and assistants, which allows for continuity and consistency for the children in our care.

For part-day or school-day students who only need occasional aftercare, we can accommodate children on an as-needed basis for a small additional fee. Please talk to Cinthia about your needs when you come for a visit.

*We do not accept students from other school programs at this time.

For additional questions or to schedule your tour, please call us at 703-481-6678 or use the email form below.


We feel an open channel of communication between parent and school is vitally important. We have two regularly scheduled parent/teacher conferences during the year, and are always available to talk when needed. A newsletter, which is available on this website, is also sent out by email on a quarterly basis to keep you informed of activities in the school. We use email for updates and quick reminders. Our staff is always interested in talking with you about your child’s progress. Never hesitate to call!

For additional questions or to schedule your tour, please call us at 703-481-6678 or use the email form below.

Emergency and Inclement Weather Policy

Children’s House Montessori School follows Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) for closures due to emergencies and inclement weather.  On occasion, when Fairfax County Public School closings do not apply to us, we will be open, depending on the reason for the closing. We will leave a message on the school telephone and on the front page of the website as well.

  • If FCPS are closed, we are closed. 
  • If FCPS have a delayed opening, we will open at 10:00 AM.
  • If FCPS close early, we will close at 1:00 PM.
  • If FCPS cancel after-school activities, we will close at 3:00 PM.

Children’s House Montessori School takes an “all hazards” approach to emergencies, meaning we prepare for every type of emergency, from severe weather events to terrorist attacks to fire hazards.  We practice fire drills monthly, and shelter-in-place, tornado and earthquake drills semi-annually.  All teachers are trained in CPR and First Aid, and someone is on site at all times who has had Medication Administration training, as required by Virginia Department of Social Service Department of Licensing.  

You can view our complete Site Risks/Hazards Safety Police, located in the office.  

For additional questions or to schedule your tour, please call us at 703-481-6678 or use the email form below.

Field Trips, Special Events, and Birthdays

We are a busy school community and there is always something to look forward to coming up on the calendar!

Family Events

We love having parents come into our school to enjoy activities and get to know the other parents and children.  The Fall Festival and the Spring Fling bring parents into the classroom to enjoy crafts or take a hike in our extensive woods behind the school, play on the playground, and eat pizza, of course.  Thanksgiving isn’t complete without a feast, complete with turkey and all the trimming, especially pumpkin pie.  We kick off the winter holidays with a musical program by the children singing songs, reciting poems, playing instruments, and dancing to fun holiday music.  One of our favorite events is Parent Day, when parents are invited to school for the morning to receive “lessons” from their children on all their favorite activities.  We share a pot luck meal of delicious foods from around the world.  Parents are welcome to bring their family’s special holiday traditions into the classroom where together we’ll create a learning experience for all. 

Field Trips 

Field trips are a wonderful way to enrich your child’s learning experience.  We schedule three school bus field trips for our kindergarteners each year.  To complement our Earthkeepers program, our first trip is to the Montgomery County Recycling Center.  The children get an in-depth look at the recycling process, the people and machines that do the work, and the large recycling trucks that collect and bring the recyclables to the recycling center.  Our second field trip is to see the play Charlotte’s Web at George Mason University Center for the Performing Arts.  We read the book in the weeks prior to the trip and then enjoy seeing the live performance of the story.  Our third trip is to the National Gallery of Art to see paintings by the artists we have studied all year.  The children are in awe of the beautiful the Japanese Footbridge by Monet and the huge cutouts entitled Large Decoration with Masks by Matisse. It is definitely one of the highlights of the year.  Parents are welcome to join all the field trips. 

In-House Presentations

In addition to off-site field trips for Kindergarteners, we schedule in-house activities throughout the year such as puppet shows, Reptiles Alive, The Bat Lady, and a visit from Walker Nature Center.  We plan our in-house activities around our curriculum calendar to compliment what we are already learning in the classroom.  A unit of study on fish and oceans might be supplemented with a visit from Under the Sea, an educational outreach group that brings tanks with sea stars, seahorses, and even a puffer fish into our classroom for a closer look.  And a performance by an African drummer and storyteller is in order when we study the continent of Africa.  


We love celebrating birthdays at Children’s House.  The birthday child is invited to bring a snack to share with the class on the chosen day and a poster made at home with a picture for each year of life and a few personal touches.  Parents may attend the birthday ceremony we call “Walk around the Sun.” where we share the poster, have the child will walk around a wooden sun for as many times as they are old, and we will sing “Happy Birthday.”  We keep the celebration simple but special and the children look forward to their special day all year. 

 For additional questions or to schedule your tour, please call us at 703-481-6678 or use the email form below.

Our Natural Playground

Our fenced playground provides both sun and shade for the children’s comfort. It is equipped with a sandpit, climbing structures, and a garden area, and is certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a School Yard Habitat. Our schedule allows the children to play outside before and after lunch and in the afternoon after the school day is over. 

Our families of the 2013 – 2014 school year had a yard sale that raised enough money to buy a large peace pole.  The pole has the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” carved on all sides in eight languages, chosen to reflect the diversity of our staff and the families that call Children’s House home: English, Spanish, Urdu, Hindi, Japanese, Vietnamese, and a special “animal” language of paw prints and tracks to represent our love for nature and the woodland creatures we encounter in our backyard.

Our landlord, The Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, in conjunction with Reston Association, has established a nature trail that is an accredited Backyard Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. UUCR was the first church in Reston to do this, and they are proud of their commitment to help promote environmental consciousness and, more specifically, to foster development and maintenance of backyards in ways that help sustain indigenous wildlife.

For additional questions or to schedule your tour, please call us at 703-481-6678 or use the email form below.

Meet the Teachers

In a small community like ours, it’s important that your child feel right at home. Our warm and friendly staff make Children’s House an inviting place to be!

For additional questions or to schedule your tour, please call us at 703-481-6678 or use the email form below.

Our Classrooms and Facilities

Children’s House Montessori School is located in the lower level of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston (UUCR). The large classroom windows open onto the playground and a beautiful, wooded lot. We are not affiliated with UUCR, but have benefited from a positive relationship with our landlord since opening our doors in 2003.

We have two classrooms, the Sunrise Room and the Sunset Room – and a multi-purpose space – The Sunshine Room. Our two classes have an average of 20 – 22 students in each. Our classes are mixed-aged groupings of boys and girls between the ages of three and six. Our lead teachers are all Montessori certified.

The Sunrise Room

Each classroom has an assortment of Montessori curriculum materials – from the familiar Pink Tower to the colorful continent maps! When you arrive for your tour, you are sure to see many Montessori materials in action!

Children have a cubby drawer to store their work that will go home at the end of the day, a spot on the lunch shelf for their lunch bag, and a hook in the Sunshine Room for their coat and backpack.

The Sunset Room

The Sunset Room has an attached bathroom that the children are able to use, and the Sunrise Room has easy access to the main bathroom right outside the school’s office.

With such a small space, children quickly become comfortable navigating their way from the bathrooms, the coat room, and the office, should they need a helping hand.

For additional questions or to schedule your tour, please call us at 703-481-6678 or use the email form below.

Snack and Lunch

Snack – Morning snack is available to all of the children on an individual basis, as they are ready, from 8:30 AM until 10:30 AM. A second snack will be served to Full-Day students, prior to going outside for the afternoon play period. Both snacks will be nutritionally balanced and consist of two food groups. Snack usually consist of fresh fruit and crackers (graham crackers, goldfish, pretzels, etc). Water is always available at the snack table. 

Lunch – Children who stay until 3:00 PM or later eat lunch in their classroom from approximately 12:00 to 12:30. The school provides an insulated lunch bag, plate, and utensils at the start of the school year to cut down on waste from paper products.

A well-balanced lunch with items such as a sandwich, fresh fruit, yogurt or cheese stick is encouraged. Water is available at each table. We do not have the ability to refrigerate or heat food for children, so be sure to use an ice pack or thermos, if needed.

For additional questions or to schedule your tour, please call us at 703-481-6678 or use the email form below.

Hours of Operation

Children’s House Montessori School is open from 8:00 AM to 5:30 PM, Monday through Friday. Pick-up time for part-day students is 11:45 AM, school-day is 3:00 PM, and full-day is 5:30 PM. 

For additional questions or to schedule your tour, please call us at 703-481-6678 or use the email form below.