Support for PBS Parents provided by:

  • Cat in the Hat
  • Curious George
  • Daniel Tiger
  • Dinosaur Train
  • Nature Cat
  • Odd Squad
  • Ready Jet Go
  • Peg + Cat
  • Splash and Bubbles
  • Sid the Science Kid
  • Super Why!
  • Wild Kratts
  • Arthur
  • Bob the Builder
  • Martha Speaks
  • WordGirl
  • Sesame Street
  • Ruff Ruffman Show
  • The Electric Company
  • Cyberchase
  • Between the Lions
  • Caillou
  • Chuck Vanderchuck
  • Oh Noah
  • Fizzy's Lunch Lab
  • Maya & Miguel
  • Mister Rogers
  • Postcards from Buster
  • Clifford
  • SciGirls
  • Wilson & Ditch
  • WordWorld
  • DragonFly TV
  • ZOOM


Going to School

Comparing Preschool Philosophies: Play-Based vs. Academic

A Montessori classPicking a preschool should be easy, but with so many different terms and philosophies, it can be overwhelming. With a little research, you can make the right choice for your child’s first formal educational experience and set the stage for a lifetime of learning.

Factors to Consider
Beyond school philosophy and classroom methods, parents should consider many other aspects of a given school, including cost, location, schedule, accreditation, teacher credentials, safety, discipline, and most importantly the specific child’s needs, such as how he does in social situations or even whether he needs a nap. Be open-minded as your child explores the different schools during visits and let him give you clues as to what works for him. Learn more about other factors to consider when choosing a preschool.

Choosing by Philosophy
When you enter the preschool search, you will want to consider what you value in your child’s early education. Do you want a lot of free play or more structured activities? Do you want the teacher to direct the day or for your child to choose activities based on her interests? Are you interested in language immersion or a focus on music or the arts? Or maybe you want a little of everything? There may be a school that fits your child exactly, but you might have to pick and choose among your priorities. “Choosing what’s right for your child really is not as prescriptive as it could be,” cautions Dr. Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. “There’s some sense that for a more rambunctious child, Montessori could be harder, but on the other hand there are plenty of examples of kids who do better because it’s quiet and they settle down more easily.”

In general, a preschool will describe itself as either play-based or academic. Within those philosophies are several more specific approaches, such as Montessori and Cooperative. Understanding the different terms will help you find the program that suits your child’s needs, since many of the approaches tend to overlap.

In a play-based program, children choose activities based on their current interests. The term “play-based” is often interchanged with “child-centered,” which could be used to describe the majority of available preschool programs. The play-based classroom is broken up into sections, such as a home or kitchen, science area, water table, reading nook, space with blocks and other toys, or other areas. Teachers encourage the kids to play, facilitating social skills along the way. “Even though it seems like they are just playing, they are learning valuable skills, including important social skills and cooperation with others, learning about signs (as most items are labeled), and early math,” says Jenifer Wana, author of “How to Choose the Best Preschool for Your Child.”

Alternatively, there are academic programs, considered didactic, “teacher-directed,” “teacher-managed.” In these classrooms, teachers lead the children in a more structured way, planning the activities, then guiding the children in doing them. This design is aimed at preparing kids for the kindergarten setting. For the most part, classroom time is devoted to learning letters and sounds, distinguishing shapes and colors, telling time, and other skills.

Although parents may take comfort in knowing their child is in a more academic setting, some say this only makes a difference in the short term. “A lot of people put children in Montessori, for example, because they want them to learn academics early. Research shows that’s true only up to a certain point,” Wana says. “Preschool is time to learn social and emotional skills so you are ready to learn those academic skills later on.”

If you worry that a play-based classroom is too chaotic and your child would not thrive in it, you can easily find a more structured setting. The important thing to remember is that preschool should not look like elementary school. “It should be organized so there is a plan and routine for the day. But at the same time, it should not be regimented in the sense that kids are spending five minutes at this, ten minutes at this, with no exception,” Pianta says. “It shouldn’t look like a fourth-grade classroom.”

Whether you opt for a play-based or more academic setting, you are choosing to prepare your child for kindergarten and later schooling. While play-based approaches may work for most types of children, any quality preschool program can set the foundation for the transition to kindergarten and beyond. What matters is that your child is learning from adults who engage and stimulate intellectual curiosity while imparting social skills. “Most kindergarten teachers will tell you what they really value is the opportunity to teach kids when they show up at school prepared and ready to learn. It’s not so much that teachers value that the kindergartner can read or write. They value that the children enjoy learning, have a set of experiences that got them used to a classroom setting, and know how to engage adults and kids in another setting,” Pianta says. Do some research, and you can feel confident that you are choosing a preschool that works for your child.

Learn about Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia and other preschool philosophies.

  • Moxie


    I respectively note that including Montessori schools as an example of an “academic preschool” is inaccurate in relation to this article’s given definition of Academic as “didactic,” “teacher-directed” and “teacher-managed,” as Montessori schools are absolutely not that.

    Montessori preschool is neither play-based or “academic” in the didactic, teacher-centered way. Perhaps a better example of an academic preschool is one that prepares for a core knowledge experience?

    • Jenny

      As a Montessori trained teacher who is purchasing a “play-based” preschool, I agree. Montessori is not teacher-directed or teacher-managed in how they are describing. I will note that many preschools claim to be Montessori, but are not. Similarly, many play-based schools are not really play-based. I believe this author does not fully understand what the Montessori curriculum is really about.

    • Angelique Mattin Russell

      In many areas “Montessori” is as described above because there are inadequate limits on the use of the name. I submit as evidence Arrow Montessori in my own town of San Dimas, CA. There were many things off when I toured the school but what stuck with me was watching a teacher lead a lesson with a Montessori toy and the daily worksheets for 2-3 year olds. You start your worksheet in the morning, and when you wake from your nap you quietly sit down to complete your worksheet. There was a very impressive wall of worksheets with shapes, coloring and tracing.

      • Ginny Harmelink

        I can not imagine a wall of worksheets as ever being impressive…not ever….social emotional development is the foundation for all learning…cut it short in the beginning and the child will pay the consequences later.

  • Dr. Harris

    I agree with the previous comment. But I would also add that as a parent of African descent, we dont have the luxury of wasting precious years on “play” only activities. Our kids need to learn while they play there is an unfair and unjustice school system waiting for them.

    • Kwame M. Brown

      Dr. Harris I am a parent of African descent, and teach human growth and dev at an HBCU. I must disagree strongly with the comment “wasting” precious years on “play” only activities. Play and learning are not opposites. The environment can be designed such that great learning will occur. Second, we need not let fear guide our decisions. Let knowledge of child development and brain development do that. Have you ever spent significant time to observe over a course of time a play based program? I suggest also looking into the Alliance for Childhood, and recognizing that Head Start promotes play strongly.

      • doreen aristy

        Children learn through play. It is up to the teacher to set the environment in order for children to learn on that stage. For example in dramatic play children learn about families and the roles they may fulfill later. By playing house they are learning things with the support and guidance of the teacher. Some of these children may not learn these things at home for many different reasons.
        Play should not be something a teacher says to children to go and do, but an avenue to learn through play.

        • Kwame M. Brown

          I overstand and agree fully. If it is at the obvious behest of another, it can become play, but often does not. Be sneaky.

  • Cookies

    I’m all for play based. There is no real evidence that academic based makes a difference in the long run and can often push a child back further because they are not emotionally ready for that type of learning.

  • Cookies

    Play is learning and it develops a lot of pre academic thinking.

  • Zahara Zucha

    I like preschool curriculum. I also like Kindergarten curriculum. My coyote/Dalmatian cut-out likes preschool curriculum. My mouse/elephant cut-out also likes preschool curriculum. My wolf cut-out is seven months old. My mouse/elephant cut-out is three days old. I was a four-year-old girl in 1991. I was born in 1987. My older sister was born in 1985. I like Kindergarten curriculum. I also like twelfth grade curriculum. I also like eighth grade curriculum. My Hawaiian Butterfly fish cut-out was made in 2013. My Hawaiian Butterfly fish cut-out is ten months old.

  • Sue Kranz

    In addition to the previous comments, as a previous public school teacher who is training to be a Montessori guide, the Montessori approach fundamentally addresses social and emotional growth, along with presenting opportunities, not didactic lessons, for children to follow their normal interest and path towards academic independence.

  • Bella Williams

    Thanks Laura for these helpful insights. We can understand it better when we question if education is a pedagogy.

What's this?

Sign up for free newsletters.

Connect with Us

PBS Parents Picks

  1. Wild Kratts image

    Wild Kratts App Teaches Young Children How to Care for Animals

    In this app, kids are charge of feeding, washing, and playing with baby animals.

  2. Curious Kids image

    How (And Why) To Encourage Curiosity

    "...when people are curious about something, they learn more, and better."

  3. Gardening Benefits image

    The Benefits of Gardening With Kids

    Don’t let the idea overwhelm you. A few containers and soil in a sunny spot will do.