European Preschool Philosophies at a Glance

by Laura Roe Stevens

European Preschool Philosophies at a Glance

More schools are emerging in America that follow philosophies first created in Europe. For the uninitiated, it can be confusing. I strongly encourage you to visit the schools in your area that you are considering and see for yourself how the philosophy is put into action. I know from experience, teaching at a Montessori school in New York while in graduate school, that each, individual school may tweak the philosophy a bit—so just because it may be a Waldorf or Montessori, doesn’t mean it will be run exactly like another. With that said, here are some general descriptions to get you started:


Reggio Emilia
Developed by Reggio Emilia, in Italy, this developmentally based program follows the child’s interest to bring out his potential, rather than following an established curriculum. There is a strong emphasis on the arts, including music, drawing, sculpting, and dramatic play. Children work with very diverse materials, and their projects are documented, allowing them to see their work as important and to see how progress is made over time. Teachers encourage children to find answers for themselves, rather than simply giving them the answers. Relationships and cooperation between students are encouraged, and competition is not promoted.


Common aspects of a Reggio Emilia Preschool:


  • Community-oriented classrooms, with everyone involved, including the cooks, custodians, parents, etc.
  • Classrooms decorated with students’ artwork, with an emphasis on natural materials, like rocks, plants, leaves
  • Art studio and materials which are easily accessible to children
  • Lots of hands-on projects revolving around the community or nature


Created in Rome in 1907 by Maria Montessori, this teaching philosophy combines individualized attention with a carefully structured environment. Children are usually grouped into three-year age spans, forming a closely-knit community, where older children help the younger ones, and all are able to learn at their own pace. In this philosophy, teachers play a less demonstrative role in both instruction and nurturing, in order to teach the children life lessons through real experiences. Although some feel that the Montessori approach has a heavy focus on academics, the goal is to encourage individual progress and let children learn naturally and at their own pace. Children are encouraged to take care of themselves, and to select activities that capture their interest, rather than being told to work on projects selected by the teacher.


Common aspects of a Montessori Preschool:


  • Fewer toys, more real life objects, promoting the idea that children should learn to play with real life objects
  • Teachers trained in the Montessori methods
  • Younger children drawn to the activities of the older children in their group


Developed in Germany, by Rudolph Steiner, the Waldorf approach is basically child- or play-centered. With that said, it, too, has a structure but emphasizes the spirituality and individuality of each child with an emphasis on respect for the child. Children work in mixed-age groups and stay with the same teacher from year to year. This philosophy emphasizes a healthy rhythm of activities, so that children move from physical games to free play, to more focused activities. Creativity is emphasized, while academics are not stressed as strongly. Waldorf teachers also model good behavior for children, rather than instructing them how to behave.


Common aspects of a Waldorf Preschool


  • Teachers working in the background, offering gentle guidance only when necessary
  • Natural materials like cloth, rocks, sea shells
  • Many Waldorf programs are run in homes by trained educators, as there may not be a Waldorf school nearby
  • Lots of role play and dramatic play
  • Some encourage organic meals and gardening. Many schools have children sit around tables and eat warm meals at lunchtime.