Picking a preschool can feel overwhelming. If you’re fortunate enough to have some choice and flexibility in the matter, you can feel grateful but also confused about what the best school for your kiddo may be. There are a lot of options out there with different curriculums. (A school’s curriculum is the overall philosophical guide and course of study it adheres to.) There’s religion-based, HighScope, and Montessori to name a few. But before you delve into particular schools, you may want to familiarize yourself with different curriculums. Knowing what type of educational setting your child may best flourish in can help narrow down your choices. Here’s a quick run-down of the most common preschool curriculums.

Montessori

In a Montessori program, teachers often act as guides while the learning is more student-driven. Students choose activities that spark their interests and then explore those interests at a pace and style that fits with their own learning preferences. Hands-on learning that involves lots of manipulatives such as blocks, puzzles, and beads, is a hallmark of a Montessori approach. Additionally, classes are often multi-age and focus on community along with social and practical life skills while encouraging independence and a passion for learning.

Waldorf

A Waldorf curriculum aims to uncover a child’s inner strengths and abilities through self-driven learning. The focus is on the whole child as an individual including a child’s spirit, soul, and body. Waldorf programs are also hands-on and include play-based learning and experiential lessons to inspire children to embrace learning with enthusiasm and intrigue that will last a lifetime. The inclusion of arts is important in a Waldorf program for its encouragement of creative thinking as well its effects on emotional development. Waldorf schools also limit media - computers, videos, other electronics - until children are older.

HighScope

HighScope curriculum uses hands-on experiences along with consistent, daily routines in which teachers scaffold instruction to support students where they are while nudging them forward to build skills. Play is the centerpiece of learning in a HighScope program. Called “work time”, the structured time in which students play enables them to learn through active participation. Kids follow a plan-do-review sequence each day in which they plan what they will do and who they will do it with, play, and then review how it went and take ownership of the learning process.

Bank Street

With lots of hands-on activities like blocks, art, and dramatic play to promote active learning, teachers act as facilitators in Bank Street schools. The curriculum is based on child development research that focuses on mental, social, emotional, and physical growth of a child. Emotional and intellectual changes that occur at each stage of development are taken into consideration and many classroom materials are open-ended and encourage imagination. Classrooms incorporate multi-aged children and the lessons of the day are determined by the children’s interests.

Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia schools look at the whole student and feel that learning arises through expression of creativity and emotion. Student-driven, Reggio Emilia schools take a project-based approach in which students choose and explore a topic and then work together as a community to learn. The teacher functions as a facilitator supporting the main idea that cooperative learning in conjunction with families, students, and teachers is a learning process that forms respectful and responsible citizens.

Religious

Many religious organizations such as churches, synagogues, temples, and others offer preschool programs. These preschools can follow any other approach to learning, but will also include a faith-based component to the academic curriculum. The amount of religious teaching in a faith-based preschool depends on the actual school, but oftentimes it may be used to support the religious values of that particular faith (which can be fairly universal) through stories and lessons. So if you aren't religious yourself, it's all based on your comfort level with how you feel about your child being exposed to religion in general or a faith that is different than your own.

Parent Co-ops

Parent Co-op schools are formed by like-minded parents. The parents come together and hire a professional teacher to instruct children. Parents and teachers work together in the classroom while parents manage the administration of the school. With a parent co-op school, parents remain highly involved in their children’s education as well as develop a close-knit learning community.

So those are the basic curriculums you may encounter. Keep in mind that there’s no one style that fits everyone or is better than the other. And if you end up in a school that over time you realize isn’t the right fit, then it’s ok to leave. (Just be aware of potential monetary consequences as well as any emotional outcomes that may result from switching schools mid-term.) I had a friend of a friend once tell me that she was transferring preschools because while her child “could speak a little Mandarin, knit a hat, and make one helluva scone,” he couldn’t recognize his letters. She’d determined that learning the alphabet was important to her family at that time so they switched things up. And it all worked out just fine.

The most important thing you can look for in a school is kids being nurtured and encouraged, a sense of safety, teachers that seem happy, and a general active sense of enjoyment. Preschool aged children learn through play and any school you consider should have that front and center. (It’s through play that preschoolers develop the emotional and social skills that become the best building blocks for learning academics later on.) With a little understanding of the basic differences between curriculums, trust your own intuition to find the best preschool fit for your child and family.