If you're a parent whose small child is fast approaching preschool age, you've got to make a decision soon about where to send the child. Many preschools now fill up very quickly -- some are packed with waiting lists even before the year starts -- so this is not a decision to delay. Private preschools are definitely an option, and they often have educational philosophies that focus on guiding your child to be an independent person sure of his or her ability to succeed in life. Two such philosophies are the Montessori and Waldorf schools. Choosing between them, though, requires looking at how the children interact with each other and how their play is structured.
Montessori schools are known for keeping groups of ages together. So you might have a class with only 4–5-year-olds, or only ages 6 to 9. This gives kids a chance to repeatedly evolve from newbie to experienced old hand. Older children learn to serve as leaders and role models in the class, which helps instill morals and ethics in the children as they realize how their actions affect others. If you want your child to have this very gentle but persistent training in how to lead, a Montessori school is an excellent choice.
Both Montessori and Waldorf schools are based in certain methodologies. If you're concerned about knowing exactly what or how your child is learning, a Waldorf school might be best because the teachers must be certified in the methodology and must use the specific methodology in the classroom.
Montessori schools offer a little more variation -- in fact, there are Italian and American versions of the methodology, both taught in the United States -- and while the teachers generally stick to the methodology, they can change or add activities if needed.
Grades, Ages, Teachers
As mentioned, Montessori schools keep age ranges together while Waldorf schools use the more traditional 1 year/1 grade structure. However, Waldorf teachers stay with the same grade. So instead of all the students adjusting to a new teacher every year, they have the same one for as long as they're at the school. This creates consistency year after year, though if your child gets a teacher that he or she doesn't get along with well, then that could be an issue if the school has no other classes for your child's age.
Montessori teachers stick with one age range, so your child might have the same teacher starting in preschool on up through age 6, and then move to another teacher's class for ages 7 through 10. This offers both consistency and lessons on how to adapt to new situations. So if you want your child to have more variety in terms of dealing with people, a Montessori school may be best.
Guided vs. Open Play
Both systems allow play, obviously, but Montessori play is actually pretend play. The activities and toys are designed to guide the child to the correct answer to a problem. These aren't methods of cheating or giving the child the answer; instead, the toy or activity will not work unless the child finds the correct way of approaching it. So there's an instant reward in finding out that he or she has done something correctly because a toy will work, for example.
Waldorf schools are much more open and play-oriented. Much of the learning is actually influenced by students, and imagination is a big factor. Montessori schools allow children to use their imaginations, too, just not as a way to guide the structure of the school day.
Observing a class or three is always best. Contact private preschool programs in your area to see what methodologies they use and whether you can sit in on a class to see if the structure would be what you want for your child.