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Decoding Preschool Learning

by Kalliope Coplin

Venturing into the world of preschools these days can seem like a challenging task. With are so many brands, methods and curricula out there, how do parents make an informed choice?

In this article, some common preschool approaches and philosophies are highlighted but do keep in mind that schools will not necessarily be alike simply because they claim to use the same approach — theory and application of theory often look very different. Before you make a choice, it’s advisable to delve into an individual school, observe its environment and teacher/child interactions, talk to the staff and speak to past and current families to really get a feel for a school’s true culture and values.

Play-based learning

Play-based learning is one of those phrases that pop up a lot. Most preschools claim it as an integral part of their programme, but what does it actually mean? Unfortunately, the most accurate answer I can offer is that it means different things to different people. Play-based learning is a concept and is not affiliated with any particular method, approach or curriculum. Essentially, it is a generic term used to describe a progressive, interesting and meaningful way of presenting learning to young children (in contrast to a more formal, lesson-based approach).

Having said that, parents do need to be aware of how this concept is interpreted and whether your expectation matches that of a given preschool. For example, one school may consider play-based learning as a programme where children have the freedom to choose activities throughout the day, to spend extended time on their chosen work and for the process of learning to be an outcome of their play time. Another school, however, may consider play-based learning to simply be making lessons fun by creating a game out of a worksheet or singing a song before working on a number-tracing activity. These types of programmes place very different expectations on children, which may or may not coincide with the preschool experience you are seeking for your child. Always ask questions and look around a classroom for clues as to how play-based learning is interpreted by an individual school or teacher.


Montessori schools seem to be on every street corner these days. Once again, a title doesn’t guarantee the same programme but that said, an authentic Montessori school will have certain hallmarks.

One of the first female medical doctors in Italy, Maria Montessori started her first school in the early 1900s. In essence, Montessori education takes a systematic, methodical approach and draws from a constructivist philosophy. An authentic Montessori classroom involves multi-age groupings (usually three years), a guided choice of specifically designed and sequenced Montessori learning materials and extended, uninterrupted blocks of work time. Teachers carefully prepare aesthetically pleasing classroom environments designed to encourage independence and choice. The Montessori learning materials themselves are considered self-correcting and for children at a preschool level. They focus on sensorimotor learning (examples include The Pink Tower, The Broad Stair and The Coloured Cylinders). Learning is structured through a series of demonstration lessons around the materials and mastery is achieved through exploration, imitation, repetition, and trial and error.

Multiple intelligences

Proposed by Howard Gardner in 1983, the idea of multiple intelligences (MI) has made its way into the vocabulary of many a preschool philosophy. Essentially the model challenges the idea of a single IQ and considers there to be a variety of ‘intelligences’ that are processed in different areas of the brain. The most well known of these domains are linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal and interpersonal. An attractive concept for many reasons, Gardner’s ideas pop up often in preschool programme philosophies. However, parents should note that there is, in reality, very little research or evidence to support the model.

Reggio Emilia

In my work as a consultant, I am often asked about the Reggio Emilia approach. The Italian city of Reggio Emilia (RE) began to develop its approach to early-years education after the Second World War. First and foremost, the RE approach is not a systematic method and there is no formal scope and sequence or associated curriculum. Rather, the approach is best described as a way of thinking about childhood and learning.

Considered an education based on relationships, the RE approach draws from social-constructivism. Children are positioned as capable with strategies and abilities to engage and learn about the world from the moment of birth. Teaching and learning are negotiated and long-term projects (often initiated by children) are worked on collaboratively in classroom environments that are carefully planned to reflect beauty and a sense of community. Literacy and other areas of academic learning are not provided through focused instruction but rather are fostered and emergent as children plan, record and revisit their thoughts and ideas and as they look to communicate these with others.

Determining which is the right preschool?

Like many things in life, educational choices come down to one fundamental question: what do you value most? Take time to reflect on what you want and expect from a preschool programme. For example, are you focused on academic skills or are you more interested in your child developing social and communication skills at this stage? Also consider where your child will be going after preschool — are they going into a system requiring specific academic skills at entry level, or does the school expect and cater to differing developmental levels and needs? Consider what programme values and philosophies resonate with you as a family. This, in addition to the more practical elements of your expectations, will go a long way to helping families make informed choices.

Kalliope Coplin is an early-years education consultant based in Singapore. With over 18 years in the sector, she has extensive experience with both international and local schools in the Asia-Pacific region. As a consultant, she provides professional development seminars and workshops to early childhood education professionals and parents, and advises on curriculum and policy matters. Kalliope also lectures at James Cook University as part of the early childhood education degree programme.


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