What Is The Difference Between Montessori and Preschool?

Table of Contents
    Add a header to begin generating the table of contents

    Some of the most common questions parents have when looking for an early childhood program focus on the difference between Montessori and traditional preschool. 

    Parents want to understand how Montessori differs from other programs, why those differences matter and the right fit for their child.

    There are many factors to consider when selecting a program for your child and, depending on where you live; your options might be few and far between or overwhelmingly abundant. 

    Understanding the core differences between Montessori and traditional preschools will help you narrow your focus and find the program that makes sense for your family.

    These days, it seems everyone is offering preschool programs. 

    You probably drive past at least three preschool options on your way to the grocery store or the mall. But, as a parent, you don't want to send your child to just any old preschool. 

    You want to send them to a school that cares for them and nurtures them as they grow and develop. You also want a preschool that will put them on the right track academically and instil a love of learning and discovery that will last throughout their lifetime.

    Choosing your child's "first" school can be a daunting task. But it doesn't have to be. When you understand the variations in educational philosophy and practical application, you can make an informed decision about what's best for your child.

    Montessori and Preschool - What's the Difference?

    Many parents thinking about preschool need to consider the advantages of sending their child to Montessori school instead.

    Montessori preschool is a popular choice among parents for their child's early years, and it's essential to know the advantages of Montessori over preschools. 

    Preschools offer daycare that may be focused on early childhood education in some cases, such as private school. These are structured learning environments for children before they begin kindergarten.

    Montessori is an entirely distinct alternative, complete with its learning style, methods, and philosophy.

    Both offer excellent preschool programs for our young learners. Examine both to help you determine the best fit for your preschool-aged child. 

    Full-day or half-day learning for young children, but there are distinct advantages to trying preschool in a private school.


    Each preschool you encounter will have its educational philosophy that guides everything they do, from their songs to the worksheets they complete. 

    But there are some fundamental differences between all Montessori and traditional preschools.

    The Montessori method: The Montessori Method of Education was created by Maria Montessori, one of Italy's first female doctors, in the early 1900s. Montessori had a keen interest in human development.

    Based on her observation of children from different cultural, racial and socio-economic backgrounds, she developed a new approach to education. 

    It soon spread to other countries and continents. Canada's first Montessori school opened in 1912; there are more than 500 across the country.

    Montessori schools believe that play is a child's work. Therefore, their programs are child-directed, emphasising active, self-paced, individualised learning. 

    Children choose activities based on their interests and "work" for uninterrupted blocks of time. 

    Teachers observe and track their progress and facilitate their use of materials. Through this approach, it's thought that children become more confident, independent, self-regulated and self-disciplined.

    Play-based: Play-based centres are based on the belief that kids learn best through play. 

    These preschools may be more teacher-directed, although playtime is open-ended and unstructured. 

    Children participate in a wide range of play-based activities, including pretend play, and teachers respond with educational lessons. 

    Kids also develop their problem-solving, cooperation, conflict resolution and social skills.


    A Montessori preschool's primary philosophy centres around the idea that a child's play is how they learn about the world around them. 

    Each activity they participate in is carefully designed to use their experiences to teach concepts and ideas — everything from buttoning a coat to counting to 10. 

    Even the way activities are arranged on the shelf is designed for learning purposes. Montessori programs give children time and freedom to explore and master a concept. 

    A Montessori school day is broken into two 2- to 3-hour stretches — one in the morning, one in the afternoon. 

    These long blocks of uninterrupted time provide more time for learning and discovery. In addition, it allows children to learn at their own pace and in a self-directed manner.

    Montessori also recognises that children do not all learn in the same manner. So, lessons and activities are tailored to the needs of each child's developmental stage and academic abilities.


    Play is also an important business in a traditional preschool setting, but it is more likely to be spaced between teacher-guided lessons about colours, letters, and numbers. 

    The belief here is that a well-structured classroom provides opportunities to introduce various topics and concepts, making sure each child is exposed to them. 

    This means that the pace is determined by the teacher and their plan for the day. For example, a traditional preschool may begin the day with students going in-between stations with blocks, dress-up clothes and toy cars. 

    Then, the teacher will interrupt their creative play to bring the class together for storytime or a brief discussion about numbers.

    Although preschools vary in the length of their days, instruction is more likely to be broken up into smaller fragments to "fit" everything into the day. 

    There is also typically one lesson for the entire class. In some cases, teachers may break the students up to work with them in small groups or one-on-one, but this is a variation of the same lesson being taught to everyone.

    Teaching Methods


    A school's educational philosophy refers to its beliefs about teaching and how students should learn. 

    Its teaching methods are the ways that day-to-day activities and lessons are taught. Thus, teaching methods are the best ways to see how a school's educational philosophy plays out daily.


    In an AMI-accredited Montessori school, the teacher guides the child to learn through their exploration. 

    A Montessori classroom provides specialised materials of varying levels of complexity to progress with the child. 

    After a lesson, the child can explore the materials from different perspectives. Handling these materials allows the child to understand the core ideas of each lesson. 

    Montessori materials facilitate self-education and self-correction as well as endless creativity.


    In traditional methods applied in schools and preschools, everyone learns the same thing at the same time. 

    The teacher presents a lesson about the alphabet or a new number to the class and then bases other studies of the day and week around that introduction. 

    A traditional preschool will typically offer hands-on ways for children to explore the concept. Still, the pace at which they can explore is set to incorporate the majority of children. 

    While this isn't always a bad thing, it doesn't account that children — even those who are the same age — grow and develop at a different pace.

    Learning also tends to be based more on repetition and reward rather than experience.


    When considering the differences between Montessori and traditional preschools, you'll want to compare more than educational philosophies and teaching methods. 

    Ultimately, one of your most significant considerations should be what kind of environment will aid in your child's learning and development. Where will they flourish?


    In a Montessori preschool, you will find a welcoming and warm classroom environment, but you won't see many bright lights or colours. 

    Instead, you'll find brightly lit spaces and stations stocked with child-friendly, hands-on materials. 

    You'll also notice that there is a considerable emphasis placed on the way the classroom is arranged. 

    A Montessori environment has child-size furniture arranged in an organised manner that easily allows for exploration and creativity no matter what the children are doing. Activities are arranged neatly on shelves.

    One thing you'll notice is missing from a Montessori classroom is clutter. Each item in the room has a purpose and a place. 

    Children quickly learn both of these things and become invested in maintaining an organised environment for themselves and their peers.

    One of the principles of a Montessori education states that multi-age classrooms provide more significant opportunities for learning and growth. 

    The reason for this is twofold. First, young children benefit from the guidance of older ones. 

    Second, when older children teach the younger ones, they digest and retain the information better themselves.

    This doesn't mean that you'll find a 3-year-old in the same classroom as a 10-year-old. 

    However, you can expect to find rooms with children ranging from two to three years apart in age. For example, a preschool classroom will contain students ranging in age from 3 to 6.


    In a traditional preschool setting, you'll typically find children who are the same age. 

    Depending on the school, they may be assigned seating or be expected to follow a rigid daily schedule going from one lesson or activity to the next. 

    They also follow a predetermined discipline/reward policy to regulate behaviour. 

    Although the design does vary by school, you're more likely to find classrooms painted with bright colours and pictures, as well as clutter and piles of toys around the room. 

    A traditional preschool setting is also often noisier than its Montessori counterpart.

    Perhaps one of the most significant trademarks of a traditional preschool class is that the group determines the pace of instruction rather than the individual. 

    Because they adhere to a relatively strict schedule, the class must continue to progress based on the successes of the majority of students. 

    This means that the class spends more time together as a large group and follows the same lesson, rather than splitting up to tackle various tasks.

    The Environments

    Both Montessori and play-based preschools can have supportive, carefully designed environments. 

    Montessori preschools are typically organised into five curriculum areas: language, math, practical life, sensorial and culture. 

    Play-based centres may also be arranged into areas or stations based on activities or themes.

    A traditional school environment tends to be highly structured in terms of time—if you know what time it is, you know what the children are doing—but it's loosely structured in terms of space. 

    Montessori is the reverse: highly structured in space and loosely structured in time. If you know where children are in the room, you know what they're doing, but the time is free. 

    In play-based child care, teachers tend to swing between letting the children play and doing teaching activities.

    Montessori environments tend to be quieter, calmer and less stressful than play-based ones, which some children may find too loud, colourful or high-stimulus. 

    No matter which type of preschool you choose, look for a tranquil environment, one in which the colour comes from the children and their activities and paintings. 

    Be very wary of an environment that's filled with red, yellow and blue, and heavy, heavy doses of print or cartoon characters, et cetera, because those are very visually harassing for the child and will tire the child out."

    The Benefits

    A huge benefit with Montessori is that the child is active within their own pace and rhythms. 

    Kids who seem distracted in a conventional setting may flourish if allowed to set their rhythm of activity. 

    Children in Montessori programs also tend to become highly self-regulated. 

    That's a significant advantage because it's considered, at this time, a considerable criterion for success in school—not intelligence but the capacity to self-regulate. 

    (Self-regulation means how quickly a person returns to a calm state after experiencing stress.)

    In play-based settings, kids' imaginations can flourish, and so can their social skills, such as generating friendships and working things through with friends in play. 

    Those are both positive things, too. We would say Montessori is less likely to tolerate symbolic or imaginative play. You'd get more socio-dramatic space in a play-based child care centre, which is also an excellent route to self-regulation.

    Your child's behaviour and personality may influence your decision. Some children do better in one setting or the other. 

    If you have a highly active little boy who loves playing aeroplanes and building with blocks, I will put him in a play-based program. 

    If you have a shy child that hangs back and you're not sure what they're interested in, I'd put them in a Montessori program where they have this rich, rich environment that may draw them out in ways you haven't seen before.

    Making the Decision


    Remember, Montessori, and play-based centres help kids prepare for kindergarten and develop a love for learning, and both must meet regulations set by your provincial or territorial government. 

    Both philosophies can offer excellent programs and weaker ones, too—you can't decide by stand alone.

    We do not recommend that parents necessarily choose between Montessori and play-based preschool or daycare

    The main criterion is to go to the centre and look for the quality of the relationships among the educators and the children, the educators and each other, and of course with the parents. 

    That will tell the parent whether they want their child in that program.

    For many parents, the decision comes down to practicalities, such as distance and availability—not every community has a Montessori school. In addition, factors such as a preschool's cost, schedule, capacity, nutrition, physical condition, reputation, staff credentials and accreditation may outweigh other considerations. 

    (Note that "Montessori" is not copyrighted, and anyone can open a school under that name.)

    When touring preschools, ask about staff qualifications, particularly those of the preschool's leaders. 

    Also, find out whether they provide professional development: A good centre will do that, and the best centres tend to have the most experienced action on an ongoing basis.

    And, of course, examine the physical environment and ask about activities. Wien rattles off a checklist: Is it clean, well organised and uncluttered? Is there a quality of beauty there? Do they take the children outside? What's the quality of the playground and outdoor experiences, the quality of the food? Do they have a little studio for arts-based activities? I wouldn't be worried about whether it's Montessori or play-based."

    Outcomes of a Montessori Toddler/primary Education

    Research into the effectiveness of Montessori methods is ongoing, but several studies show that children may benefit socially and cognitively from Montessori principles. 

    A 2017 study comparing Montessori students and traditional school students between the ages of 3 and 6 found that students who were educated with the Montessori methods displayed "elevated outcomes" in several areas, including:

    Social Cognition

    Social cognition refers to the way that a person receives and stores information to be used again later. 

    This study did find that the Montessori students appeared to develop social cognition at a more rapid pace than their traditional counterparts. 

    In other words, Montessori students displayed significantly elevated academic achievement levels compared to their traditional school peers over the three years. 

    One thing the researchers found, however, was that it took some time before this became obvious. 

    Initially, students in the traditional and Montessori programs were tracked and shown to be on similar academic levels. 

    But the longer the Montessori students stayed in the program, the more significant the academic achievement gap between the two groups became.

    Interest in Academic Topics

    Researchers found that children enrolled in the Montessori curriculum were more likely to display positive feelings about school and academic activities than their traditional classroom peers. 

    This didn't mean they didn't like traditional childhood activities such as playing sports or watching television. 

    However, Montessori children were more likely to express an interest in reading and other academic pursuits in addition to those other childhood activities.

    Mastery Orientation

    This term refers to a child's confidence in their ability to tackle a problem, such as a puzzle, and solve it. 

    Children in the Montessori program were more likely to choose more challenging puzzles when offered a selection of options. They also expressed more confidence in their ability to complete a complex puzzle. 

    The researchers theorised that this might be partly because Montessori emphasises personal satisfaction as the ultimate reward for a job well done, rather than the tangible reward system often used in a traditional classroom setting.

    How to Choose Between Montessori and Preschool: Questions to Ask

    Once you have all of the information in front of you, the question becomes, Which preschool is right for your child? 

    While many parents believe school is a one-size-fits-all opportunity, the truth is that each child has different strengths, different weaknesses, and different ways of learning that should all be celebrated. 

    The differences between Montessori and traditional preschool are many. However, which is best for a particular child doesn't always lie in educational philosophy alone. 

    When trying to decide between a traditional preschool classroom and a Montessori classroom, ask yourself these four questions:

    What Is the Purpose of Sending My Child to Preschool?

    For some parents, the goal is to find childcare that incorporates basic social and academic skills like counting, colours and sharing. 

    This is a trademark of many traditional preschool classrooms. But, for other parents, preschool is a time for their child to identify and cultivate a love of learning and discovery that will carry them through their years of school. 

    In other words, these parents view preschool as the precursor to years of academic success. This is where Montessori preschool comes in.

    What Kind of Environment Will Benefit My Child?

    Traditional preschool classrooms are often known for bright colours, decorations and the hustle and bustle of large children at play. 

    In a Montessori school, colours are more muted, and natural light provides the "bright" atmosphere for children as they learn. 

    In both cases, children's play is their "work," but the traditional preschool emphasises imaginary play as a means of learning and growth. At the same time, Montessori emphasises playful activities that are also academic, such as wooden alphabet blocks or learning to tie a shoe.

    What Kind of School Do I Want My Child to Attend After Preschool?

    The Montessori method of education is designed to understand that children will start by age 3 — or even sooner — and then progress through the program for several years. 

    Although some schools will accept older students, Montessori schools typically discourage enrolling elementary school-aged students into their programs if they haven't participated in a Montessori preschool program first. 

    This is because younger children who don't have other school experiences have an easier time adapting to the Montessori method.

    On the other hand, a traditional preschool classroom is set up to mimic the conventional classrooms students will encounter throughout their academic career, regardless of their school. 

    Unlike Montessori, a traditional preschool is only equipped to teach children until they reach elementary school.

    What Does My Child Need?

    This last question encompasses your thoughts and feelings regarding the three previous inquiries. 

    There are certainly pros and cons surrounding both types of programs, and it all boils down to your child. 

    All accredited, reputable preschool programs share the goal of nurturing your child, preparing them for kindergarten and cultivating a love of learning. 

    They are regulated by the state government and accountable to the standards it sets.

    Each child has different gifts, different challenges and different styles of learning. What stimulates and inspires one child may bore or confuse another. 

    Although traditional education is designed with a one-size-fits-all mentality, there is no one-size-fits-all child. 

    When you are trying to decide between Montessori or traditional preschool, stop and look around. Where do you think your child will thrive? And what will benefit them more as they grow? The answer to that question is, in the end, all you need.

    Choosing Between the Two


    Knowing some of the key differences between Montessori programs and traditional preschool programs is the first step. 

    Once you get a feel for the different options in your area, ask around! Recommendations from friends and online reviews can help you understand which programs are a better fit for your family.

    Once you've narrowed it down, take a tour. Websites can only do so much. To get a better feel for a school you have to visit. 

    Ideally, a tour will take place during a typical school day, and you'll get a sense of how your child will spend her day.

    Take your child's needs into consideration. For example, will a bright, colourful, noisy classroom overwhelm your sensitive child? What about your high energy child? How does the program take into consideration different needs and personalities? 

    There are no wrong questions, so be sure to ask as many as it takes to get the answers you need. Happy school hunting!

    The Montessori classroom

    Montessori preschool classrooms usually look quite different from “traditional” preschool classrooms. For one thing, kids ages 3 to 6 all work in the same room, so the younger ones can learn from their elders and the older children can develop a sense of leadership and authority.

    In a traditional preschool classroom, the teacher is the leader of the pack. In a Montessori classroom, she is the guide. A child learns her teen numbers with this interactive math material.

    Unlike traditional schools, preschools or daycare programs, a Montessori environment offers a multi-age-level approach to learning. Students remain with a single teacher for three years. This allows strong bonds to form between the teacher and child, between the teacher and the child's parents, and between students.

    Scroll to Top