Deciding on the setting for your child’s early education can feel like a huge decision. The importance of those early years, when your child’s learning foundations are laid, can’t be underestimated. It’s crucial that you have all the information you need to make an informed choice.
There are so many options to choose from, from traditional nurseries or pre-schools, Montessori nurseries, forest schools and home education. But how do you decide which choice is right for your child?
Montessori vs play-based early education
Many parents will be wondering whether they should choose a pre-school or nursery that follows Montessori methods or a play-based approach. There are benefits to each approach and every family has different requirements and needs which mean that one approach will be more suitable than the other.
We’ve compared some of the different types of early years providers on offer, including how they fit in with the Montessori philosophy, as well as looking at the types of activities and resources that you’ll find at each.
Traditional nurseries typically take a play-based approach. This is based on the belief that children learn best through play. Children spend a large portion of their day in unstructured and open-ended play. This may include role play, exploratory toys, books, crafts activities, puzzles and ICT equipment.
The majority of nurseries will follow a schedule, sticking to set times for different activities. This includes portions of time for unstructured play, as well as times for teaching activities which could include singing, phonics, crafts and outdoor time.
A play-based setting can be great for a child’s imagination, with imaginative play highly encouraged. These settings are also ideal for encouraging social skills such as friendships and conflict resolution.
Although conventional nurseries are unlikely to follow Montessori philosophies, this doesn’t mean that they are incompatible with Montessori parenting. It’s important to get to know the individual setting to discover whether it will work for your family dynamics.
As the name suggests, a Montessori nursery will be based around the work of Dr Maria Montessori who created the Montessori Method of Education. The Montessori approach aims to develop the child’s independence, confidence and self-discipline.
Montessori nurseries follow a child-directed approach. This approach puts the emphasis on individualised and self-paced learning. Children at a Montessori nursery will choose activities based on their interests and focus on them for blocks of time without interruption.
Teachers at a Montessori nursery will observe the children and facilitate their use of the learning materials, whilst tracking their progress. Learning is led by the child and not by the adults.
When you walk into a Montessori nursery, the first thing you’ll notice is the calm atmosphere. You’re unlikely to see lots bright colours or patterns which can be over-stimulating for many children.
The nursery will typically be organised into five curriculum areas: language, maths, practical life, cultural understanding and sensorial. Each of these areas is likely to have some shelves which contain materials which are organised from simple to most complex. These will be laid out from left to right to support pre-writing.
The space will be highly structured to allow for specific learning areas. If you know which are a child is in, you’ll know exactly what they’re doing there. However, the time is free and children can structure their day as they see fit.
Learning through play is key within the Montessori approach, so resources in a Montessori nursery will be specifically chosen to stimulate the senses whilst aiding other areas of development and education. These resources are typically manufactured from sustainable materials, such as wooden puzzles and toys.
For example, one example of a learning resource that you’d find in a Montessori nursery would be a wooden ten frame. Whilst a child sees this as a fun toy, they are simultaneously developing their fine motor skills and their pre-writing pincer grip, while learning valuable maths skills such as counting.
Forest School nursery
A Forest School nursery is based outdoors in the woodland and follows a child-led approach to learning. There are typically activities set out around the environment that children can choose to do, but they are also able to choose to do nothing.
There’s no right way to play or learn within a Forest School. Children are encouraged to create their own activities and learn in their own way. They’re given freedom, within set limits. They can run around and choose what they want to do, within the limits set by the leaders.
This approach is very hands on. Forest School practitioners follow a similar approach to Montessori teachers. They will typically demonstrate how to do something and then allow the child to try it independently.
Independence is a key aspect of Forest School. Children are given the knowledge and the skills to develop independence and they’re encouraged to assess and then take appropriate risks. They’ll learn to use knives, build fires, climb trees and build dens.
Whilst Forest School isn’t Montessori, the philosophy and approach is often similar. Both approaches encourage independence and confidence, whilst putting a high value on spending time outdoors, connecting with nature.
Of course, you don’t have to send your child to nursery or to school. You can also choose to home educate or homeschool your child. If you decide to facilitate your child’s learning at home, you’ll be able to choose your own approach and methods, following the Montessori philosophy if you wish.
Montessori homeschoolers will typically follow their child’s lead rather than following a curriculum. You’ll be aware of the skills and concepts that you’re hoping to teach your child but will follow their lead when it comes to seizing learning opportunities.
Children are always learning, so there’s no need to have set lesson times. Learning is something that happens naturally in a child’s everyday life, whatever you happen to be doing.
Your home doesn’t need to resemble a classroom either. A large proportion of your Montessori learning at home will happen through everyday life. This could be meal preparation, exploring the outdoors or even building forts. There’s no right or wrong way to home educate in a Montessori way.
Montessori home educators tend to opt for open-ended toys which can grow with their child. For example, wooden sorting trays enable your child to practice counting and sorting whilst developing their fine motor and visual discrimination skills.
Similarly, wooden tracing boards such as our spiral tracing board offer a range of difficulty levels, allowing the toy to grow with your child. This saves you from having to buy new resources every time your child masters a skill, keeping the costs of Montessori homeschooling to a minimum without compromising on quality or value.
To sum up
There’s no right choice when it comes to choosing a setting for your child’s early education. The decision will depend largely on your child’s personality and needs, along with the values and beliefs of your family.
The best thing to do when you’re weighing up the options is to visit different settings. Observe the quality of relationships between the practitioners and the children, along with the atmosphere of the setting. You’re likely to be able to quickly establish whether the type of setting is right for your child.