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Play-Based Preschools (and Finding a Fit for Your Child)

As we began to search for a preschool for our oldest daughter, I was overwhelmed by the different philosophies we heard about; Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Academic, etc. The one that seemed to be mentioned most in the San Francisco schools we toured was Reggio Emilia, also referred to as “play-based.” In order to help explain this phenomenon to the families out there that are Sprout's customers, I asked Michelle Lawton, Director of the highly sought-after, Reggio-inspired preschool Stretch the Imagination to share her thoughts and the philosophy on which she has built her school.

“Choosing a preschool can be a daunting experience for parents these days as there are so many different names and descriptions now in play to describe this setting for our young children. You will hear academic, play-based, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Constructivist, relationship based, and the list goes on. Many times these descriptions are ways in which a school distinguishes their program from another or associates their program with a certain philosophy or approach to learning. And yet, it is very hard to give the full picture of a school’s culture in a word or even a phrase. It is exposure to the parents, educators and culture of a school that helps to set the stage and offer a window into the community that you are investigating.

When I first started Stretch the Imagination we were not yet a preschool program and so I too went through this process for my oldest child. As someone who now advises parents on their process of looking at kindergarten, I think that a similar process exists when choosing a preschool. Ultimately, you want to find a community and a program that fits your family values and your hopes as a parent.  While the process might seem daunting at first it is also an opportunity to learn more about the many wonderful early childhood programs that exist in San Francisco. I expect that you will be struck by the distinct and diverse preschool cultures and contexts that exist in our small city. And in this diversity, you will hopefully find schools that speak to your values.

There are many factors to investigate when looking deeper at a preschool for your child and most of these factors are very individual and personal considerations for parents to reflect on. Some options might be influenced by sheer logistics such as location of the school or whether it is a half or full day program. Other factors to think about are class size, teacher-child ratio, is toilet training required, how green is the school, the environment or aesthetics of the school and classrooms, and the proximity or value they place on connecting children with nature. I would also look closely at how stimulating or over stimulating the environment seems. For example, how many children are in the room at one time can impact the emotional, auditory, and visual environment of the setting. This can influence how a child learns and interacts in their surroundings.

There are so many philosophical approaches that exist today in early childhood and even more ways in which a program executes on their curriculum. I personally stand firmly in the camp that honors the magic of this unique time in a child’s life and the importance of play in a child’s learning process. Preschool is a time that should be filled with exploration and wonder. Children come to us with such curiosity and presence and I feel a responsibility in nurturing their love of learning. I also believe strongly in connecting children to the natural world and the importance of this in all educational settings.

Our program at Stretch the Imagination is informed and inspired by the work and practices of the educators in Reggio Emilia along with many past and present educational theorists. Because more families are coming to hear the word “Reggio” I am often asked what exactly is Reggio Emilia? I can start by saying that it is a small town in Italy that is located near Bologna. I will also offer that the town is home to an organization and network of educators whose work has come to inspire many educators around the world including myself. I personally think that it is wonderful that more people are investigating this work and coming to know the practices and experiences that are taking place in Reggio with young children.  It is also important to understand that there is not a prescribed Reggio method and that each school that is inspired by the work of the Reggio educators, in Reggio, must take this back to their own context and culture. Therefore, each Reggio inspired school will have a different way of executing on their inspiration.  Something that resonates with me personally about “Reggio” is that it speaks to the idea of creating life long learners. There is no one truth or one prescribed way of doing but rather a continuous and reciprocal process of learning and continuing to grow.

There are however certain core values that you are likely to find in a Reggio inspired program. One foundational value is the “Image of the Child” as one that is capable and competent. This ultimately impacts everything we do with the children in our program and in every relationship we form with the children, parents, and among educators. The curriculum is executed through a project based learning process. Projects develop over time and the interests of the children and educators inform these experiences and explorations.   

Documentation is another important tool and truly a way of life when teaching in a Reggio inspired environment. It is informed by observation and listening to young children. It can take on many forms such as drawings, notes, photographs, video, and recorded conversations to name a few. Documentation is a valuable tool that has many purposes. It is used to look deeper at the learning that takes place with the children and between educators. It is also a tool to form relationships with parents, with children, between children and between teachers. 

I would also talk to the importance and attention that is given to the environment in which children learn. Everything from the aesthetics of how individual learning opportunities are offered to the details of each area in the classroom setting is considered. There is a constant intentionality behind the program and the process in which the teachers work.

Overall, I think that there is no word or philosophical name that can indicate the individual culture and community of a given school. Rather, parents are given the task of investigating the actual communities and programs that they are looking at for their family and child. As a preschool director I think deeply about the education of young children and what I think are best practices for this time in a child’s education. I feel strongly that this is a time for children to play, to be amazed and to bring amazement to the lives of the adults surrounding them. Preschool should be steeped in happiness, curiosity, and a sense of wonder. It is a special time in all of our lives and at its core it is grounded in the importance of creating a nurturing and rich environment that ultimately instills a true love of learning in young children.”

Click HERE to learn more about Stretch the Imagination.