Traditional Vs. Child-Centered Preschools

Julie Janis
Apr 19, 2018 · 7 min read

Once children reach the age of three to four years old, parents become anxious about getting them prepared for Kindergarten. Most will enroll them into a preschool where they will learn skills that will prepare them. Some parents put a lot of consideration into the type of preschool their child attends, while others do not take consideration at all. There are several kinds of preschools out there, but each preschool can be defined of whether they are traditional or child-centered. But what is the difference between the two, and why should we care? There is actually a dramatic difference between the them and both can greatly determine children’s readiness for Kindergarten.


Traditional preschools are the ones we have a great abundance of and children go to the most. Some of the characteristics of this kind of school include the following:

  • The classroom, learning, and play is very structured and routine based, leaving little time for free-play.
  • The walls are displayed with commercialized posters on letters, numbers, colors, shapes, calendars, birthdays, and so forth.
  • There may be bulletin boards displaying children’s work where they all look like the same project.
  • Children spend a majority of the time learning letters, sounds, numbers, colors, shapes, and do many writing exercises.
  • It is teacher-directed with scripted lessons that are repeated every year.
  • Children are taught through worksheets, flash cards, and other ditto sheets.
  • Most of the activities done are product based and working is done more than playing.

The definite goal of these types of preschools is to prepare children academically so they are able to take on the concepts learned in Kindergarten. What is the outcome of this? This is what research from Berkeley found:

  • Public schools push children to learn more at an earlier age.
  • Too much academics can lose children’s interests and motivation in learning.
  • Children tend to have more behavior problems from too much academics.

If this is the outcome of children from experiencing traditional preschools, why are they still around? Why do children still go to these schools? A few reasons to explain this is the high demand for children to be academically ready to take on standardized tests in Kindergarten from parents. Not only do preschools want children to come to their school, but also they want to support the families goals and intentions for their children. Because of these wishes, preschools are changing their curriculum so they can please families and keep their business running.

There is also a lack of knowledge in child development and early childhood education. As our society is changing its technology, approaches to parenting, and studies on how education should be administered, it is changing the way children are learning and developing, either for better or worse. Good or poor decisions are made by policy makers and views are being changed because of lack of knowledge.


In a child-centered preschool, the focus is on planning lessons based on children’s interests and learning through play. These schools we do not see very often due to low understanding and sometimes high cost. Most child-centered schools are based off the traditional approaches from philosophers, such as Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, and Caroline Pratt. They could also be, or be based off of, Reggio Emilia, Montessori, or Waldorf. These are some characteristics in preschools that are child-centered:

  • The classroom may be set up into sections where there would be art, math, science, dramatic play, blocks, a sensory table, and so forth. The children are free to roam and choose which activities to do.
  • The classroom is set up in a natural way, bringing in natural light and keeping the walls clean of commercialized posters and more of children’s art work.
  • Teachers focus mostly on teaching social/emotional and cognitive skills.
  • Academic skills may be learned through play-based activities.
  • Everything learned is through first-hand and hands-on experiences.
  • Teachers follow the children’s lead and teach what they are interested in and acts as a facilitator on learning rather than direct instruction.
  • Activities are focused on the process of learning rather than the product.

Based off of research, this is what is concluded in children from child-centered approaches:

  • Play and hands-on experiences are some of the best approaches for learning because of a greater ability to process information.
  • Some of the greatest predictors of success is through having well developed skills in executive function skills, particularly inhibitory control (self-regulation), and socialization.
  • Relationships and powerful interactions help to foster learning and development.
  • Teaching academics should be carefully thought out.

Teachers at child-centered preschools have a great knowledge about human development and understand that the concepts learned at the early stages can greatly affect the way people learn and process information when they are older. In essence, they take into the account the long-term effects, rather than the short-term, such as meeting those standardized tests. A thought that goes along with this comes from Amanda Morgan, who blogs Not Just Cute. She said,

“Learning foundations are built through play and experience. And we can’t afford to skip that. A push-down curriculum isn’t helping kids to get ahead, it’s simply ignoring the critical role of the foundation.”

A former teacher, Jessica Smock, wrote an article in the Washington Post, stating,

“We live in a fast-paced world full of global competition. Parents are busy and always looking for time-savers, “hacks” and quick fixes. We don’t want our kids to get left behind. But child development doesn’t work like that. We can’t rush our kids’ brains to learn more, learn faster or learn in the style of miniaturized grown-ups….Preschoolers should not spend their days at desks, filling out worksheets and learning sight words. Childhood is too important for that.”

One more thought to share regarding this topic comes from a psychologist, Peter Grey, who said this,

“My hypothesis is that the generational increases in externality, extrinsic goals, anxiety, and depression are all caused largely by the decline, over that same period, in opportunities for free play and the increased time and weight given to schooling.”

Which Should You Choose?

The great decision comes to which type of preschool is best for your child. Even with the research results of the two types, we need to also consider that every child learns and develops differently. It is like parenting: not one parenting strategy will work for every child. I suggest making a list about where your child is at, do research on the preschools in the area, and start comparing the pros and cons.

When making a list about where your child is at, consider the following:

  • What are my child’s strengths?
  • What skills does my child have?
  • What kind of environment would my child thrive in?
  • What developmental/learning goals do I have for my child?

When doing research on the preschools in the area, consider the preschool’s philosophy, daily routine and schedule, mission statement and goals, teacher credentials, safety and discipline, and the cost. Then develop a pros and cons list with each preschool and decide from there which preschool fits best with the environment and your child’s goals.

Despite the negative outcomes of traditional preschools, I definitely still think they can be a good fit for some children. If your child has a great foundation in social and executive function skills, is still able to have free play in their time, and is willing to sit through and grasp concepts through direct instruction, then the traditional school might be a good fit. But parents should consider both kinds of preschools and understand that whichever preschool they choose, they are going to prepare children for Kindergarten. Laura Lewis Brown, who wrote to parents on PBS, said,

“Whether you opt for a play-based or more academic setting, you are choosing to prepare your child for kindergarten and later schooling. While play-based approaches may work for most types of children, any quality preschool program can set the foundation for the transition to kindergarten and beyond. What matters is that your child is learning from adults who engage and stimulate intellectual curiosity while imparting social skills.”

A great thought to conclude comes from Dr. Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, who said this,

“Most kindergarten teachers will tell you what they really value is the opportunity to teach kids when they show up at school prepared and ready to learn. It’s not so much that teachers value that the kindergartner can read or write. They value that the children enjoy learning…”


Anderson, Jenny. (2017). A Berkeley professor says preschoolers need the academic skills parents are rebelling against. Quartz.

Brown, Laura Lewis. (n.d.) Comparing Preschool Philosophies: Play-based vs. Academic. PBS Parents.

Morgan, Amanda. (2014). .The Vital Importance of a Strong Foundation: Why Early Learning Matters. Not Just Cute.

Punkoney, Sarah. (n.d.) What You Need to Know About Academic Vs. Play Based Preschool. Stay At Home Educator.

Smock, Jessica. (2017). Why kids deserve a preschool that lets them play. The Washington Post.

Early Childhood Foundations

The purpose of Early Childhood Foundations is to raise…

Julie Janis

Written by

Just writing about things that I love.

Early Childhood Foundations

The purpose of Early Childhood Foundations is to raise awareness about appropriate early childhood practices involving intentional teaching and whole-child development.

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