Taking a Look at Early Childhood Education Approaches

A child’s first impressions of formal education begin taking shape the moment they first toddle through the doors of preschool. Choosing the right environment is the first of many pivotal education decisions parents must make.

When it comes to early childhood education, the four education models most frequently found in St. Louis preschools are Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf and Project Construct. Each philosophy approaches childhood learning from a unique perspective, which results in very distinct models of teacher and student interactions, classroom environments, and curriculums.


Teachers in a Montessori classroom plan educational materials and activities to address the needs of the children they serve via skilled observation and relationships developed with the children. In a Montessori classroom practical life skills, such as dish washing, food preparation, and self-care, are stressed early on, and educational materials are geared towards helping children learning with through their senses.

Anita Chastain, director of Chesterfield Montessori School explained, “Our teachers serve as resources, guides and observers in the children’s individual process of learning. Each child is regarded with respect and dignity, and is encouraged to learn at the pace that is best for him/her.”

Developed in Italy by scientist Dr. Maria Montessori, the Montessori educational philosophy is respect-based, and the goal is to meet the emotional, social, cognitive, and physical needs of the whole child while instilling a deep sense of community through outreach and compassion-based learning. Mary Denise-O’Boyle, director of Hope Montessori in Wildwood, said, “The ramifications of that in our global world means children are prepared to enter a global society.”       

Deeply rooted in community learning and heavily project based, Reggio-Emilia education is based on the belief that children perform best when they are given control over their learning. The Reggio-Emilia classroom is grounded in the principle that learning happens socially, and thorough contextual, creative explorations.

Reggio-Emilia educators are trained to observe the classroom community to guide their interests into in-depth, long-term project that the class completes together. This project becomes the focus of the curriculum through the year, and students explore their subject thoroughly, through math, art, language, and science- meeting educational milestones in context of their project experience.

“When you get your body into it, those are the experiences you remember,” explained Brandi Cartwright, dean of Raintree Learning Community in Ballwin. Students are “approaching interests from every angle, richly.”  

The community aspect of the Reggio-Emilia approach extends beyond the curriculum, and practitioners regard parents as an integral part of that community, sharing snippets of conversations and news with the parents as an important part of the educational process.

“Reggio reminds us that [as educators] we are there to watch, listen and record as they are becoming unique people,” Cartwright said, “We are listening to children and sharing what we see with parents.”

The Waldorf philosophy emphasizes that each stage of child development has specific needs and abilities, and the curriculum is structured to best take advantage of a child’s developmental level. In early childhood that means understanding that children learn through imitation and engaging all five senses.

Ann Weidemann, director of Shining Rivers Waldorf School in Webster Groves, said, “At this age, senses are a child’s primary input. We make sure that classes are filled with the most fulfilling elements. In a classroom you will hear soft music, smell baking bread, and see soft, warm colors like those a child would see at home.”

Play-based education and imaginative learning experiences are important to young children, and Waldorf classrooms provide children with naturally made, open-ended materials that are inviting to children. Materials are there for children to explore and create, with little direction as to conventional use, and art projects focus on the experience as opposed to the end product.

Waldorf teachers are trained to hold the classroom as a patient observer, and are very deliberate, gentle and compassionate as they guide children through the rhythm of their day, always aware that they are models for the children.

Teachers introduce new concepts through story-telling using advanced vocabulary and give children daily opportunities for physical movement and outdoor play. Weidemann explains, “Their play is their work,“ and that work is creating.

Project Construct
Developed by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Project Construct model helps children develop creative exploration and inquiry skills through hands-on learning experiences that are developed specifically to meet the needs of the individual child.   

Through daily, observational assessments and regular evaluations, the Project Construct classroom curriculum is constantly evolving to meet the individual educational needs of each child. Assessments help teachers understand where the child is developmentally, and allow them to provide each child with hands-on experiences that develop core content skills.

“Math, science, social/emotional, literacy, and health and nutrition are all integral parts of what we’re studying,” said Kathy Drews, director at the St. Charles Community College Child Development Center. “We are trying to make competent learners.”

To encourage play-based exploration, classrooms are filled with open-ended materials that encourage children be creative problem solvers. Children are encouraged to explore materials through centers that include reading corners for literacy, areas for puzzles and blocks, a home skills area for dishwashing and clothing care, an art center, and a science area.

Teachers watch and record as children decide for themselves where their chosen activities are headed.

Drews explained, “As with a lot of curriculums, Project Construct is based on the fact children learn through interaction with the world and play.”

While there are some areas of overlap between the philosophies, each model has unique elements, and each school has it’s own unique take on, or combination of, philosophies. Choosing the right school really comes down to understanding the child, and finding the philosophy that suits them best.

By Melody Meiners, who writes frequently on education issues for St. Louis Kids Magazine.

This article first appeared in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of St. Louis Kids Magazine.




Share This Story
Our Daily Things to Do email is the easiest way to plan your day.
Follow Us
Want daily ideas of things to do? How about special offers & giveaways? Sign up and we’ll handle the rest.
Things to Do

Barks 'N Books Reading Day at Purina Farms
Wednesday, June 26, 2019
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Visit the newest interactive reading experience for kids in the St. Louis area – Barks 'N Books Reading Day at Purina Farms! This free book reading features USO comfort dogs and gives your kids the opportunity to read to them. Reservations are not necessary.

View this event »
Disney's 101 Dalmations Live on Stage

Join the evil Cruella De Vil and her two klutzy henchmen as they try to steal a litter of the cutest puppies ever to hit jolly old London Town. But not to worry, this fur-raising adventure ends happily with plenty of puppy power to spare! This production of Disney's 101 Dalmations is performed live on stage by STAGES St. Louis at the Robert G. Rein Theatre in Kirkwood, with special daytime performances perfect for little ones. 

View this event »
Circus Flora: The Caper in Aisle 6

Circus Flora, St. Louis' original one-ring circus, is now in its 33rd season! This beloved show is an unbelievable mix of excitement, charm, daring, and comedy, all under an intimate Big Top setting. See mesmerizing circus acts, storytellers and performers in this year's show, The Caper in Aisle 6. Daytime and evening shows are on select nights through June 30 with special 10 a.m. performances for young children, a sensory-friendly performance and a special Peanut-Free Preview night for those with nut allergies. 

View this event »
You Might Also Like...

From Our Sponsors
Popular Stories

Green Thumbs and Power Tools: Gardening With Your Kids Can Lead To Unexpected Adventures

Simply planting seeds with my sons is a thing of the past. They still love to get dirty and grow stuff, but now it’s understood that all backyard projects I propose need to involve at least one power tool, an experimental outcome and several DIY videos.
Continue reading »
Volunteers Needed: 15 Places in St. Louis Where Your Teen Can Make a Difference This Summer

Whether your teen is an artist, an athlete or an animal lover, they can help make the St. Louis region the best it can be with their time and talents, and gain valuable experience in the process.

Continue reading »
Sleep-Away Camp: Then and Now

Last summer, I was introduced to the wonders of modern-day sleep-away camp when my daughter spent a week at one for the first time. And let me tell you – these kids have it good. Real good. I went to sleep-away camp too, when I was a kid, and let's just say things have changed. Here are just a few of the differences between then and now.

Continue reading »
Play Street Museum Brings Kid-Sized Fun to The Streets of St. Charles

With its shops and restaurants, The Streets of St. Charles has become the go-to for grown-ups in the region. But now kids have a place here to call their own at Play Street Museum.

Continue reading »
Accumulating Children: A Beginner's Guide

The key to successfully going from one, to two, to three kids is really just learning how to determine whose immediate need is more life-threatening. Plus, you stop judging parents who put their kids on leashes.

Continue reading »
Follow Us