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Waldorf, Montessori, and more: A guide to social-emotional teaching styles in early education

When it comes time to choose a child care or preschool program for your child, it can be easy to get confused by the benefits and descriptions of different teaching philosophies—especially when the stakes feel so high and each philosophy seems to promise so much.

Here’s some simplifying news: the details of an early education program, whether it takes place outside or in someone’s home, is in English or another language, or follows one research-backed approach or a hybrid of several, are just bonuses as long as the program prioritizes a child’s social-emotional learning.


“Social emotional learning is where it’s at,” says Daryl Lyn Johnson, interim director of Unity Preschool in Evanston, IL. “Some parents ask me if their child will be reading in preschool. Unlikely! Some kids do, some kids don’t. But studies show kids with stronger social-emotional skills are happier and more successful in life than children who don’t. We tell parents those [reading] windows will open when they open but if we can teach their child to be a good citizen, part of the community, kind, those are the things we work on and we pick up those other things along the way.”

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning is when children “acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

“Those [reading] windows will open when they open but if we can teach their child to be a good citizen, part of the community, kind, those are the things we work on and we pick up those other things along the way.”


Child care characteristics associated with social-emotional development often include:
Small group sizes and low ratios: Smaller groups and lower child-to-staff ratios (which tend to be lower by law for in-home programs) allow young children to have support from their caregiver while still playing independently.

Continuity of care: Care by the same person for at least a year in the first three years of life helps children develop secure attachment and trusted relationships with their caregiver. This allows children to have a safe place from which to learn and explore.

Play-based environments: Children develop socially and emotionally through play as they imagine the world from a different perspective, understand the differences between themselves and others, and learn how to interact with others.

What exactly does a play-based program look like? Here are some elements to look for:

  • A program that incorporates the children’s natural interests into the daily flow
  • Both indoor and outdoor play
  • A variety of play spaces available, like dramatic play areas, block building area, and sensory area
  • Children self-select their play experience and materials
  • Children can play for long periods of time without interruption
  • Children have the opportunity to play with others and to play alone
  • Beyond personal preferences, the good news is that as long as your child’s social emotional development is being nurtured in a play based environment, they are in a quality program.

Teaching philosophies

Within child-centered, social-emotional learning-focused programs, there are a variety of teaching philosophies. Any of these, or a combination of several, can be the foundation for a high-quality experience for your child that will get them well prepared for further learning.

Montessori: The Montessori method is most associated with very specific materials developed by Maria Montessori, designed to help children move from the concrete to the abstract and be self-correcting. The mixed-age classrooms are divided into four distinct areas: Language and Reading, Math, Practical Life, and Sensorial, one example of Montessori’s play-based style of learning. Additionally, the Montessori method is very child-directed; a Montessori teacher will typically not disturb a child at work, but rather will observe their progress and engage at a later time with that child to support their development.

Reggio Emilia: In Reggio, the classroom is considered the “third teacher,” meaning it is set up to engage children, inspire learning, and encourage communication. Reggio takes play-based learning very seriously and creates inviting spaces full of found, never-manufactured materials that inspire curiosity and invite exploration. Reggio teachers are viewed as more than just a partner in education — they are the guides that take children through the journey of learning and spend a great deal of time documenting the learning process through portfolios and photographs.

Waldorf: A Waldorf classroom will only include furniture and materials made from natural sources. The focus in the preschool classroom is pre-academic with a huge emphasis on the arts, gardening, cooking, woodworking, and the outside world, a tenet of play-based learning, that accompanies the Waldorf ideal of allowing children to be self-directed in their choice of activities. It is common practice for a Waldorf teacher to stay with the same students for many years, solidifying a social/emotional attachment. Plastic toys and screen time (in school or even in the home) are discouraged, with a large emphasis placed on fostering imagination and creativity and hands on activities like gardening, sewing, and woodworking.

RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers): A RIE (pronounced Rye) classroom is specifically designed so that infants and toddlers may safely interact with it. While being predictable, a RIE classroom is also intellectually stimulating, so will include simple objects that infants and toddlers may explore like stacking cups, bowls and balls, etc. In RIE, teachers are called “educarers,” an approach that includes the psycho-motor, fine motor, social-emotional development of the infant. A RIE educarer is taught thoughtful observation of the infants in their care to better understand their needs and development. Part of the RIE approach is involving the infant in all daily processes as an active participant, rather than a passive object to be handled.

Forest schools: Per its name, in a forest school, the classroom exists entirely outside, rain or shine. The teacher may bring additional tools and materials like art supplies, shovels, nets, magnifying glasses, journals, etc. It’s common for children in forest programs to develop a sense of ownership over their outdoor classroom. A teacher in a forest program is typically comfortable following a curriculum that unfolds naturally and gradually based on the interests of the children and what is happening in the environment (all play-based ideals). Forest schools often embrace a healthy risk-taking approach.

Language-based programs: In a bilingual or language immersion program, instructors conduct activities in a second language either mixed with the first language or as complete immersion throughout the whole school day. The goal is to expose young learners to a new language they can become proficient in and use later in life. Regardless of whether a program is bilingual or immersion, there is rarely any direct language instruction in the preschool years. If language learning is important to you, just make sure it’s part of a program that also prioritizes strong social emotional learning and play-based features like those above.

Find a high-quality, play-based preschool or child care program near you.

Claire Zulkey

Claire Zulkey is a writer in Evanston, IL. She has reported on children, families and education for publications like the New York Times, Parents, and the University of Chicago Magazine