Early Childhood Education Theories: What’s the Difference?

Early Childhood Education Theories: What’s the Difference?

By Emily Lian, M.Ed



One of the most frequently asked questions by parents looking for the best possible preschool for their child is, “There are so many different types of preschools. What’s the difference?” To adequately answer that question, let’s take a closer look at two prominent approaches to early childhood education and how they compare to our work at Ivy Kids.


The Montessori method:

Arguably, most familiar-sounding early childhood approach is the Montessori method. Developed in the early 1900s by Dr. Maria Montessori, her original goal was to teach independent life skills in her work with children with special needs. Many of her original tenets still exist in Montessori centers today, with their highly individualized, student-led instruction. A word of caution, however: while there are more than 5,000 centers calling themselves “Montessori” in the US, only about 20% are affiliated with 2 major accrediting organizations (Edwards, 2002). A few more markers of a Montessori center:

Multi-age classrooms
Teacher is an “unobtrusive” director as children work individually or in small groups
“Invitations to play” – environments are created to entice children to explore
Children progress at their own pace and rhythm


The Reggio-Emilia approach:

The Reggio-Emilia approach began in Italy after WWII. It was designed as a collaborative effort between educators and the community at large, although it was targeted specifically for early childhood education (Montessori schooling can extend throughout the primary years). Unlike the Montessori approach, there is no formal model, accreditation process, or teacher certification standards. Rather, they build a curriculum based collaborative, long-term projects and believe that teachers and parents co-create knowledge alongside the children. A few more indicators of a Reggio-Emilia school:

Project-based learning, thematic projects
Teacher is a “collaborative learner” alongside students
Ongoing documentation of progress
Purposive progression in curriculum, but not scope and sequence

What does that mean for us in the context of our work? Daycares became prominent in the United States around the era of WWII, when women were joining the workforce in droves while the men were fighting in the war. At the time, these centers were created out of necessity; mothers needed a “safe” place to put their children. For the most part, the significance of brain development in the early years was still an under-studied realm of research. Society hadn’t become familiar yet with the idea that the first five years could set the stage for the rest of a child’s life. There is a larger conversation that needs to be tabled for now regarding the effects that this had on the workforce in early childhood education, but this will be reserved for a later discussion. That being said, preschools have gained traction in recent decades as society has become more educated in understanding the importance of cultivating children as early as their preschool years. Parents and other advocates for early childhood education are bringing this to the forefront, which is why understanding various different approaches is more essential than ever.



The Multiple Intelligences Approach:

At Ivy Kids, we believe that Dr. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is the most ideal approach to curriculum; by providing students with a multitude of opportunities to display their strengths, we are setting them up for success as they begin their academic journey. However, there are certainly principles from older theories that we hold near and dear to the implementation of our curriculum:

Creating an environment that allows children to explore their interests
Making accommodations in our instruction to cater to students’ needs
Thematic curriculum with related projects to extend students’ thinking
Collaborative effort to co-construct knowledge by engaging students in open-ended conversations
Ongoing assessments and documentation of learning

While different early childhood education theories are most suitable for different children, we are confident that our work at Ivy Kids is conducive for all different types of learners. We welcome you to tour any of our centers to see our active learning curriculum in action!


For additional reading:




Edwards, C.P. (2002). Three approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 4(1), 1-14.