A guide to early childhood education methods

As our babies develop into toddlers and then kids, it becomes blatantly obvious that their brains are soaking up a lot already – 90% of their brain development actually occurs in the first five years. So their education journey starts well before they rock up to their first day of school in their floppy hats and too-big school bags (adorbs). 

Whether you’re about to enrol your child in daycare and want to get them off to a good start, or you’re starting to think about what school you’ll send them to already, it’s never too early to think about what educational approach you want for your mini genius.

To help, we’re going to take a look at some of the main early childhood education philosophies you’ll find in Australian daycares and schools. You’re welcome.

Play-based vs academic learning

Let’s start by looking at the difference between a play-based approach to childhood development and an academic approach.

In a nutshell, an academic approach is focused on working to a set curriculum and developing skills in maths, writing, reading and science. At a preschool level, it’s about prepping kids for actual school, where they’ll sit at desks and listen to lessons – probably like you experienced when you went to school. But minus blackboards, because those are a thing of the past. (#technology)

Play-based learning is more free-form, and allows kids to roam about and choose what sort of activities they want to do. A lot of daycares and preschools in Australia take a play-based approach, but in other cultures there’s more of a focus on academic learning, even from toddler age.

A lot of the main education approaches these days tend to fall somewhere between academic and play-based. 

Let’s take a look at three of the most popular philosophies.


Montessori has a bit of a cult following these days. This philosophy focuses on introducing academic subjects like maths and science through sensory and self-directed learning. Real world experiences are emphasised, so kids learn practical skills like how to use scissors and prepare food. The goal is to create well-rounded kids by allowing their intellectual, physical, emotional and social development to unfold naturally. It’s a really holistic approach to their development.

Key things to note about Montessori education:

  • Classes are multi-age (i.e. 3-year-olds with 6-year-olds).
  • Teachers act as ‘guides’, assisting kids with activities they choose to do.
  • Learning is hands-on, and kids use practical tools like cooking utensils, gardening tools, pouring instruments, scissors and paper to develop their motor skills.
  • Classrooms are carefully designed, with certain areas of the room structured for certain activities. They’re colourful and pretty AF, to be frank.
  • There’s more of an academic vibe to Montessori.
  • Unlike traditional education methods, kids learn at their own pace. This usually makes Montessori suited to gifted or special needs students.
  • Montessori can be applied at preschool level, but has also been used in primary and high school… and some studies have even shown it’s effective with Alzheimer’s patients. How cool?!


The Steiner (or Waldorf) method falls clearly under play-based learning. While hands-on learning is encouraged, like with Montessori, there’s a strong focus on creative and imaginative play. Kids are constantly immersed in fun activities like arts, crafts, music and dance. There’s a predictable set routine, with certain days allocated for certain activities like cooking or gardening.

Key things to note about Steiner education:

  • Like Montessori, classes are multi-age.
  • Teachers work with kids based on their unique gifts and challenges.
  • Timing is considered key. Teachers observe and identify when to introduce new concepts and knowledge to each child when they’re ready.
  • Imagination and fantasy are encouraged.
  • Academic subjects like science and maths are thought to be necessary, but not enjoyable. (We agree on the maths front.) They aren’t introduced until kids are older, at around seven years old.
  • Days are often filled with creative play, music and arts.
  • Steiner is more play-based than Montessori or Reggio Emilia.
  • While classrooms aren’t as carefully structured as Montessori, they’re still designed to be fun and engaging.

Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia encourages children to learn and research things that they’re specifically interested in. So activities are based around unique interest areas, rather than a set curriculum. This makes the experience quite different from child to child, and really drives home that not all kids learn in the same way. (Duh.)

Key things to note about Reggio Emilia education:

  • Learning is open-ended. Teachers have to go with the flow rather than sticking to set lessons.
  • Reggio Emilia is designed primarily for preschools and kindergartens.
  • Classrooms are set up with interesting materials and activities to promote interaction and problem solving.
  • Teachers are seen as researchers and role models. Rather than giving kids answers to questions, they encourage them to explore topics and discover solutions on their own.
  • While play is a key part of the learning process, it’s not as much of a focus as it is with the Waldorf method.
  • Documentation is a big part of Reggio Emilia. Teachers take photos and videos of children at work, and kids’ work is displayed in classrooms so that they can see their own progress.

How to decide on a daycare, preschool or primary school

Different education providers will adopt different approaches to early childhood education. You can put a LOT of effort into deciding where you’d like to send your child. Scouring websites for mission statements and learning policies can give you insight into how the daycare, preschool or primary school approaches learning. 

But remember, educational outcomes aren’t the only thing that matter. Your child will get a lot out of just being among other kids and adults. You can always influence their development by adopting some childhood development philosophies at home, too.

So do your research, but also take into account the vibes you get from an early learning centre. Vibes count for a lot!

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