Play-Based vs. Structured Preschools

Parent Q&A

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  • My 4.5 year old son is currently at a play based preschool in Berkeley. He has a February 2018 birthday and unfortunately because dog his birthday does not qualify for pre k. I am concerned that the purely play based model will not have him academically prepared for Kindergarten in the fall of 2023. 

    I would love to hear your insight on this. Also do any of you know of preschools in the Berkeley/Albany area that offer a balance of academics and play? 

    The list at this link is quite accurate, in my experience, You will see that the academic skills are basic, things that your child can catch on to naturally by being read to and directed conversation. I really think that gross and fine motor skills and self care (tying shoes, opening lunch containers, going to the bathroom alone, holding a pencil, using scissors) are more important to know in advance than academic skills. Riding a pedal bike without training wheels, some swimming confidence, and writing their first and last name are good to get before kindergarten too because the learning process and motor functions carry over to academics.

    Hi - my daughter did play-based from ages 2 to 5.5 - like, very play-based, not even circle time, all student-led learning aka climbing trees and playing in dirt and very little academics in any form. She was naturally bright so that was part of why I wasn't concerned about her doing fine in kindergarten, but also because there seems to be a lot of research supporting play in early years and not a quick rush to academics. I also just felt like she had so many years ahead of ahead of her where academics would dominate and she just had so much fun! We of course supplemented at home so she knew her letters and letters sounds, some very basic math. She just completed her K year and she did amazing - she can mostly read, excels in math, and transitioned really well. As far as I'm concerned, K is the new pre-K and good teachers are prepared for kiddos of all levels in that year and do a good job of getting them on same page and ready for 1st grade where there things get a bit more focused. 

    My son is 4.5 and will be doing another year of play-based preschool (this one has slightly more structure, like circle times, and a bit more teacher-led activity because he definitely needs that more than my daughter) and I have no concerns about how he will do in kindergarten next year. 

    IMHO kids that young aren’t at the stage when they benefit from academic focus (things like reading and math) and lectures. I wouldn’t worry about it. Instead modeling life skills now at home will build confidence and help free up time later for academics.

    My two cents: Kindergarten readiness has less to do with academic skills and a lot to do with practical and social skills, both of which are gathered through play. Busy toddler (a former kindergarten teacher) has a great article on this. Janet Lansbury’s perspective is that play is all a child needs from 0-5 years old because that is how children (and I would argue everyone) learn. Perhaps what you are looking for is more of the structure that children will experience in kindergarten?

    All three of my kids went to play-based preschools and did fine in kindergarten - preschool is about learning to follow instructions and share and be in a group and sit still at quiet times and be away from home, which are all valuable pre-kindergarten skills. If he can do those things, he'll be able to learn whatever his kindergarten teacher is teaching him. While it's true that kindergarten is more academic than it was when we were kids, plenty of kids come in not knowing much academically and it all evens out by the end of the year. If he can recognize all his letters and write his name, he should be pretty well set and his teacher will build from there. I found that even our play-based preschools worked with the pre-k kids on letters and numbers, so yours may, too.


    Play-based education is wonderful! Playing is how children learn. Look up "Finland early childhood education" and see the wonderful results on learning by play. Read to your child, play counting and other math games and memory games with your child at home and let your child explore and make their own observations of the world around them and they will do fine! At all stages but especially in the young,  make learning fun through play and a lifelong joy of learning will move them forward. 

    Are you sure your son doesn't qualify for PreK? My understanding was that it's changing for the 2022-23 school year and all kids turning 5 by April 2023 are eligible for PreK this year. 

    I’m all for play based as long as you can. He is learning so much about attention, sharing, cooperation, and a true love of learning. Life is too short and kids are pushed too far, too fast. If you like your preschool otherwise there are always things you can do at home such as working on letter sounds, simple number and “math” games with dice, and writing capitol letters (there’s some great apps out there like Writing Wizard) but you could also follow along with the Learning Without Tears order and method which a lot of K classrooms utilize. Attending to books and listening, creativity, playing though are all such important foundational pieces and kids are pushed too soon in my opinion. 

    I don't think that there is any preschool with a real emphasis on academics. We've searched the East Bay extensively and weren't able to find any. The best option would be one of the good montessori schools, like MFS, which tend to be child-driven and teachers are willing to meat kids where they are. For most kids, a play-based model is a really good option, for the reasons mentioned in the other responses. However, there are some kids for whom the play-based model is not a good fit, because they don't find it challenging or interesting enough. I'm writing because I wanted to emphasize this point, in case you felt somewhat taken aback by the other responses. 

    Our daughter is 3 and in a mixed program that emphasizes play and academics. We love it and it’s perfect for her. Cato’s Tiny Tots is fantastic and near San Pablo Park in Berkeley. They have park days and walk with the kids to the library for story time. They emphasize the kids playing together, learning the names of other children and how to be responsible and remain in their designated play area at the park. Our daughter has not only learned how to share and established her beginning phonics (she started in sight words last week) but has also gotten better at wiping herself on the potty and eating well with a fork. They are a really impressive team and we are so grateful to have her there. They just hatched butterflies and our daughter lives to talk about their life cycle. Our 1 year old is also there and they are already focusing on color recognition with him in a play setting. They spend time with each child to understand what their current capacity is and tailor their group learning to be inclusive.  Unlike some other places, they aren’t afraid to correct a child kindly and have them do time- out. They give great behavioral and learning updates each day and always coordinate with parents to be sure we are in alignment emphasizing the same behavioral corrections when needed. They even find ways to reward the children for good behavior at home. Our daughter can explain clearly each time she has a time-out and tells us what she needs to do differently when she gets home. I can’t recommend them enough.

    Here’s their site: 

    This may not be answering your question but I wouldn’t worry about the academic part.  Whichever preschool program prepares your child socially is most important.  Once a child goes to public school- ratio of adults to kids greatly diminishes.  It’s important for kid to learn how to play and cooperate together early.  For the academic part- public school kindergarten was frankly scary how they pushed the kids with “writers workshops” and iPads.  My daughter is almost 14 now and we told the teacher she would not be doing the homework on an iPad.  Well… my kid still doesn’t have and iPad or smartphone- she reads 12 books a week no joke.  

    Kids need to play outside till at least 6th grade and beyond.  I think the over focus on academics too early leads to childhood obesity- they will never get these years back again to develop physically.  My kid avoids writing to this day because they pushed it too early. Good luck!   

Archived Q&A and Reviews



Seeking happy medium between structured and play-based

Oct 2012


My husband and I are researching preschool for my 27 month old, to start after he turns 3. It is overwhelming. We have visited a number of schools ranging from play based co-op to Montessori. However we are having a hard time figuring out what is right for our son. We get a lot of folks telling us how incredible their Montessori school is, but the ones we have seen seem very sedate and rigid in working with materials the right way and lack the sense of joy of the play based programs. On the other hand, we visited a play based co-op and it seemed like a chaotic free-for-all and totally overwhelming for my son.

I am not fond of strict philosophies in anything, and we want something that provides my son with structure and learning opportunities but doesn't limit his exploration. He is an easy going happy kid, cautious with new things, one to observe before jumping in. But he also has a strong sense of order, is extraordinarily verbal, and loves music and dance and imaginative play. I want him to be well prepared for school, but I don't want to stifle his chances to just be a kid. And I want him to engage with the outdoors and natural activity, even if he isn't the first one to jump in the mud.

Are there any recommendations for preschools in the El Cerrito/Richmond area that are a happy medium between play and structure, not especially dogmatic (I am a little wary of the hard-line Waldorf as well as the strict Montessori), and with ample outdoor areas, that we should look at? We would prefer something with a full day option and that is not a co-op, as we both work full time. My son has been in an amazing full-time family daycare since he was an infant, so he is no stranger to being away from us, playing with other kids, sitting for circle time, and other such things that many of the programs we look at seem to emphasize as brand new skills. Thank you for any leads!

I would take another look at other play-based programs. There are preschools that are just a free-for-all, of course, but plenty of others are ''structured play-based''. My son's preschool is the latter. They start with free play during the first 30 minutes (with plenty of structured activities set up at tables inside and out for those kids who prefer), and then go into a short circle time/story/check-in, followed by more free time, and then a snack, then more free time, followed by indoor clean-up (which I wish had translated at home!), a final circle time to wrap up the day's events, then lunch, followed with a goodbye story time which is followed by free play while kids wait for midday pick up... Whew! Oh, and did I mention twice a week enrichment classes (yoga, dance, music, et.). Busy little guys. Some kids stay for nap and extended care with their own afternoon schedule.

I doubt this preschool is unique in it's balance of imaginative free time and structure. Keep looking. I too found the Montessori schools too sedate and rigid for my taste, though I know lots of children who have done wonderfully there as well. However, developmentally, kids need to learn through play. So find the school your son will ''play'' best at. Love Play

I guess that my response is from yet another person telling you about how incredible their Montessori school is, but I wanted to address your particular concerns. My daughter has been at Cedar Creek Montessori School for the past year. We too toured a lot of schools with a variety of educational philosophies. We ultimately decided on Cedar Creek having found that it had the right combination of play and structure. As you have no doubt experienced, when you visit a Montessori classroom, it does tend to be on the quieter side. But you should not take that quiet to mean that the children are not having fun. The Montessori ''work'' projects are fun, despite their name. What I have seen is that there is not just one way of using each project. The children still have the ability, and are encouraged to, experiment with different ways of playing and manipulating the projects. This is evident when you watch a brand new 3 year old and a 5 year old play with the same ''work.'' They may use it in different ways and both take something away from it. What I have seen about rigidity in the Montessori classroom goes more to the rules about using one ''work'' project at a time and putting away the old one before starting a new one. For me, that self-control is something valuable for kids to learn.

The Cedar Creek students, however, do not spend all or even a majority of their day in ''formal'' Montessori mode. They have ample free time on the playground with plenty of opportunities to pretend, run around, climb, dig in the sandbox, etc. They also have an art teacher who supervises different art projects each day, with the children rotating in when they desire. There are also weekly music sessions and dance classes.

The teachers are Cedar Creek are the school's best asset. Many of them have worked at the school for a long, long time. To a person, they all understand preschoolers and what makes them tick. My daughter, who was initially shy in her new surroundings, is eager to go to school each morning. I see why since Cedar Creek is a warm, nurturing yet dynamic place. I know that you were looking for Richmond or El Cerrito. Cedar Creek is in North Berkeley, not too far away. It has the added advantage of being blocks from the North Berkeley Bart station. Happy Cedar Creek parent

We moved to the East Bay from a small town on the Oregon coast. My daughter went to a wonderful Montessori-based preschool and I wanted to find something comparable for my son. After looking around at the school in this area, we found The Berkeley School off Shattuck Ave, in Berkeley.

This is our second year with the school, and we have found they foster a good balance between curiosity-led exploration and structure. They allow the children to set the curriculum, with some direction from the two instructors. Both group and individual works are encouraged, and children can use the materials on their own or with classmates. I feel the most important parts of a Montessori education is personal choice and taking responsibility for ones own learning, and these areas are emphasized in my son's classroom. There is some structure to the day. The children have a schedule for the day's activities, and work time, nap time, outside time and lunch occur at the same time every day. There are some special activities that break up the week, like music or art-project time. My son's teachers also organize presentations during the year. We got to watch a preschool-version production of the Nutcracker in the winter, and a Vivaldi-Spring show before summer. Dancing, playing, singing (and learning some languages - we get Chinese in our classroom) are part of every day.

You mentioned a large out-door area. The Berkeley School has a lovely out-door space with a huge sandbox, a train table, and monkey-bars. (There are many other things to explore, but these are what my son talks about the most!) The Berkeley School also has full-day, extended childcare, which is great for working families. I hope you check out this amazing preschool, because you won't have to look anywhere else! Good luck in your search. Megan

I don't have any specific school recommendations, but your criteria look exactly like mine so I look forward to the other responses. My son started at a play based school not too long ago and while he is always happy to go and likes the teachers and the outdoor space, I worry he isn't getting as much as he could be out of the experience because of the chaotic atmosphere. I personally went to a Montessori school for preschool and loved it and now love to learn. I think if you find the right school the activities are really good for some kids. Like you said, perhaps not a totally rigid program would be best. Hopefully someone will recommend some of those. Now I'm left to decide whether another transition would be better than leaving him somewhere that he's happy, but could be more comfortable and getting a stronger love of learning. So good luck! It's so hard choosing; I empathize. Mom of another observer


Non-''Play-Based'' Preschool Programs in Berkeley?

August 2012


I live in South Berkeley and am starting to look for preschools for my two-year-old daughter. I had not thought much at all about educational philosophies for preschoolers (I don't particularly have one!), and it appears from looking that essentially every place I talk to has a ''play-based'' or ''emergent curriculum'' or some other such thing. (We have read so many times that a school promises not just to drill your child with letters and numbers that my husband has started joking that it is illegal to teach the ABCs in the Berkeley city limits.) I don't know that I am against a play-based curriculum, but I am curious to know what a more structured preschool curriculum might look like, if only to understand what all of these other places are defining themselves in opposition to. Can anyone recommend a good, less play-based and more traditionally structured preschool program in Berkeley? Are there any? Thanks! Confused Mother

Hi, I have no specific recommendation as my children are in a play-based program but to get you started you can consider this:

- Montessori is extremely popular here and probably the most common alternative to ''play-based''. Personally I am suspect of basing a program on theories developed a century ago, but I think the best schools here have updated some of the elements, see BPN for a list of schools, Wikipedia for a general article on Montessori.

- Reggio Emilia (see Wikipedia) is another approach, also from Italy from the same time. Many schools will tell you that they have ''an element of Reggio Emilia''.

- Waldorf

- Play-based can mean a lot of different things, most play-based schools do have quite a bit of structure and teach the kids a lot. The one where my kids go/went has circle time twice a day, regular educational walks (look at plants, animals, measure things in the environment etc.), lots of music, many themed projects (songs, art-work, games related to one thing) and the teachers do teach those kids who are interested to write the letters and sound them out and everyone learns to write their own name to sign their drawings. They have an emergent curriculum which works out really well, basically when the kids show interest in something the teachers go with that and develop it further so the kids are always enthusiastic about what they are doing.

My guess is the reason most claim to be play-based is that according the to latest research that is really the best way to go. The authority on that is right here at UC Berkeley, Alison Gopnik, see also see a very accessible article by her on preschools: Hope this helps! Anon

Both of my children have attended The Berkeley School's early childhood program. Formerly Berkeley Montessori, the school has a long and rich history of Montessori teaching. Several years ago they expanded to include other approaches, like Reggio Emilia, but the base and materials are still very Montessori.

Our daughter loved the structure of the day and activities. During 'work' time, the children are able to choose an activity and material, on their own or in a group, which can range from working with shapes and letters, preparing their own snacks, making art, to using beads and blocks to learn about numbers and math. With loving guidance from teachers, they tend to stay in an area (like shape puzzles) until they have mastered it, and then move on to increasingly more challenging works. It's so satisfying for them, and for us as parents, to see when they have figured something out and want to demonstrate.

Our son has a lot more energy and we were concerned he might not do as well in such a structured setting, but he is entering his third year there and absolutely thriving. It turns out that he loves the rhythm of the day, and is learning to sit longer with works and focus. He begs to stay in after school, so he can do more art and projects.

Both kids have learned to read, and were lucky to have teachers who are bilingual in Spanish and English. This gets rolled into their day in many ways -- from songs, counting and stories, to big celebrations on Dia de Muertos and 5 de Mayo. Other classrooms have teachers who speak other languages and similarly bring cultural traditions to daily learning.

To be sure, there is plenty of play time on the campus. There are four little houses, each with a classroom, and a big common play yard and garden. The outdoor environment is pretty magical! It is worth taking a tour to learn more, and talk to current parents. signy


Play-based vs. academic preschool

Jan 2012


We are looking at choosing between two preschools which are very different programs. We like both mainly for 1) indoor/outdoor facility 2) proximity to our house(walking distance). We are drawn to School A for the curriculum but are a little concerned about how our very active and talkative daughter will do in their relatively subdued environment. At the same time, we are concerned that play-based programs like School B will not offer her enough ''intellectual'' stimulation to be able to foster her knack for learning (at 2 1/2 she reads all the letters of the written alphabet and written numbers to 10, etc). Is there a school with a happy medium? It seems like the schools that have an ''emergent'' curriculum maintain some of that balance but I'm not sure that School B has that kind of focus even. Proximity (walking/biking distance) is vey important to us as both of us bike to work but should we be looking farther afield to find a school with this balance? Seeking a good fit

I can't comment on either of those schools, but can chime in on the play vs. academic topic. My son was reading at 2 years 3 months, full words and sentences with comprehension. We sent him to a play-based preschool with some structure (circle time, lots of art projects, a bit of cooking, etc.) They didn't do anything formally academic, but probably sneaked in some stuff that corresponded with their kindergarten ''readiness'' assessment. That was a little worksheet where they had to be able to draw shapes with lines that met, listen to directions, etc. Very similar to what our private school asked them to do at their assessment when we applied that year.

My son did great in this less-academic setting. He had so much fun playing and that's what I think preschool is for. He was never bored and always wanted to stay for their extended hours (it was a traditional morning only preschool but offered afternoon hours that were even less structured--nap/rest and play, basically.) He got lots of social time which is what he needed--he was advanced academically but socially behind.

My son was a fall birthday so ended up repeating his 2nd year of preschool, at the same school, same teachers but different kids. He loved it the second time around just as much.

Our school was Broadway Children's School in Oakland. It is not anywhere near full-time so it may not work for you. However, I think you can find a play-based preschool that will still give your child a rounded experience. Play is good for kids


Free play vs. structure at preschool

April 2004


I'm curious about how wide the range is of types of preschool whe it comes to free play vs. structured activities (circle time, games, field trips and the like.) The school we are thinking about is, we've been told, about 75% free play and 25% activities. Where is that in the spectrum of schools? Does that much free play time ever get overwhelming for kids? Is the alternative a more academic preschool? Just curious. Katie

It has been many years since my children were in preschool (my oldest is about to graduate from high school this year), but as an elementary school teacher I purposefully chose the most play-based program I could find. My kids spent their preschool years digging in the sand, swinging on rope swings, structuring their time as they chose, participating as much or as little as they wanted in structured activities. I have never regretted that decision. Children have so little time to be children, and the work of children looks like play to us, but is critical to their cognitive development. Once a child begins kindergarten, especially now in the age of high stakes testing, there is little time for play. Why begin that process sooner than is necessary? If you want to introduce structure and formalized learning for your preschooler, enroll him/her in a class at Lawrence Hall of Science, or MOCHA, or the Richmond Art Center, or Kindergym, or something of that ilk. Both of my kids are at the top of their class academically, are GATE students, learned to read before first grade, and rarely participated in ''circle time'', or any other structured activity during preschool. They were too busy playing, which was fine with me! An advocate for unhurried children


Just found out our play-based preschool doesn't provide any instruction

July 2003


We are thrilled to have our child enrolled for the fall in a play-based preschool. But, I just found out that they don't provide any instruction for academics (I had thought they provided a little).

My child is already writing her name correctly and clearly on her own. I have not been pushing her, but instead spent 2 weeks showing her the letters in her name and how to write them. She blew my mind by spelling and writing her name out when I was in another room.

We read our kids lots of books, and she now seems to be showing an interest in reading and learning how to write. We do fun preschool books together where she gets to cut, paste, trace, and write numbers. Is this enough? What else can I do to fill in the gaps academically for what she will not be learning in preschool. I'm not pushing her -- my child is drawn towards this and I'm responding to her. thanks

Your child's preschool sounds wonderful. I really don't like to see the words academic and preschool together. My son will be 4 at the end of August. He knows how to read many words, has recognized his alphabet and most numbers since before age 2, and in our opinion is a very bright little guy. I would not put him in an academic preschool. He currently attends a wonderful parent co-op, The Creative Play Center in Pleasant Hill and he loves it.

There is no concrete evidence that academic preschools, are in the long run , better for children. There is however, numerous research in favor of developmentally appropriate, play based preschools.

I was a teacher and preschool director for many years and I can assure you that most of what kids learn is obtained from home and parents. My goal is to have my children be life long learners. In my opinion, play based, developmentally appropriate preschool is the best possible place to foster this. For more information do a web search and check out the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). They have a wonderful publication entitled Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Children from Birth to Age 8, that I highly encourage you to read. There are several preschool that are accredited by NAEYC, this is always a sign of a great preschool. Good Luck! Hope this helps! Teresa

I reluctantly enrolled my daughter in to a pre-school that was totally un-academic, after moving here from Florida and having my 4 year old already starting to read! after 6 months at Daisy Child Development Center, I am surprisingly pleased. After all, how much time are we really given in life to play? Children are children for such a short time. Kindergarten through high school is their time to enter into academia....not pre-school. Take it from a reluctant mom, who feel academics are very important...............let our children play while they can, afterall, playing is an avenue for learning as well, we want our children to learn how to play nice, too, don't we??? Mama Sola

I have two children--one went to a more ''academic'' preschool and the other is currently attending a play-based preschool. At first I worried about the ''quality'' of the experience my second child would be getting and whether we were ''cheating'' her of the excellent preschool experience her brother had. I was working then and could afford the best preschool available, but now I'm staying at home full-time and can only justify the cost of a cooperative preschool. After a year at a cooperative play-based preschool I am a convert! I realize my first child is the one who missed out on a ''quality'' experience. THE most important thing your child should learn in preschool is how to play creatively with other children. This forms the basis for developing good learning habits and good relationships with other people. A couple of children in our school are like your child--very advanced academically. Yet those children still need to develop the skills of communicating with other children and being creative in their environment. You can continue to provide the academics at home--no teacher at a play-based program will frown on allowing preschoolers to learn their numbers or to start reading--it just is not the focus of the learning environment at the school. I suggest you stick with the play-based preschool and stop fretting. You have made a wise choice for your child that will serve her well in her future academic studies. Maria

Personally, I don't think academics should be ''taught'' in pre- school. Developmentally, kids still benefit from - NEED - lots of playing, exploring, pretending, trying things they think up themselves, etc. There will be more than enough time for formal academics later. If she is interested in letters, there are plenty of opportunities to learn them during play (alphabet puzzles, writing her name on her artwork, looking at the books that will undoubtedly be available to her at school, etc.). Basic math can be explored using toys, counting songs, counting and sorting objects, etc. There is really so much kids can learn that is not specifically academic in nature, but is still vital to their development. Not to mention the social side of pre-school, which can take a lot of a child's energy! I say - continue to be thrilled that your child will spend time playing, and if you feel you must, provide opportunities for more academic-type stuff at home (always optional - don't turn her off by making it a chore!). R.K.

Congratulations on your bright child! You can find out what the preschool provides and then try to supplement at home with other things your child needs. The Usborne books are very good-- inexpensive, brightly colored books for early learners and onward. Continue reading to her and allowing her to write. Encourage her to do what she wants, and don't stop just because others claim you are ''pushing her''. People often don't realize that bright children NEED stimulation and challenge, and if you don't provide it, they will become unhappy, bored, and may start acting out.

I'm afraid to say that most schools will probably never meet her needs, so you will probably spend a lot of time supplementing or may end up homeschooling. You're in for a lot of work! Just don't ever let others convince you to stifle your child... watch out for those who say, ''Let her be a child,'' or ''Why are you pushing her?''

It sounds like you know in your heart what to do. You are NOT pushing her. There are some good email lists on the web for parents of gifted children, where you can find support and excellent suggestions from other parents who are in the same situation. Try for a good start. Good luck! long-suffering parent

Your daughter sounds like she is really ready to learn. And, it sounds like she is learning lots at home. You don't say her age, so it is difficult to give a specific response. In general, however, I'd say to allow your child as much time to play as you possibly can. We turn our children into ''little school children'' far too early, IMHO. The whole essence of childhood is to enjoy life through play, wonder and exploration. If you want a school that offers more academics, why not put her there? In the meantime, since she is doing so much learning at home with you, why not let her enjoy her preschool, playing with other children, and continue her learning at home She sounds exceptionally bright. I'd say she'll be learning everywhere she goes. There's lots of time for her to get more academic, but not much to be full of wonder and fun and play. Ilene

Since you are motivated as parents to work with your daughter in reading and writing, and since she is a self-motivated academic learner, I think that a play- based preschool program is perfect for her. The ''peer'' social skill base that she'll get there is something that you cannot provide, so let her preschool environment do what they do best. Letitia