HighScope vs Montessori: Preschool Philosophies Compared

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It’s amazing how big of a decision choosing a daycare or preschool can really be.

You want your kids in the best hands possible, but you also have to decide how and what you want them to learn.

Do you value play, imagination, and social intelligence most?

Rigorous academics?

Developing independence and confidence?

Or a fully balanced approach?

If you’re trying to choose between a daycare, pre-K, or preschool for your toddler, you might have some schools nearby that practice Montessori or HighScope.

I started this Curriculum Comparison Series to break down some of the most common early childhood education philosophies and help you decide which one might be best for you.

In this article, we’ll tackle the pros, cons, and differences between HighScope vs Montessori!

Overall, the main differences between HighScope and Montessori come down to this:

  1. Expect more structure and teacher-led instruction at HighScope
  2. Use of technology (like tablets) for learning & learning-based play is more common at HighScope
  3. Age groupings are tighter and more closely resemble traditional schooling at HighScope (age groupings are broad in Montessori schools)

(And if you’re looking for an awesome way to prepare your child for sensory-heavy preschool curriculums, check out the age-based play kits from Lovevery. They’re designed by experts to stimulate wonder and learning in young kids of every age.)

Now let’s dive a little deeper into this comparison!

What is the HighScope educational philosophy?

Curriculums like Montessori and Waldorf are well over 100 years old, but HighScope is relatively new on the scene. It was founded in 1970, based on the work of Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky.

HighScope was primarily created by David Weikart and a handful of collaborators in order to better serve at risk children.

What is the HighScope curriculum? It’s a practice built on 40 years of research that promotes independence, curiosity, and problem-solving ability through active learning.

One of the key aspects of the program is the Plan-Do-Review sequence, in which kids choose and plan activities, complete them, and then reflect on the result.

HighScope uses this and other methods to promote learning of mathematics, creative arts, science and technology, and social studies.

What does a HighScope classroom look like?

A classroom learning environment in a HighScope school should look pretty similar to most daycares or preschooles you’ve seen.

There will be lots of bright colors, inviting designs and decorations, and distinct activity and play areas.

A couple of features you’ll find in a HighScope classroom:

  • Well-defined, labeled learning spaces (blocks, sensory, art, toys, math, reading, etc.)
  • Labeled storage so children can find, use, and return items on their own
  • Comfortable surfaces like carpets, throw rugs, easy chairs, bean bags, and mats
  • Rounded corners (using pillows of hanging plants to round off corners of the room)
  • Lots of natural materials and light
  • Dramatic play and housekeeping toys
  • Large and small group areas

What do kids do in HighScope preschool?

HighScope schools and classrooms place a lot of emphasis on the daily routine.

While the general layout of the day is fairly structured, children do have lots of choice during some activity periods. Even in group time, teachers are trained to listen to and consider the ideas and choices of children.

During the day to day in a HighScope school, kids will enjoy:

  • Greeting time
  • Planning time
  • Work time
  • Cleanup time
  • Recall time
  • Large group time
  • Small group time
  • Outside time

Throughout much of this, child choice is implemented using the Plan, Do, Review system.

If a child wants to do a specific activity or has an idea for a group activity, he or she has to create a plan for it, present it to the teacher, perform the activity, and then reflect on the activity with the teacher and his or her peers.

This system is designed to help kids build confidence and learn from their decisions.

What is the Montessori educational philosophy?

Montessori has been around much longer than HighScope, with the first school opening up in Italy back in 1907.

Italian physician Maria Montessori (and collaborators) formulated a theory that children under 6 would learn best when given the chance to act and behave independently inside a prepared learning environment.

The Montessori curriculum, then, is based on allowing children to learn via play, imagination, role-playing, and hands-on activities, but with a very heavy dose of freedom and choice for each child.

Teachers in Montessori act more as guides and consultants, working with individuals and small groups rather than leading lots of class-wide activities.

What does a Montessori classroom look like?

There’s nothing hugely groundbreaking about the way Montessori classrooms are designed, and you probably won’t see a huge difference between Montessori and HighScope rooms at a glance.

One thing to note is that Montessori classrooms may be lighter on wall decoration, posters, and other hanging materials as to not distract children from the tasks at hand.

But, overall, you’ll find lots of normal daycare and preschool stuff inside a Montessori environment, like:

  • Reading areas with chairs and cushions
  • Rugs and other soft surfaces
  • A quiet reflection area (like a table with some interesting objects)
  • Mats that roll out on the floor (for individual work and space)
  • Lots of real-world items like kitchen tools & utensils, zippers, buttons & springs, and self-correcting toys and puzzles

What do kids do in Montessori preschool?

Though not a total free-for-all, a day at Montessori is heavily shaped by the independent choices of the students.

The teacher will prepare and present activities, but often kids will have freedom to choose what they work on and when. The teachers will frequently guide students individually or work with small groups rather than standing at the front of the class teaching lessons.

During the day-to-day at Montessori, preschoolers or toddlers might enjoy:

  • Puzzles
  • Arts and crafts
  • Counting and sorting beans, seeds, or other small items
  • Preparing food and snacks
  • Building gardens
  • Exploring outside
  • Free play
  • Learning letters via tactile and sensory objects

HighScope Pros and Cons

It’s not really possible to say which philosophy is ‘better’, HighScope or Montessori. But there are good and bad aspects to each that are worth considering for parents.

PRO: Some, but not full, independence

In some ways, HighScope is like Montessori-lite. There’s a lot of freedom, choice, and independence worked into the day to day schedule, but it’ll definitely be less than your child would get at a Montessori school.

If you like the idea of building confidence via independent choice, but aren’t totally willing to buy in to Montessori, this is a great curriculum that might meet you halfway.

CON: Hard to find a school

I had a lot of trouble figuring out which schools actually implement HighScope. There doesn’t seem to be a master list anywhere. And though there is a concrete HighScope accreditation schools need to get, it might be something that’s kept more behind the scenes.

(Whereas schools that follow Montessori or Waldorf often advertise this right up front.)

If you love the HighScope methodology, you might find it a little frustrating to actually find a school near you that uses it. I’d recommend contacting the HighScope folks directly.

PRO: Lots of individual attention

HighScope is a great program for kids who need the space to learn at their own pace. They’ll have the freedom to make their own choices and decisions but may receive slightly more structure and larger group work than in a Montessori school.

Remember, HighScope was initially created to help at-risk youths from poor neighborhoods succeed.

PRO / CON: Use of technology

You’ll have your own opinion on whether this is a Pro or a Con, but at HighScope, expect children to be exposed to technology at a young age, and for it to become an important part of the curriculum as they grow older.

Technology can definitely enhance engagement and learning, but if you have concerns about screen time, just be aware of this.

Montessori Pros and Cons

Montessori is an extremely popular philosophy, but it also has some detractors. It can be very successful for some kids, but it’s not for everyone.

Here are the main pros and cons:

PRO: Lots of independence and confidence-building

It’s pretty awesome when kids are able to make their own decisions and choices within a structured and prepared environment, with lots of support from their teacher or guide. There’s nothing quite as good at building confidence and independence.

HighScope offers some of this, but Montessori really goes all-in with developing these skills in early childhood.

CON: Cost and diversity

There’s no getting around it: Montessori school is usually more expensive than its competitors. It remains mostly available to upper-middle-class families, which harms its diversity.

However, public Montessori schools are on the rise!

PRO: Age-grouping reflects the real-world

This might be something you could see as a con, but many supporters of Montessori love this:

Kids in Montessori are grouped in bunches (3-6, 6-12, and 12-15 years), which gives them the opportunity to interact and learn from both younger and older kids at the same time.

CON: Too much focus on the individual?

With so much choice and independence, and so few activities that engage the whole class at once, some critics of Montessori wonder if it doesn’t hurt children’s ability to fit in as part of a larger group.

Key Differences between HighScope and Montessori

OK, so let’s just get right into what separates these two methods.

On the whole, you could say that HighScope definitely draws on and is inspired by parts of Montessori, but differences remain.

Age grouping

This is pretty simple, and you’ll have to decide what you think will work best for your child.

At HighScope (and most schools), children are grouped with peers of their own age. In Montessori schools, the age groupings are much wider, especially in the 6-12 year range.

Use of technology

In a HighScope school, expect the use of tablets and other interactive technology to become a big part of the curriculum, when age-appropriate and used for learning.

In a Montessori school, technology typically isn’t involved until children are out of the toddler years.


While both schools allow an element of choice and independence for children, the day-to-day routine at HighScope is far more structured than at Montessori.

Montessori classrooms aren’t pandemonium! They have a loose structure, but there’s far more room for improvisation and individual choice here. You can see an example Montessori daily routine here.

Wrapping Up

As I wrote above, it’s impossible for me to say whether HighScope or Montessori is better.

It all depends on you, your child, your parenting style, and your own needs as a family.

Both can be very effective and have tons of research and literature backing up their efficacy. The best thing that I could recommend would be to visit your local Montessori and HighScope schools for a tour and to meet the staff.

We’ve only scratched the surface on these two educational philosophies, but I hope this quick guide has helped. Good luck, parents!

(And don’t forget to check out the age-based play kits from Lovevery. They’re packed with sensory-rich play and learning toys for preschool kids, and they’re a great way to prep for school!