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By Lora Shinn

What does it mean when a preschool administrator tells you the school is Montessori? Can a school be academic, faith-based and play-based all at the same time? Here's a handy cheat sheet tothe educational philosophies if you're new to the preschool-visit circuit. Take a look – you may find an approach you never knew existed.

A is for Academic: Worried about your kid keeping up in Kindergarten? Academic preschools offer an extra helping of reading, writing and arithmetic for a brainy boost. Academic options help prepare children for a rigorous elementary education with worksheets, hands-on learning and drills.

C is for Co-op: Co-op preschools flourish throughout the U.S. Most co-op preschools have a teacher, but parents are expected (not just politely requested) to pitch in. In a co-op, parents assist during the classroom day, organize school projects and even assemble the next day crafts.

D is for Democratic: The democratic (also called Sudbury) vision puts kids in the driver's seat – and adults only guide when asked. No curriculum or classes, but kids participate in the school's rules-related meetings and self-initiate their education. Preschoolers may learn alongside scholars of all ages.

F is for Faith-Based: Jewish, Catholic, Christian and Muslim preschools welcome kids of all faiths to their schools – as long as you're cool with a little religious education in your child's day. Most schools' philosophies are blended with one of the educational philosophies listed here (an academic Christian or Reggio Emilia Jewish preschool.)

G is for Gifted: If your child was reading at age 3 and multiplying shortly thereafter, you may want to investigate a preschool for the gifted child. A high IQ test score is typically required at these schools. Gifted schools focus on boosting capabilities while also nurturing lesser-developed talents.

H is for Homeschool: Homeschooling parents may use another approach listed here (i.e. Waldorf-inspired homeschooling) or teach in an organic way (kids find out about butterflies and banjos via experience, mom's knowledge or their local library.) Kids go on multi-age group field trips with other homeschoolers and meet for park days.

L is for Language Immersion: Hola, amigo! Language-immersion preschools teach kids to count to 10 in Spanish or French, Japanese or German, and say merci (or gracias) at snack time. The schools resemble a typical play-based preschool, except for that no-speaking-English rule – as a result, kids often pick up new vocabulary in a snap.

M is for Montessori: Maria Montessori, a 20th-century Italian educator, noticed that children were fascinated by adult duties – cooking, counting, sorting, reading and other practical skills. So in aMontessori classroom, children are offered "works," such as learning to sew, making snacks or counting to 1,000 with glass beads.

N is for Nature Based: These schools don't care about anyone raining on their parade – or playground, for that matter. Nature-based preschools get the kids outside, no matter the weather or the season, and encourage them to splash in puddles, count twigs and study a snail's slimy habits.

P is for Play-Based: A play-based (or "developmental") preschool is the standard experience many of us remember. Look, there's the dress-up corner, the puzzle area, the book nook and the blocks. Social skills take center stage at many play-based preschools; the creative play encourages sharing, turn-taking and negotiations.

R is for Reggio Emilia: Reggio Emilia-inspired schools focus on art, the child's learning process, social negotiations and integration of family into the school day. In a Reggio school, you'll see exploratory, open-ended group projects – preschoolers could make an amusement park for ants or document 50 uses for a pile of sticks.

S is for Special Needs: Special education preschools – often offered by a public school district – offer services to the physically or developmentally challenged child. "Typically developing" children help coach and model for special education students, while also benefiting from low teacher-student ratios.

W is for Waldorf: A Waldorf preschool approach offers a homelike environment, observation of the year's rhythms and seasons and a hands-on approach to cooking, crafts and music. Songs and fairytale story times are integral to the Waldorf experience, as are the nature-infused curriculum and play materials.

While Lora Shinn works as a freelance writer, her son happily attends a basement-level, play-based preschool run by two fun-loving moms.

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