Think Outside the Sandbox

Preschools’ Educational Philosophies: a Guide

Sorting out the schools of thought

By Catherine Matusow and Katharine Shilcutt November 3, 2014 Published in the November 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Ryan Snook

Approach: Montessori 

Founded When/Where/By Whom:
Maria Montessori, in Rome, Italy, in 1907

Educational Philosophy: “When it’s time to have a snack, they serve themselves,” says Nahla Nasser, lower and middle school principal at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. “When they’re done, they clean, they pick up the dishes, they rinse them, and they put them in the dishwasher.” Children use “sensorial materials” such as blocks, boxes of fabric, cups, and colored cylinders, and they learn to bake bread from scratch. “It’s a multi-sensory approach to education—all the senses are being drawn to learning.”

Toy Policy: “During the work time, the children are not playing with toys,” says Nasser. “We always find things to encourage creativity. We ask parents not to send toys to school.”

Fun Fact: Among many other activities, St. Stephen’s hosts an annual Teddy Bear Picnic, in which children read teddy bear stories, make teddy bear masks, bring their own teddy bears to school, and host a picnic on the playground with their parents.

Local Examples: St. Stephen’s Episcopal School,; The Post Oak School,; School of the Woods,; Sherwood Forest Montessori,

Approach: Reggio Emilia 

Founded When/Where/By Whom: 
Loris Malaguzzi, in Reggio Emilia, Italy, after World War II 

Educational Philosophy: “We believe all children are capable and competent,” says Linda Draper, founder of Blossom Heights Child Development Center in Woodlake/Briar Meadow, “and that the children have the ability to direct their own learning. We know that children come out of the womb as learners. Every discovery is new. We’re not going to tell them the facts about their discovery; instead we’re going to guide their learning.”

Toy Policy: No mass-marketed Disney or superhero toys; otherwise, they’re fair game. “Little people and animals enhance the imagination,” says Draper. Kids play with puzzles and even a makeshift beauty shop complete with curling irons. (“We don’t plug them in,” she laughs.) 

Fun Fact: The Blossom Heights property features all kinds of fruit trees (peach, apple, loquat, kumquat, lime, lemon, pear, pomegranate, and fig) and gardens that attract butterflies. “We’ve set up environs so children can learn about lifecycles on their own,” she says. “Today they discovered mating walking stick bugs. The children watched this fascinating little tiny male and this great big female, and he won’t get off her back because when he does she’s going to eat him.” 

Local Examples: Blossom Heights,; Little Wonders Learning Center,; St. Francis Episcopal Day School,

Approach: Waldorf 

Founded When/Where/By Whom:
Rudolf Steiner, in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919

Educational Philosophy: “We have an artistic approach to academic excellence,” says Dorothy Ogle, director of Shining Star School in Spring Branch. “The children paint, they do sculpting, they do hand work—they all learn how to knit, and they learn to cut patterns. They grow up to be creative and chart their own way.”

Toy Policy: “Nothing is ready-made; nothing is an educational toy,” says Ogle. “I think what happens is our children are given so many ready-made toys that their imaginations and creativity don’t develop. We have appropriate toys—we have things for them to play with that allow them to be creative and use their imagination. They will take very simple things like blocks and build different things. They might also take those blocks and make a meal.”

Fun Fact: Children take regular nature walks through a large garden—which even includes a labyrinth—on the grounds of the adjacent Unitarian Fellowship of Houston.

Local Example: Shining Star School,

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