The Balanced Curriculum – Best Practices in Early Childhood Education

After a year of disrupted education, researchers are studying the long-term impact on younger children and how long it could take for them to recover both academically and social-emotionally in the classroom. Educators agree that preschool is even more essential than ever to address developmental delays and best prepare them for successful transitions to kindergarten.

We sat down with Montclare Children’s School Director Cathy Makropoulos to discuss the school’s educational philosophy and best practices for building an effective early childhood program.


Q: Covid-19 disrupted education at all levels. Can you share your thoughts on its impact on our youngest learners?

CM: Childrens’ learning environment shifted overnight. In March of 2020 we assessed the situation we were faced with and concluded that making sure to take care of children’s social-emotional needs was just as important as academic advancement. Our focus was to provide them with virtual opportunities to connect with their teachers and classmates on Zoom, for example to have snack time  together and create a space where they all had a chance to share stories. We even created smaller groups for instruction and socialization.

This academic year we were better prepared for times when we had to pivot to virtual learning. Children had remote learning packets they could use in the classroom as well as at home, and even a circle time binder they could use to follow the daily circle time activities.

Young children truly missed being in the classroom with their teachers and friends, and we were able to see the results of our efforts at the beginning of this year when we had very few tears as children said goodbye to their parents at the front door.


Q: There are so many independent preschools in New York City with very different programs. Can you explain what differentiates one early childhood program from another?

CM: The difference between programs is primarily philosophical, how each approaches teaching and how their programs work to ensure children achieve commonly adopted baseline goals.


Q: What are those baseline goals, and what is Montclare’s educational philosophy?

CM:  There are milestones to be met at each age level that include physical, gross motor, fine motor, cognitive, language, and social-emotional skills. Montclare’s philosophy is that of a balanced approach to teaching and learning. Therefore, we draw from various complementary pedagogical strategies based on a combination of best practices that enable each child to meet those milestones while providing them with the solid academic foundation and social-emotional skills they need. As a result, our program prepares them for continued achievements in kindergarten and beyond.


Q: Can you expand on Montclare’s balanced approach philosophy?

CM:  In our opinion, based on extensive research, experience, and best practices, we strongly firmly believe that the most successful early childhood education programs include a combination of structure and creativity that we, at Montclare, call a balanced approach to curriculum. It is a combination of teacher-guided instruction with individuality and creativity added in through open-ended play and exploration. A curriculum composed solely of one – academics, or of the other – free play, doesn’t support the development of the full range of tools children need to become successful students.

Early childhood programs should strive to ensure each child’s holistic success academically, socially, and emotionally. Our balanced approach to curriculum and instruction ensures the baselines and milestones we spoke of are met, and when that foundation is coupled with unstructured play, the combination provides a holistic education. Pairing teacher-guided and open-ended activities with imaginative play can deepen learning and strengthen the overall well-rounded educational experience. An equal balance of structure and creativity is vital to creating and delivering an effective early childhood curriculum.


Q: What does the teacher-guided approach look like, and how is it beneficial to students who are still so young?

CM: A teacher-guided approach allows educators to meet students at their individual level to build on each child’s strengths and expand their growth areas. Children are encouraged to build on their own observations and experiences as they engage in conversation with their teachers throughout the day. Children explore materials chosen by teachers, attuned to their interests or classroom themes, allowing specific developmental skills to be developed and assessed. Children work in small group settings where they may practice a learned skill or work cooperatively with other children.


Q: Can you provide a specific example of how this is applied at Montclare?

CM: Sure. I think our writing center offers a perfect example of how the teacher-guided approach works in practice. It begins when the teacher asks the children to “write” (draw) a story about their families. When a child finishes, the teacher may ask: “Who is in your story? What are the characters doing? What happens in the end?” By asking simple questions and listening, the teacher encourages the young writers to add detail to their stories while supporting their efforts. Then the teacher writes down their answers or perhaps video records them using an iPad.

Another example would be in the block area. Allowing children to use their imagination and creativity while a teacher asks relevant questions creates an intentional learning experience. For instance, as a child builds a block structure, the teacher may ask, “How many rooms are in the house, and how many blocks are needed to create those rooms? Which blocks can be combined to make new shapes?”

In both examples, the teacher seeks to extend the child’s thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving skills to create a meaningful learning opportunity, meeting them where they are through connections to family, routines, materials, and approach.

A teacher-guided approach doesn’t displace free thinking and exploration. Instead, it supports creativity by unlocking children’s imaginations and allowing them to build and design with intent. At the same time, children learn to cooperate and develop interpersonal skills while demonstrating language development and storytelling. Meaningful learning takes place when it is authentic and when students are engaged.


Q: What do you say to parents who believe preschool is a time for free play, the time to explore, perhaps the only time in their formal education they will have the opportunity to do so?

CM: As I mentioned, the Montclare philosophy is a balanced approach to learning, meaning free play is equally essential as teacher-guided instruction. Every childhood curriculum should be designed to inspire and cultivate creativity. Play and hands-on activities are an integral part of children’s learning. Given the space to think and react to situations in their own unique, personal ways, children take initiative, imagine, discover, investigate, design, and flourish. Engaging in open-ended play also enhances critical-thinking skills and helps children develop their sense of independence. By playing with sand or water, children become familiar with critical pre-math concepts, including mass and volume. When building with blocks, children learn cooperation, creativity, and eye-hand coordination. They also learn math skills such as patterning, counting, spatial relations, geometry, adding, subtracting, and classifying.

Open-ended play bolsters self-esteem, helps children build community with their peers, and provides them with the opportunity to learn about the importance of collaboration. It’s a fundamental component of their social-emotional growth.

As George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

At Montclare, It is not a matter of choosing one at the expense of the other, but rather both teacher-guided instruction and open-ended play combine to support the other. In our opinion, the best preparation for kindergarten demands a balance. Our excellent track record on exmissions and our Montclare graduates’ performance as they advance their educational journey is evidence that a balanced approach to curriculum and instruction provides a solid foundation for future success.