Although many early childhood educational approaches overlap, preschool curricula are generally either play-based or academic. Understanding the differences between these teaching methods can help you find the program that best suits your preschool’s and community’s needs. We took a look at the differences of HighScope vs Academic educational philosophies.



HighScope is an educational approach that emphasizes “active participatory learning.” It’s used in many public, HeadStart, and community preschools in places like YMCAs and ministry centers.

HighScope is not simply play-based or academic. It’s a comprehensive educational approach that helps children develop in all areas. Children’s choices, ideas, and interests are at the core of this program. Students have hands-on experiences with objects, ideas, people, and events, which allows them to build their own knowledge and awareness through interaction and c

onnection with the world around them.

Children initiate the learning process through investigation and discovery, make choices and plans, and then follow through with their plans. The role of teachers is to offer support for these decisions and help children expand their thinking and development with a variety of materials and interactions.

Some of the aims of the HighScope approach include:

  • Providing opportunities for children to advance their knowledge and skills in important academic, social, and physical areas
  • Learning through active involvement with materials, events, people, and ideas
  • Allowing children to plan many of their own activities, follow through on them, and discuss what they’ve discovered, accomplished, and learned
  • Helping children become independent, responsible, and confident so they are ready for school and life

The role of HighScope teachers

HighScope-vs-Academic-teacherHighScope uses the term scaffolding to describe the process in which teachers support and spur children’s thinking and cognitive reasoning. Scaffolding was coined by developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner and is based on the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky. The idea behind scaffolding is that children should be self-assured and confident in what they have learned before moving to the next level of a subject or activity.

HighScope teachers carefully observe children to determine the appropriate time to gently encourage them to advance their thinking. This allows children to increasingly gain knowledge and develop creative problem-solving skills.

Teachers act as partners in the learning process by sharing control with the children, concentrating on their strengths, forming authentic relationships, encouraging play ideas, and helping them resolve conflict. Teachers also provide carefully planned experiences in reading, math, and science. They respect children and their choices, and encourage ingenuity, independence, creativity, and social development.

The HighScope classroom

HighScope-vs-Academic-playThe HighScope classroom is warm and welcoming, and encourages many different types of play and learning. Space and materials are carefully chosen and arranged to promote active learning and reflect the diversity of children’s family lives. The classroom space is flexible so children can easily extend play and take materials from one area to another.

HighScope classrooms follow a predictable daily routine that includes:

  • Plan-do review time, which includes a small-group time during which children plan what they want to do during work time. Work time is for pursuing those activities that interest them. As they become more engaged, their plans may shift or even change entirely. Then there is another small-group time for reviewing and talking about what they’ve done and learned.
  • Small-group time allows children to experiment with materials and solve problems. Although teachers choose a small-group activity to emphasize particular content areas, children are free to use the materials in any way they want during this time.
  • Large-group time builds a sense of community. Children and teachers come together for music, movement, storytelling, and other shared experiences.
  • Outdoor time allows children to spend at least 30 minutes outside each day, enjoying energetic play and fresh air. Collecting rocks, gardening, observing wildlife, and other activities are also part of outdoor play.
  • Eating and resting give kids the chance to enjoy eating healthy food in a social setting and create a sense of community. Rest time is for quiet, solitary activities.
  • Transitions are the periods between structured parts of the day; including arrival and departure times. A consistent daily routine helps children remember what takes place next, and many students announce the next activity and initiate transitions.

Academic Preschool Programs

Academic programs are often didactic and teacher-directed, which means that children have more limited choices in the type and method of learning. In academic classrooms, teachers typically lead in a very structured way, planning and organizing activities and then guiding the children through them. Academic programs are more about outcome, and are aimed at preparing kids for kindergarten setting and beyond.

The Academic classroom

Classroom time is mostly dedicated to learning letters, sounds, numbers, shapes, and colors; and other skill-driven activities such as telling time, learning drills, and worksheets. Letters, numbers, shapes, and colors are posted all around the classroom. Children spend a good amount of their day sitting and writing letters, words, and numbers.

STEAM, which is an approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Math to encourage student inquiry and critical thinking skills, has become very popular in academic classrooms.

Regardless of whether a curriculum play-based, academically-based, or a combination of both, the preschool years are a vital time to learn social, emotional, and academic skills that will enhance a child’s educational experience later on. Engaging and stimulating intellectual curiosity, fostering a love of learning, and helping children develop their social skills gives them a solid foundation for further success in life.

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