What makes an alternative school program different is immediately obvious, but not in words.
Stepping into the combined Grades 1 to 3 classroom at Liberty Prep, a Montessori school on the eastern edge of downtown Toronto, the classroom is not a classroom, not in the traditional sense.
There is the Montessori method of doing away with the desks of traditional public or private schools, and having instead tables and chairs, a sofa and rugs.
The handful of children are wearing private-school uniforms of light blues and navies, but they are sitting independently at tasks, less like children at school and more like children engrossed in activities at home.
The space is newly renovated. Union Jack throw pillows and other stylish decor pieces like those found in high-end interior design shops make the space feel even more homey. What is most apparent is the feel of the room and the quiet, individual learning going on.
"I always say to the parents that if I had one word to describe Montessori, it would be independence, and that's what you see," says the school's founder and principal Leslie Shuber.
"They [the students] are going about their school day deciding what they are going to do, what they're going to study, deciding what they are going to work with, what they're interested in," she says.
Independent schools with alternative curriculums – less bound by desk learning and often with a different philosophy of when to introduce new material – tend to give off a different feel at the early-childhood level. Though there isn't a standard definition of alternative education, some schools, such as those following the Montessori method, follow a philosophy of education set out by their founder.
Some alternative private and independent schools are religious. Some emphasize the arts. Some incorporate gardening and agriculture as part of learning. Ms. Shuber's school, which has two campuses in Toronto, follows the Montessori model of self-directed learning through specific Montessori-designed learning aids. And when walking in to a Montessori school, there is no ignoring that immediate first impression, the sense of a different kind of environment.
For instance, reading starts at a young age (often around age 4) by sounding out letters phonetically (the letter b is referred to by its sound "buh"). A child can then touch cut-out letters arranged in a tray. The letters are made from a slightly rough material, which encourages a student to touch them and trace a finger along the shape, making the learning of letters and spelling a tactile experience and less abstract.
As another example, counting and early math is learned by touching and arranging sticks and beads. Times tables are not a matter of straight memorization, but are learned by visually counting and sectioning off beads on a string.
"The whole idea behind the materials is that, as much as possible, we're making something abstract concrete," Ms. Shuber says.
"Maria Montessori believed that touch is really important to learning." She noted research indicating that children learn as much by touch and movement as other means.
Some parents may be concerned that a smaller, alternative, independent school may lack the social experience children have at a larger, mainstream school.
Yet Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, indicates that the type of family that offers their children numerous ways to build their interests (say, soccer on Mondays, violin lessons on Friday and countless creative resources in the home for every day in between) will likely raise successful children regardless of what kind of school program they attend.
"If you look at the demographics of some of these programs – I'm thinking of the holistic, alternative-school and other alternative programs at the elementary level – a lot of time the parents who have organized to provide these kinds of programs have a lot of time and cultural resources at their disposal," he says.
"So, a lot of time, students who are served by these schools are students that I sometimes like to think of as school-proof. They're students who are going to succeed regardless, because they have so many economic and cultural resources in their home environment that they're pretty much going to succeed regardless of the curriculum that you provide to them," Dr. Gaztambide-Fernandez says.
So, it is perhaps no surprise that alternative schools, such as Montessori, have proliferated and are treated almost like they are the norm in the mindset of some parents.
"Part of the reason why it has become mainstream is that parenting has changed, and a lot of the ideas around free investigation and a lot of the ideas about childhood autonomy, they were not as prevalent, say, 40 years ago. They are becoming more and more linked to a particular vision of parenting," Dr. Gaztambide-Fernandez says.
Waldorf schools, based on the pedagogical ideas of Austrian Rudolf Steiner, are another example where the classrooms and the day's activities seem less rigid, although here the approach is based more on social learning and clearly demarcated stages of childhood development.
"Many parents, when they walk into a Waldorf kindergarten or nursery classroom, they're struck by the sense of calm and the sense of aesthetic. Things are not cluttered. It's very nature based," says Peelu Hira, administrative head at the Mulberry Waldorf School in Kingston, Ont.
"In my kindergarten, during free-play time, it is truly a free-play time," says Tammy Caldwell, one of the kindergarten teachers and the school's governance chairperson (and an alumus parent, having had two children go through the school).
"Once we've established the boundaries within the classroom, the children really have a freedom to be creative to play where and with whom they wish, to build, to create. If they wish to sit quietly and look at books, or come to the table to draw a picture, there is this real sense of freedom," she added.
Regardless of the specific approach of different alternative schools' methods, parents will assess how the classroom feels, and the different degrees of free learning and different learning aids, along with a calculus of work ethic and a welcoming atmosphere.