Part 2 The École Maternelle

In this blog we pick up where we left off and go into a more detail about the école maternelle, which is the French society’s approach to helping children prepare for formal education.

In contrast to the American strategy which is to focus early childhood education on at-risk children, the école maternelle is an option for all children, and because it is a French institution of long-standing (since 1881) and highly regarded, nearly all French three to six year olds attend their local école maternelle. In high-needs areas (designated as zones d’éducation prioritaire or priority educational area), the local écoles maternelles receive additional and compensatory resources.

Where we use the word “education” to cover both the parenting (socialization, development of personality) and schooling (learning to read, do math) aspects of growing up; the French use two different words. What parents do is la éducation while schools are about scolarisation (schooling).

During the three years of the école maternelle the program moves in a continuum from where la éducation is primary with the younger children to scolarisation is emphasized with the older children as the foundations are built for a successful transition to the first year of compulsory education, l’école primaire, primary school; that is the French version of first grade.

In the parental guide (Mon enfant à la école maternelle, My child in the école maternelle), the approach to learning is described: “During the day, children are placed in a variety of activities aimed at specific learning in various fields. These activities at first are primarily in the form of games, especially with the small children; with fewer and fewer games and more directed activities with the older children.”

The children are organized into groups called workshops (ateliers) and they are frequently regrouped. The teacher bases the planning of the activities on the “cycle maternelle.” The cycle begins with playful and active exploration to more structured interactions. Click for an example.

In addition to the cycle maternelle, the teacher also attends to the “rhythms of childhood.” This is French “best practice” to “respect an equilibrium between times of activity and those of calm and repose for children.” Among the other rhythms is the need to “adapt activities to the needs of young children,” and “carefully organize the transitions between the schooling ,” and “help the children find their way around the school and to identify the adults in the school.”

All of the activities are focused on the learning of language (growing vocabulary, linking letters and sounds, listening, explaining individual understandings, listening to the understandings of others. Becoming proficient in oral language is exercised in the five specific domains of: beginning to connect oral with written language (découvrir l’écrit), living with others in a community governed by rules while being an independent individual (devinir élève); physical activity and expression (agir et s’exprimir avec son corps ; discovery of the world, which involves learning new points of view and confronting logical discourse, to give the child a taste for reasoning; (découvrir le monde), and artistic expression (percevoir, sentir, imaginer, et créer).

The French logic seems to be if children can speak clearly, they can also think clearly. ..

Formal reading instruction begins in the école primaire, although in the école maternelle, children learn their letters, the alphabetic principle, and letter sound correspondence, to form letters and write their names in cursive, they are not expected to learn to read.

The information in this blog began with the Bringing Up Bébé book and was supplemented by reading the information about the écoles maternelles on the French Ministry of Education website. Particularly interesting is the Practical Guide for Parents, My Child in the École Maternelles.


I suggest that two aspects of the école maternelle are worthy of emulation or at least consideration as South Carolina further develops its system of early childhood education. First, would it not be beneficial to include all children in the system? All children would benefit, even children from families in the middle class. According to recent data it would cost a family $15,000 dollars to put two children in a child care center. That is greater than the cost of housing the same family is already paying. Second, the commitment should be supported by a well-prepared teaching staff. Early childhood educators in the U.S. are at the bottom of the income range. The teachers in the écoles maternelles have a high level of training (French version of a master’s degree in early childhood and elementary education) as well as pay and benefits to elementary and secondary teachers in the French system.


Druckerman, Pamela. Bringing Up BéBé. New York, 2012.

French Ministry of Education Website

Guide for Parents: Mon Enfant à l’école maternelle.

Pictures 1 and 2, and 4 are from the Guide for Parents. The picture of the little girl is from the French Ministry of Education Website


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