Public education in France is free, and 80 percent of children attend public schools. The remaining 20 percent largely attend private Catholic schools. Preschool is available to children two to six years old. Because preschool programs are free, nearly 100 percent of all three-year-olds attend école maternelle or preschool. These early childhood schools have a mission to help each child grow, develop independence and gain the skills necessary for future learning. The maternelle schools take advantage of the capacity of the child to imitate and invent through the pleasure of play. They instill in children a desire to learn and provide diverse experiences to enrich comprehension. The blossoming of each child happens by developing his/her strengths and talents and teaching him/her to think creatively.
Maternelle schools are sensitive to learning styles and the stages of child development. Children are divided into three sections; petite section for children starting at age two, moyenne section for children ages three and four, and grande section for children ages five and six. Although this is a multi-age program wherein some activities are conducted with the entire group, most activities are separate.