Waldorf vs Montessori: Preschool Philosophies Compared

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Choosing a daycare or preschool feels like one of the biggest decisions you’ll ever make.

In some ways, it is!

You’re putting your toddler’s well-being and academic future in the hands of others. It’s a nerve-wracking and overwhelming proposition, to say the least.

Beyond that, there are SO many choices and philosophies out there. How do you know which early childhood education philosophy is right for your kid?

In this Curriculum Comparison series, I’m going to do my best to break them all down for you and give you the information you need to make the right decision for your family.

In this article, we’ll go into Waldorf vs Montessori.

Overall, the differences between Waldorf and Montessori come down to these:

  1. Waldorf features more teacher-led instruction vs Montessori which emphasizes child independence
  2. Waldorf holds off longer before introducing academics, allowing children to learn through socialization and imagination for longer than Montessori
  3. And Montessori encourages learning through play grounded in reality and mimicking real-life activities, whereas Waldorf encourages a higher level of fantasy and pretend

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Now let’s dive a little deeper into this comparison!

What is the Waldorf educational philosophy?

The first Waldorf school (or Steiner education school) opened in 1919 in Germany, and was based on the work and teachings of Rudolf Steiner.

At its core, the Waldorf philosophy believes that imaginative play is the key to early childhood education.

Academics (reading, writing, and math) are delayed until age 7 or so in Waldorf, however, its practitioners believe that a play-based approach plants the seeds for better creative and critical thinking later in life.

“The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility — these are the three forces which are the very nerve of education.”

Rudolf Steiner

What does a Waldorf classroom look like?

A Waldorf classroom is filled with natural materials and household (or mock household) items, like:

  • Gardening tools
  • Construction tools
  • Kitchen tools
  • Wooden blocks
  • Dolls and puppets

The design of the room, and the materials used, are likely to be simplistic, stripped down, and uncomplicated. You won’t find the walls covered with posters, maps, and bright colors.

The room will likely be warm and cozy, with lots of natural light, but simplistic enough to allow kids to fully focus on projecting their imagination on their environment.

What do kids do in Waldorf preschool?

Kids in Waldorf schools are given tons of opportunities to flex and strengthen their imaginations while building strong social skills with the other children in the class.

A lot of that freedom comes within several different kids of structured, teacher-led activities throughout the day:

  • Free play
  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Songs & musical games
  • Practical household tasks (like cooking)
  • Outdoors time
  • Group meals

Kids in Waldorf, especially at the younger levels like preschool, will have little to no time with screens (computers, tablets, television) during the day.

Preschool-aged children in Waldorf schools will spend little or no time tackling written tasks, reading, or math until around age 7.

What is the Montessori educational philosophy?

The first Montessori school opened in 1907, founded by Maria Montessori. Later, she joined forces with Leopoldo Franchetti and together they created the foundations of modern Montessori education.

Montessori schools also have a strong focus on imagination and play, but encourage more independence and liberty in young children to prepare them for real-world situations.

Unlike Waldorf, Montessori schools will usually introduce reading, writing, and math at younger ages (around preschool), albeit usually with tactical and fun methods that are meant to inspire a love of learning in the kids.

What does a Montessori classroom look like?

Montessori classrooms are similar to Waldorf spaces in a few ways.

For starters, they are simple, naturally-lit, and not heavily adorned. There’s a lot of room in these spaces for children to explore, move around, and let their imaginations run wild.

You’ll find lots of structured spaces that children can move between at their will, like:

  • A reading nook with a couch or cushions
  • A quiet or reflective area
  • Areas for interactive activities
  • Roll out mats as individual workspaces

You’ll also find lots of toys and materials that reflect real-world items:

  • Kitchen tools & utensils
  • Zippers, buttons, strings for tying
  • Self-correcting toys and puzzles

What do kids do in a Montessori preschool?

Montessori schools focus on self-led learning and activities (meaning, kids often choose what and when to work on something).

Some popular Montessori preschool activities are:

  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Arts & crafts
  • Counting & sorting with beans or seeds
  • Using kitchen utensils to prepare lunch or snacks
  • Learning letters with sandpaper cutouts
  • Free play
  • Outdoors time

The teacher’s role in all of this is guide and consultant. They can demonstrate activities and manipulate the environment for learning, but there are few whole-group lessons and a lot more one-on-one or one-on-few conversations.

Waldorf Pros and Cons

Let’s get into the things some parents and researchers like (and a few they don’t) about the Waldorf method:

(Note: Some of these can be viewed as either Pros or Cons depending on your viewpoint!)

PRO: “Looping” or staying with one teacher for many years

This develops a deep bond between student, teacher, and even parent.

The teacher really gets to know the child on a deeper level and can tailor the learning approach to them specifically over the course of a long period of time.

CON: Delayed academics

While Waldorf ideally helps your child learn more quickly and effectively when they become older (because of their strong foundation in creativity and socialization), not everyone will love putting off reading, writing, and math until age 7.

The slow development of reading skills, in particular, is of concern to some parents.

PRO: Holistic development

While your child might not have strong reading and math scores early on, Waldorf should ideally strengthen their ability to relate and empathize with others, treat those around them with respect, and take great joy in life.

You could easily argue that those are much more important traits, and that Waldorf encourages kids to truly be kids.

CON: Expensive & lack of diversity

The cost of private Waldorf schools can be prohibitive and often cuts down on diversity in the classroom.

PRO: Heavy emphasis on the arts

Kids in Waldorf do almost exclusively art, music, and crafting activities for their first few years of school.

It’s pretty much widely agreed that most public and private schools today have a critical lack of arts education, with arts and music being the first things to go to make room for more academics.

If you believe in the power of arts education, Waldorf may be very appealing.

CONS: Spirituality

While not “religious,” many Waldorf schools are infused with spirituality and new age ideas about the human condition. Some do use the word Christ, though not in a Christian sense, to refer to a state of human ideals.

Not all parents are totally comfortable with this spirituality in the day-to-day at school.

Montessori Pros and Cons

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of choosing a Montessori preschool or kindergarten.

PRO: Hands-on education

This is partly true of Waldorf, but even moreso in Montessori: Children get an opportunity to learn real-world skills, which many seem to deeply enjoy.

Montessori kids will cook, clean, and build things. Even academic learning is usually rooted in a hands-on approach: feeling sandpaper letters or counting beans.

CON: Expensive

Like Waldorf schools, Montessori schools are private and often quite costly.

If Waldorf and Montessori both sound like innovative and exciting options to you, get ready to open up the wallet or enroll in financial aid.

PRO: Develops independence and confidence

Many of us parents have an innate urge to hover over our kids, help them with everything, and protect them from the world.

Montessori schools encourage children to make their own decisions and can foster amazing confidence in young kids along the way.

CON: Not always a balanced education

Allowing kids to choose what and when they learn can help them grow to LOVE learning, but it can also skew their balance of skills and knowledge.

Kids who love counting may neglect practicing their language skills and vice versa without solid teacher intervention.

PRO: Individualized, not standardized

There is no standard, quantitive grading system in Montessori. Instead, children are evaluated based on their own individual needs and how they’re progressing from a qualitative standpoint.

(To some parents, this lack of a competitive aspect is a concern.)

CON: Relationships and socialization can be an afterthought

If a child in Montessori chooses to work primarily on his or her own, or in the same small group repeatedly, they may miss out on a chance to form broader relationships through “forced” group work.

Key Differences between Waldorf and Montessori

These two philosophies actually have a lot in common, in that they both put a strong emphasis on play and imagination.

Play is the work of children, according to both Waldorf and Montessori.

However, the curriculums and methods of these two schools of thought differ in a few important ways.

Child independence

In Waldorf schools, the teacher leads group activities throughout the day. Children have a lot of freedom in how activities are performed and are encouraged to let their imaginations roam.

But most activities are done in a large group setting and the teacher will guide the structure of the day.

In Montessori, children have a lot more freedom regarding what activities to do, what to work on, and even when to eat their meals.

Introduction to academic subjects

Waldorf introduces traditional academics to children much later. In the Waldorf system, children will focus mostly on play, socialization, imagination, arts, and music until age 7 or so.

Montessori also encourages play and imagination in children, but begins offering them the opportunity to perform real “work” much earlier; be that studying reading and math lessons or learning to cook, clean, and care for themselves and their environment.

Age grouping

In Waldorf schools, children learn besides other kids their own age and move up in classrooms together. Ideally, their original teacher will move up with them and stay with them for years at a time.

Montessori schools group kids in wider age ranges (3-6 years, 6-12 years, and 12-15 years) to more closely mimic real-life social situations.

Fantasy vs reality

Waldorf schools encourage imagination to the point of wild fantasy. There’s lots of storytelling, pretending, fairies, and other sorts of fantastical elements woven into the curriculum.

Montessori, while it encourages imagination and play, as well, likes to keep kids grounded in reality (mimicking real-world activities like building and cooking, for example) until they are old enough to understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

Wrapping Up

I’m not qualified to say which is better, Waldorf or Montessori. It all depends on your lifestyle, parenting style, your values, and ultimately, your child.

Both programs have been around for over a hundred years and have tons of research and analysis behind their methods.

Both have parents, former students, and researchers who swear by them. And both have fierce critics and opponents.

I love the idea of allowing kids to be kids and explore the world through play and imagination. Both philosophies take this to heart, they just execute the vision a little bit differently.

I’d encourage you to tour your local Montessori and Waldorf schools to ask more questions and make a better decision, but I hope this short primer and comparison has helped.

Best of luck, parents!

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