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Montessori versus Waldorf: What’s the Difference?

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Both Montessori and Waldorf schools offer a respectful and accepting environment to students of all abilities, but the resources available to a child with special needs will depend on the particular schools in your area. You may need to check with each school you’re considering to be sure they will meet your family’s needs.

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Montessori and Waldorf schools are two of the most popular alternatives to traditional public and private schools. They have many similarities, including an emphasis on educating the whole child and respecting each child’s unique needs. However, they are very different in some essential and surprising ways.

The difference between Montessori and Waldorf is that Waldorf schools focus on cultivating imagination and creativity, where Montessori schools tend to discourage imaginative play and focus on developing practical and academic skills.

This is an oversimplification, of course. The differences between these two educational philosophies are a bit more complex. Let’s take a closer look at each philosophy, their similarities and differences, and which one is the better choice for your child and family.

What is Montessori?

The Montessori educational philosophy was created by Italian Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. She took a scientific approach to pedagogy, and her observations are the heart of what has become the Montessori philosophy.

Montessori noticed that children who were offered opportunities to engage in practical and hands-on activities like sweeping, sewing, writing, or using manipulates to explore math, eagerly took advantage of that opportunity. She capitalized on this eagerness in her classroom to cultivate a student-led learning environment.

The guiding principle of the Montessori philosophy is that children thrive in an environment where they can complete things independently and learn at their own pace and by their own direction.

What is Waldorf?

The Waldorf educational philosophy was created by German Rudolf Steiner in the 1900s, just like the Montessori philosophy. Steiner was also a scientist (among many other things), but he noticed that children who had a firm foundation in imagination and creativity grew to be interested and dedicated learners.

Waldorf’s guiding principle is that imagination and creativity are the foundation of all future learning. Fostering a life-long love of learning is one of the most important aims of a Waldorf teacher.

What are the Similarities Between Montessori and Waldorf?

At first glance at these descriptions, you might think that these educational philosophies wouldn’t have much in common, but they do. In fact, they have so many things in common that people who have never experienced either type sometimes confuse one for the other.

Both Montessori and Waldorf Teach the Whole Child

In both philosophies, there is an emphasis on teaching the whole child, which means that they believe in teaching all aspects of the child. Academics are still important, but emphasis is placed on the child’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development.

Montessori has its own way of breaking down the areas that should be taught to develop the whole child:

  • Practical Life – practical life skills are taught to give children confidence and independence.
  • Sensorial Development – Children are encouraged to engage in sensory experiences and practice using their senses.
  • Academic subjects – the academic subjects you would expect are also taught to students as they are ready for them.
  • Cultural studies – learning about world cultures teaches children to be respectful of diversity and differences.

In Waldorf’s philosophy, educators teach the “hands, hearts, and heads.” Here is what they mean by this:

  • Hands—the physical development of the child, main focus in early childhood
  • Hearts—the emotional development of the child, main focus in elementary years
  • Heads—the intellectual development of the child, main focus in secondary years

Each of these is explored at every age, but as you can see, certain ages focus on a different one. There is no set method of developing these areas that a teacher must follow.

While the terminology may be different, the results are much the same. Teachers in Montessori and Waldorf settings both respect and respond to the needs of a child and aim to help them develop in all areas of their life.

Waldorf and Montessori Offer Individualized Education Experiences

Teaching the whole child means that both Montessori and Waldorf are respectful and responsive to each learner’s needs, which results in an individualized education.

In Montessori schools, learning is led by the student and, therefore, is tailored to their unique needs and interests. During the work cycle, they can select any activity that they want. It is generally accepted that a child will pick a variety of work to practice and more challenging work over the course of a work hour without being told what to do.

In Waldorf schools, each school and each teacher in that school has a lot of leeway in terms of the subjects they teach and how they teach them. The needs of each class and each student are taken into account.

As children reach higher grades, the level of autonomy is increased, and the subjects they can pursue are varied. For example, in a Waldorf high school, students can choose from a variety of classes like astronomy, American literature, Chemistry, woodworking. These are usually more focused studies than what you would find in a typical high school.

The classes are still teacher-led, but students usually have more control over the types of classes they take.

Montessori and Waldorf Both Include Practical Craft Activities

When we say crafts, we don’t mean the kind of crafts you see in most elementary classrooms today. We aren’t talking about houses made out of craft sticks or flowers cut from construction paper. You might see these simple art and crafts as well, but what we’re talking about in this section are highly practical crafts where the student leaves a project with a useable item.

Here are some examples of the kinds of crafts you’ll find in both Waldorf and Montessori:

  • Sewing
  • Knitting
  • Weaving
  • Woodworking

You may also see gardening and cooking in both Montessori and Waldorf classrooms as well, which are a kind of practical craft of their own. These kinds of crafts are a hallmark of many educational philosophies of the time (like Charlotte Mason).

Montessori and Waldorf Put Importance on Nature and Natural Materials

Both philosophies encourage children to explore and enjoy nature, and both include natural materials in their classroom environment.

In Montessori, this is often part of the sensorial activities. Montessori students explore nature using their senses inside and outside the classroom. Natural materials are often used to make materials for the classroom.

In Waldorf, students study nature by entering it regularly, but nature is also brought into the classroom as nature tables, decor, and items to study. Natural materials are treasured. You’d be hard-pressed to find a plastic item in a Waldorf classroom that didn’t have a natural equivalent.

Writing is Taught Before Reading

Both Montessori and Waldorf schools teach children how to write letters before teaching them how to read. They believe it is a more natural way of learning to read, and both have success with the method.

However, the age at which they introduce these skills is vastly different, as you’ll see later in this article.

The Classroom Should Have a Calm Environment

Most teachers prefer a calm classroom, but Montessori and Waldorf teachers believe that the best way for children to learn is in a calm, considerate environment.

In both, the teacher is expected to model appropriate behavior and calmness, but in Waldorf, this is a more active role than in Montessori. This is because a Montessori teacher is seen as an observer, while the Waldorf teacher is a guide.

However, the age at which they introduce these skills is vastly different, as you’ll see later in this article.

The Classroom Should Have a Calm Environment

Most teachers prefer a calm classroom, but Montessori and Waldorf teachers believe that the best way for children to learn is in a calm, considerate environment.

Modern Technology is Avoided in Montessori and Waldorf Schools

Waldorf and Montessori schools both avoid introducing technology into the classroom, especially at early ages. This is because they feel modern technology like TV and cellphones stifle the creativity and curiosity of learners.

Most Waldorf schools seem to be a little more strict about this, but it will vary from school to school.

Similarities Between the Founders

Some of these similarities may be rooted in the fact that the founders, Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, have some similarities between them, including:

  • They founded their philosophies during the Progressive Era.
  • They are both European.
  • They considered themselves scientists, although Montessori was a physician, and Steiner had a variety of other interests.
  • Their founding schools were intended for economically disadvantaged children.

That is where the similarities between these two philosophies end. It is interesting to see how two people doing very similar things can come away with such different takes on the needs of children. Let’s take a look at some of these differences.

What’s the Difference Between Montessori and Waldorf?

Montessori and Waldorf schools are often lumped together because of their similarities, but they are quite different when you take a closer look.

Practical Activities vs. Imaginative Play

This is one of the big ones. The different stance on imaginative play is the biggest difference a parent will note when observing both classrooms, and it is one of the biggest things they have to consider when choosing which school is a good fit for their child and their family.

Montessori schools do not encourage imaginative play, so there aren’t a lot of pretend play items in the classroom. This is because Maria Montessori found that most students preferred real work over imaginative play. For example, most Montessori preschool classrooms do not include play kitchens. Instead, children may have access to materials to make an actual snack on their own or set up for their lunch.

Let it be clear that this does not mean that Montessori schools are without opportunities to do and make and create. They do have them. And teachers will not stop a child who is engaging in imaginary play (although they may nudge them toward a corresponding real-life activity that they might like). It is just a matter of what is emphasized and encouraged.

Waldorf schools, on the other hand, are all about encouraging imaginative play and the creative arts. Teachers lead students in creating dramas, and toys, like faceless wooden pegs dolls, are meant to spark the imagination. A peg doll could be anything or anyone in a child’s hand.

Student-Led vs. Teacher-Led

The other big difference between these two philosophies is who does the leading in the classroom.

In a true Montessori classroom, children are in charge of their own education. The teacher is just an observer, for the most part. They select the activities they want to do, and they get to decide when to take on more challenging work. A Montessori teacher may gently guide a student or help a student who is still learning the classroom rules, but they would never demand that a student complete a specific activity.

In Waldorf, the teacher is meant to be at the center of the room, and a calm, gentle guide to student learning. The teacher selects the stories that will be read and the topics that will be covered. Curriculum and activities are chosen with the student’s engagement in mind. Usually, there are more formal lessons in Waldorf curriculums, but it does vary.

When They Start Academic Learning

The philosophies couldn’t be any more different when it comes to this particular topic. They introduce formal academic topics at very different times.

Montessori teachers give students the opportunity to learn academic topics in preschool. In fact, many Montessori students are early readers.

Waldorf teachers don’t introduce formal academics until the first grade, around the age of 7. By this time, most students are ready to tackle the learning, and they are eager for it.

Same Age vs. Multiage Grouping

Montessori and Waldorf schools both take a different approach to how they group students than most people are used to.

Montessori groups students in multiage groups that usually look like this:

  • Infants: Younger than 3
  • Preschoolers: Ages 3-6
  • Elementary (lower): Ages 6-9
  • Elementary (upper): Ages 9-12
  • Secondary (lower): Ages 12-15
  • Secondary (upper): Ages 15-18

Often students will stay with the same teacher until they move into the next age bracket, but this isn’t always the case.

On the other hand, Waldorf keeps students in same-age groups from first grade through eighth grade, and they stay with the same teacher. This is because the student-teacher relationship is prized in the Waldorf educational philosophy. Once in high school, classes are taught by experts in their fields.

Uninterrupted Time to Work

One of Montessori education’s main features is the work cycle, which gives students a large chunk (and sometimes two large chunks) of time to work without interruption. This helps students develop extended focus and their attention spans. It also gives them time to complete an activity to their satisfaction.

Because Waldorf teachers are at the center of the classroom, students don’t get this special, uninterrupted time to pursue their education.

Their Approaches to Spirituality

For the most part, neither Waldorf nor Montessori schools have strong religious ties. Montessori schools can easily be done with a secular view or with religious elements fused into it. Most Montessori schools are not religious schools, however.

Waldorf has a different approach. Steiner created anthroposophy, which is a spiritual philosophy. This basically posits that through nurturing the self and other humans, people gain a connection to a spiritual presence.

This isn’t something that Waldorf schools indoctrinate students into. In fact, students of any religion are welcome and respected at Waldorf schools. More or less, it is a guiding principle of education and the reason Steiner thought education was so important.

Which is Better for Your Child: Montessori or Waldorf?

Deciding which type of school to send your child to is an important and sometimes stressful decision. Montessori and Waldorf schools are both amazing options and offer great opportunities to learn, and it makes the decision hard!

While you have to take your child and your own personal feelings into account, we offer these guidelines to you as a way to help you make your decision.

Choose Montessori if your child:

  • Shows an early interest in academic subjects
  • Likes doing “grown-up” things around the house
  • Has an independent, self-starter personality
  • Is a little headstrong or likes making choices
  • Is mature for their age or ahead academically as they will benefit from the multiage cohort

Choose Waldorf if your child:

  • Enjoys imaginative play and art
  • Likes to be supported through activities
  • Shows less interest in academic subjects
  • Would benefit from the longer student-teacher relationship

Even if your student likes to be supported through activities or has no interest in academic subjects, that doesn’t necessarily mean a Montessori education is off the table. In fact, a Montessori education could be just the thing to help them develop in these areas.

So, make sure you filter these recommendations through what you know about your child. At the end of the day, you’re the best person to make this decision.

Which is Better for a Child with Special Needs?

If your child has special needs, it is important to consider those as well. Both Montessori and Waldorf schools are good fits for students with disabilities or learning challenges because both attend to the needs of the unique child.

Because students have an open classroom and a wide variety of seating options and a student’s education is self-paced without stigma, Montessori education is often a very good fit for students with disabilities.

Both Montessori and Waldorf schools offer a respectful and accepting environment to students of all abilities, but the resources available to a child with special needs will depend on the particular schools in your area. You may need to check with each school you’re considering to be sure they will meet your family’s needs.

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