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Differences Between Montessori & Waldorf Schools, For Parents Weighing Their Options

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For parents who are considering alternatives to the traditional send-your-child-to-public-school route, the options are vast, from homeschooling to boarding school and everything in between. For those who are looking into sending their child to a private institution, there are thousands of private schools in the country operating within a variety of doctrines, from language immersion to religion. But two philosophies that stand out, especially for elementary students, are Montessori and Waldorf schools, but what are the differences between them?

Quite a number of things to be frank. While both put the focus on developing the whole child — spiritual, mental, and physical — at the core of their curriculums, the way they reach that goal varies dramatically. And it’s important to remember that every school has its own autonomy. Just as two public schools within the same city may apply wildly different approaches, the same can be said within both the Montessori and Waldorf school framework. But, to paint a general picture, Romper spoke to two experts from both educational philosophies who work at each school to get an idea of what differentiates a Montessori versus a Waldorf school experience.

1) Founder Philosophies

Maria Montessori teaching a student, 1907, ullstein bild Dtl. / Getty Images

First, how did these two educational philosophies get their start? For that, we must reach back in history to the 19th century.

While both founders were contemporaries, their approaches were very different. Italian Maria Montessori (1870) was a physician and educator who broke gender barriers in her studies and went on to form her eponymous educational philosophy. Revered among Montessori acolytes, her approach was self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play.

Rudolf Stiener (1861) on the other hand, was born in the Kingdom of Hungary — what is today Croatia — and became a social reformer, architect, and, it has to be said, mystic. The Waldorf approach (named after the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company in Germany owned by Emil Molt who opened the first Waldorf school) was based on Anthroposophy, a belief that humanity has the wisdom to transform itself and the world, through one’s own spiritual development, according to WaldorfEducation.org.

2) Classroom structure

In Montessori, students are in mixed-age classrooms. For instance, Abby Arnold, a teacher at Sundrops Montessori in Charleston, South Carolina says that her classroom consists of children ages 12 to 24 months. "We divide classrooms into age groups," says Arnold. Often those are in three-year age groups, for example, children ages 3-6 are in one class.

Waldorf classrooms are grouped by age but the same teacher stays with the children from first to eighth grade, a practice called looping.

3) Curriculum

Montessori schools practice decentralized learning. That means teachers observe and guide, but students have the freedom to move about the classroom and work on tasks at their own pace. When lessons are given, they're generally to small groups. "I would say that Montessori is a philosophy that strives to teach children independence to go forth in life," explains Arnold.

Waldorf's curriculum approach varies depending on age. Children aren't taught core subjects (math, science, reading, etc.) until first grade. Prior to that, the day is filled with make-believe, singing, dancing, and the arts. "We're looking at who a child is at 4 or 7 and what is going on socially, emotionally, physically," says Valerie Hogan, Enrollment & Marketing Coordinator for Richmond, Virginia's Waldorf school.

4) Thoughts on child development

Waldorf tent and toys, Marin Nikolov/Getty

The Montessori Method, as it's often called, believes that the educator should follow the child allowing them to gain confidence by going at their own pace. This stems from Maria Montessori's theory of planes of development. Those being: Birth to Age 6 (Early Childhood/Infancy) “The Absorbent Mind”, Ages 6–12 (Childhood) “Conscious Imagination”, 12–18 (Adolescence) “New Identity”, and Ages 18–24 (Maturity) “Maturity” according to Montessori writer Anne Prowant.

"At Waldorf, we think about child development happening in stages of 7 years. Children are needing different things at different stages. Early childhood years, it’s about play unstructured and structured. Rhythm, repetition, and consistency in schedule and child-led activities," says Hogan. The concept comes from Steiner's theory of life happening in 7 year cycles. "The first seven years of life (0-7 years old) were associated with the Moon ... During this time, the psychic forces are working to transform the body of the child from one that was inherited from the parents, to one that represents the full personality of the child," reports the American Institute of Learning and Development.

5) Focus on the imagination

Both Waldorf and Montessori put a big focus on children's imagination.

To that end, Montessori introduces imagination as part of the creative process. "However, since the real world is seen as a wonderful creation as it is, children are introduced to the real world in all is variations in the first six years, and then use these experiences to create for the rest of their lives," explains Montessori writer Michael Olaf.

On the flip side, Waldorf approaches imagination as important in young children and to that end incorporates storytelling into every part of its curriculum.

6) The Role of the Teacher

As mentioned before, in Montessori, lessons generally are given on a one-on-one or small group basis. "We allow the child to pick and choose what they’d like to learn first. Once they become Kindergartners, they do have a work plan," says Arnold. "They are still required to do all the reading and writing and math, but they are allowed to do it at their own pace."

At Waldorf, once in first grade and beyond, the instruction becomes teacher-led. "They're learning their academics through creating art," says Hogan. Rather than use textbooks, something called "main lesson books" are used and every day each lesson is drawn, written, and created by students.

7) Thoughts on Technology

Technology is discouraged at Waldorf and Montessori, but their reasons vary.

Montessori's take is less a rejection of technology and more of an appreciation for naturally made objects like wooden blocks, for instance. "We discourage it for young kids due to how it can affect their brain development," says Arnold. However, at Sundrops Montessori, older students (elementary and adolescent) are allowed to use computers.

Waldorf schools encourage parents to limit the amount of media children are exposed to. "I can't speak for other schools, but at Richmond Waldorf School, we strongly encourage parents to minimize or eliminate TV on school nights," says Hogan. "It's not that kids "aren't allowed" to watch TV, but we know it's healthy for them to have other experiences and this is where our emphasis lies." At Richmond Waldorf School, Hogan adds that faculty talk with parents about the benefits of a "media light" lifestyle and the intellectual, social/emotional, and physical benefits for children. "They are more active, spend more time outside and in creative play or with other people; they have a deeper attentiveness, curiosity, and sense of wonder; they are more relational and able to read social and emotional cues; have more patience with process," she says.

So how do you decide? Every child is different. Some will thrive in a free, learn-at-your-own-pace Montessori classroom. Others will flourish in the creativity-focused space of a Waldorf school. That said, we did find one mom who has a great take on both.

Blogger Georgieff, the woman behind Frugal for Luxury, has had her children both in a Waldorf school in Germany and a Montessori school in Florida. In her side-by-side comparison, she brings real world perspective to both options and lays out what might work best for a child. Nature and art, learning by doing, and fostering a tight bond with a teacher are elements of the Waldorf ethos. If your child is highly motivated to learn, need to move throughout the day, and thrive in limited structure, consider Montessori.