Friday, December 17, 2010

Montessori Versus Waldorf Education: Which One Do You Choose?

The short answer is, you don't. You let your child decide. Which one draws them and makes them happy? That one is the right one. Or, you do both.

The long answer is that these two natural education philosophies seem at complete odds at each other. Waldorf is based on art and imaginative play and has at its core the belief that academics before the age of 7 can be very detrimental. Montessori is based on utilizing all the senses to learn new things and shows children complex concepts in math and language at rather young ages. It also discourages fantasy play in lieu of real life experiences.

Both have research backing up their opposite claims of how children learn and thrive. How can they both be right?

The first answer is that it's important to understand why Maria Montessori concluded that fantasy play had no place in the school environment. In her observations, when a child was presented with the opportunity to either play with a play kitchen or join an adult in a real kitchen, they chose the real kitchen every time. Instead of playing with a doll house, they would rather work in a real garden or help sweep the floor. They wanted to do the things the adults in their lives were doing, and found joy in it.

What parent doesn't know their child prefers to play with a real remote or cell phone over a fake plastic one? Why are toddlers always drawn to the "no touch" things like our computers or car keys? Because those are  the things WE are drawn to. They look to us to see what it means to be a human being, and if being a human being means spending hours at the computer, well, they want to spend hours at the computer, too.

So much of Montessori involves Practical Life activities, which revolve around teaching children to do many real things by themselves, using real tools and doing real tasks. Maria Montessori did not discourage fantasy play because that's what she wanted, she excluded it from the learning environment because the children wanted it. They had small sinks and small kitchens and small gardens and helped set real tables arranged real flowers and always they preferred that over other things.

As for learning academics starting at age 3, it was entirely up to the children if and when they would learn math or letters. A teacher presented an activity, and then put it on the shelf, and the children were welcome to spend as little or as much time on that activity as they chose. Of their own accord, they were drawn to numbers and geometric shapes and learning the parts of a flower. She simply provided the opportunities, and they made the choice.

I observed this in my own son early on. He had two sets of toy animals - one Fisher price set of cute animals on Noah's Ark, and one set of realistic-looking hand-painted Schleich animals.  He preferred the ones that look real, every time, so that eventually we gave the Fisher Price ones away.

I also crocheted him a lot of play food, but he mostly used them as balls to bat around. I just bought the children a play kitchen because the play kitchen seems to be one of the most universally played with toys. The kids use it most often as a mountain for their animals and figurines. Meanwhile, they have their own aprons, and I am never short of helping hands in our real kitchen. Connor is fantastic at kneading dough.

(The Google founders credit Montessori school with teaching them to take their own initiative)

An overview of activities going on in a Montessori school)

Like a Montessori education, Waldorf is at a child's own pace and gives children a great deal of freedom in their own learning. However, this is done completely emerged in fantasy play. Math is taught using gnomes in a story. The first years revolve primarily around music, finger plays, stories and art. It is in tune with natural changes, such as the seasons, night and day, and other rhythms that make up life. Festivals and holiday celebrations are a large part of both the Waldorf school experience and home experience.

While a Montessori nature table is made up entirely of things the children find outside in nature, the Waldorf nature table integrates colorful cloths, felt dolls and other hand-made items into the collection.

The first seven years of a child's life are considered to be very physical, and so movement and play are emphasized. The schoolwork includes handicrafts such as knitting, woodworking and playing musical instruments The next seven years are more based in the thoughts, and that is seen as the optimal time to focus on the abstract ideas of math and language.

Waldorf educators claim that current brain research is on their side, and that delaying reading until the first grade is beneficial.

(A quick photographic overview of a Waldorf class)

(Overview of Enki, which is similar to Waldorf but without the spiritual (anthroposophy) aspects, integrates some Montessori philosophies)

So how does one choose?

Connor has chosen for us. He prefers Montessori for reading, and Waldorf for math.

On his own without our prompting, he has had an immense desire to learn letters and learn to spell and read. This came from watching us work on the computer. Last year he realized he could look up things he likes on the internet, and started asking us to look up everything from legos to pictures of squids to videos of Doctor Who. When I became pregnant, I didn't want to get up from the couch and type for him anymore, so I started spelling things out for him. That evolved to us writing things down on paper for him to copy. Now he can spell "lego" on his own and is learning to spell such complex words as "schleich" and "Anakin."

And, he has shown serious interest in the sandpaper letters. We have integrated that with learning the phonetic sound of one letter every week, combining it with arts, such as gluing glitter to a letter A or macaroni to a letter B or molding bread dough into the letter C.

Connor is 5 years old, and he wants to read and write. I'm not going to wait until he is seven years old to help him.

Numbers, on the other hand, do not interest him as much. We have tried various Montessori materials but they do not draw his attention. We've tried counting frogs and even online computer games. Math interests him when we are dividing a bag of gummy candy by 4 people, and he counts with me when we bake something and add the ingredients. Mostly, though, math is not something he will be taught. He will learn it when he is ready.

For now, he likes the Waldorf approach of finger plays and books that might talk about numbers or basic addition and subtraction. We can integrate it into his fantasy play - General Grievous has 4 light sabers, Ventress has two, so General Grievous has twice as many. We do subtraction at the library when we tell him he can pick out 5 books, he has picked out 3, so how many more books can he still get? But he has no interest in lining up the number rods, counting sticks or touching the sandpaper numbers.

The conclusion to draw from all of this is that each child has their own complex way of experiencing the world, and sticking to any one philosophy without observing your child in it is a less effective way of doing things. I love the Montessori method, but if some of the activities aren't working for us, as a homeschooling mom it is my prerogative to switch to something else or tweak it up a little so that learning is always something fun and engaging instead of something to just get over with so we can move on.

My three year old is loving all the Montessori materials and jumps at any chance to use them, but when she is done she is ready to grab a costume from her dress up box and run in circles and howl at the moon. She has her practical life, and then  she has her fantasy life. She has it all.

The truth is, there's no right and wrong way to homeschool, only right and wrong ways for YOUR child.  The same goes for alternative schools. Connor goes to a preschool enrichment school once a week, and it is neither Montessori or Waldorf - it is at his gymnastics school, and the majority of the 3 hour class is spent in physical activity, followed by a little bit if circle time, basic numbers and writing time. Connor LOVES IT.

My favorite Montessori book is Teaching Montessori In The Home, because it includes ways to make some of your own materials. My least favorite is Montessori From The Start, because she seems to go above and beyond Maria herself and comes across as very anti-attachment parenting. Some of her suggestions for children under three made me uncomfortable.

The Montessori-related blogs I read most often are Montessori Matters, My Montessori Journey, The Montessori Goldmine, and Maria Montessori. Montessori Goldmine is especially delicious.

My favorite Waldorf-related book is Seven Times The Sun, which is about establishing daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal rhythms. My copy is well-highlighted and dog-eared. Another good one is The Children's Year: Seasonal Crafts and Clothes. I do not own a copy and check it out from the library frequently.

The three Waldorf related blogs I read most often are The Magic Onions, Rhythm of the Home, and Wee Folk Art. Wee Folk Art isn't necessarily Waldorf based, but the crafts are similar in style and everything is free.


  1. I like this post. Both have a time and place in our childrens lives. I see the waldorf side come through when my children play by themselves. Montesorri comes in more when i am cooking, when i am vaccuming, when i am spinning or knitting. It reminds me very much of cave men actually. Parenting was allowing children to help with the tasks of daily life and ignoring the "misbehaviors" rather than discipling for them.

    want to play tomorrow?

  2. This is a comment a Waldorf mama left for me on Facebook:

    "the only thing i'd note is that the waldorf school has fantasy play for a like an hour (during play time), then they put the children to work rolling dough, cleaning, composting, gardening, etc. oh, and kids can read before age 7, they just aren't compared and measured for their reading or lack of reading skills. btw, hats off to the home-school moms that figure out what's best for each child. that takes a lot of effort. you're a good mama. thanks for sharing web-site info!"

    Further down she added, "they don't teach reading in school before age 7, but there is nothing that i can do to stop edie from reading. she reads books to me all the time at home. i think that the goal of the theory is to really nurture where the children are emotionally and spiritually. then the cognitive can soar. at least that's my take on it. who knows... i'll keep you posted. :)"

    So there's some added perspective.

  3. I ran a preschool for 10 years. In that time I refused to categorize the approach I used. It was a developmental program that respected and nurtured the individual child. It was a conglomeration of many philosophies... taking what I felt was the best from all, and integrating them into the program to meet the needs of the wee ones. In other words, it was a child driven program.

    I love your approach. Why limit yourself to one ideology when there are positive aspects to both Montessori and Waldorf? (There are other wonderful philosophies, too.) Being in touch with your child's unique learning modality and helping them develop in a relaxed and natural environment, no matter what you "call" it, will breed success.

    I am going to link to you on Facebook. Thanks for a well thought out and written post :)

  4. Steiner early education is very much based on imitation as well as seem to have glossed over the imitation parts - all children learn through what they see adults doing and much of the early years are cooking, gardening, cleaning, sewing, woodwork with real food, real kitchens and utensils, real hammers, real needles, real cloths.
    I don't profess to know very much about Montesorri, only that what i read and saw i didn't really like - like the children having 'jobs' and being able to choose if and when they doing something rather than following the rhythms which somethimes include bits that are not so much fun - the development of the will.
    thanks for your post i learn a few things and it looks like you did too.

  5. I actually paid for and participated in Montessori training online, and I am on my third book written by Maria Montessori herself, so it is true I am more familiar with that type of education than I am with Waldorf. I am currently reading You Are Your Child's First Teacher, which concerns using Waldorf from birth, so I am learning more about it, but otherwise I only know what people tell me or what I read online.

    So, I actually really appreciate Waldorf-related comments.

  6. Because you asked for Waldorf-related comments...

    I ran across a well-researched post on Waldorf Education on another homeschooling mama's blog. It made a difference to me, and I wanted to pass it along, particularly in light of the nature of the comments (actual commentary from folks who had grown up in Waldorf, or who had their children enrolled in Waldorf). You can find it here:

    Totally worth the read, IMO.

    I wish I had commentary on the rest of the post, but sadly, I'm pre-coffee at the moment, and thinking is slow and only partly working. ^_^

  7. A thought occurred to me as I was reading your post - in older cultures "fantasy" was a part of adult's lives as well, as people would gather together and tell stories.

    I like your conclusion - use what works for your child. Every person is different, learns differently; that's one of the failings of the public school system - it runs everyone through the exact same curriculum irregardless of whether that curriculum works for the students.

  8. The thing I notice about Montessori is that the majority of the schools (at least around here) start at age 3 and are intensive- 5 day half or 5 day full day programs. Some have a 4 day option- but that was it.
    This is a far different family dynamic than what I value and what I've seen with Waldorf- where the schedule is less intensive. In addition there is a lot that is encouraged to do at home and family participation in holidays and events. Waldorf's around here have parent child programs and 2-3-4 and 5 day options- but they seem more involved in community building
    Now if you are homeschooling, that's not an issue- but I have the feeling it filters down in other ways as well. Unless it happens to be just a regional trend...


  9. I think it depends on the school. There's a Montessori school here that has 3 day, 4 day or 5 day options, mornings, afternoons or both. So, for example, if I was a working mom, all day Montessori would be preferable to me over daycare. As a stay-at-home mommy, 3 afternoons a week would thrill Connor, because he loves being around other people, if my husband wasn't a student himself and we weren't on a budget.

  10. I have heard, however, that some Montessori schools are more strict than others. That's why I brought up Montessori From The Start - some people take the philosophy and get very anal about it. Maria herself told about how the younger children liked to build up the pink tower and then knock it down, but in some schools, a child who knocked down the tower would not be able to play with it anymore.

    I follow some blogs of Montessori teachers that get very fun and creative - like the one who said they have a dinosaur washing station instead of a shoe-polishing station. I think, as with all schools, parents need to visit and ask a lot of questions.

  11. Check out Waiting For Superman, if you haven't, already.

    It'll tick you off, and may briefly break your heart, as well. You probably know about a lot of what the documentary talks about, but it may still prove interesting to you.

    I don't care if you publish this, just wanted to give you a heads-up.

  12. Thank you so much for your insight. I am a new mum to a 11mth old and reside currently in a country where these theories are almost unheard of and the few schools that offer it are OUT of most lay person's reach.

    I started doing research about how to enrich Russell's life in whilst we are here for the next 2 yrs and stumbled upon your blog. Its been a great starting point and I hope that I grow as much as you in the process.

    thank you again.

  13. Wonderful Post! I have a three year old who I am planning to home school and have not been able to find a good article on Waldorf vs Montessori- so Thank You!! I already implement a lot of Waldorf teachings and read the 3 great Waldorf blogs you linked to, but I was sad to see all 4 Montessori Blogs you linked to seemed to have petered out and no longer post regularly. Do you have any additional Montessori blog reccomendations?

  14. Yeah, I wish MOntessori Goldmine would pick up again!

    I had a mama email me about her new blog, , which looks promising.


    This one looks good, too!!

  16. Hi, I just came across your blog while looking for comparisons between Montessori & Waldorf. Incredibly great post! My son is only 2, but I'm already thinking about homeschooling. We do a few Montessori-inspired things, but I'm just starting to learn about Waldorf. I LOVE that you use a bit of both, depending on child and subject. That makes so much sense! I think that's an approach I will try, too.

  17. I can not tell you how much I loved every word of this. Your blog is a godsend for me! I'm a young mother from a very structured family that doesnt believe in anything organic/ ap/ breastfeeding/ or montessori. Holy love. <3 <3
    el hubbard

  18. Thank you very much! It makes me very happy to know that other people like something I shared!

  19. This was an interesting post - thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm more the opposite of you, where I don't have much experience with the Montessori methods/philosophy as with Waldorf, so it was interesting to hear more about it.

    A couple things that I wanted to mention based on my understanding of Waldorf education (my twin 5 1/2 year olds are in their third year at a local Waldorf school - kindergarten this year). One is that it seemed to me that you were characterizing Waldorf as "entirely" fantasy based with no real life experience. That seems to go counter to what I have experienced and one of the things that I love about Waldorf. There is a large amount of fantasy play, and the child's imagination is something that is respected and valued in their development and learning. But - And I think another commenter mentioned this, imitation is also seen as a major way in which young children learn, and so they are invited to join the teacher in the real life tasks of caring for the classroom - they sweep, help set the table, help prepare the snacks, clean up after snacks, help care for their outdoor play space, etc. In the older grades they have hands on experience in gardening, woodworking, etc. Waldorf education is a very whole person-oriented way of learning and as such "real life" activities and experiences are an important part.

    The other thing is as far as reading - and this might (probably does) vary from school to school and maybe even teacher to teacher, but I the sense I have gotten is that while reading is not taught until 1st grade in school, it is not necessarily discouraged at home if a child is showing an interest. Several times the question has come up and every time the teacher being asked has indicated that if the child is showing an interest, to go with it. So, child-led, as it sounds like Montessori is. It just isn't offered in school, based on the reasons you talked about. I have personally never heard of a Waldorf educator encouraging a parent to *discourage* a child from an interest in reading or numbers because they are not the "right" age.

    My thoughts. Thanks again for sharing!

  20. Your blog is good one to read and i got a good knowledge to read your blog, so i would like to thank for creating this interesting blog...