By: Sarah Baldwin. Waldorf early childhood teacher.
Today I’m here to talk to you about a question I get asked a lot: “What’s the difference between Montessori and Waldorf?” I’ll start off the bat by saying I’m not an expert in Montessori education. I don’t pretend to be.
I have good friends who are Montessori teachers and I almost took a job in a Montessori school because I love the director of the school so much but my heart was really with Waldorf education, that’s where my expertise lay.
But I just wanted to share a story with you based on my own personal observation spending a morning in a Montessori classroom, the things that struck me about what was different in an early childhood setting—we’re talking about preschool, kindergarten, ages 3-6.
So it was a beautiful classroom, much like a Waldorf classroom, with all natural materials, a lot of wood, beautiful children, healthy children.
One thing I can tell you that I know is that Maria Montessori, who founded Montessori education, and Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, both were trying to educate the whole child.
In Waldorf, we say “head, heart, hands” and I believe Maria Montessori who was a doctor wanted to educate a child’s mind and spirit.
So that’s one thing they have in common.
But as I observed the play I noticed that in the Montessori classroom there are toys on shelves, a lot of them were on trays, and what I know, what I learned and what I observed was children were very independent and during the free play time—that’s another difference we’ll get to, play versus work— but a child would take a tray and there would be an activity, usually working on some skill or another, whether cognitive or fine motor skills and I could recognize the value in that, and they would do the task and put it back on the tray and put it away when they were done and then the child was free to choose another activity.
One thing I observed during that portion of the morning was the difference during free play.
In a Waldorf classroom, it might seem a little more like a free-for-all because the children really— we call it “play” and we believe that play is the heart of early childhood and the key to creative thinking later in life.
So the emphasis in Waldorf is on imagination and play.
In a Montessori School it was called “work” and, true story, I was out to dinner with friends last night and one of them, actually several of them, sent their children to Montessori schools and liked the fact that it was called “work” because it was enjoyable and they enjoyed their work and gave the child the idea that work is fun, which I think is great.
However, we call it “play” in Waldorf and during free play the children are really free to move around the room. It’s a lot more social, I think. Children play together, make stories, make scenes together and they’re flowing in and out and now they’re firefighters and now they’re knights slaying a dragon and now they’re having a tea party in the kitchen and the groups would form.
I saw a lot more independent play in the Montessori classroom, children choosing their own activities, including at snack time where one of the activities children could choose in the classroom I visited—I’m not saying this is true in every classroom, I know there are a lot of variations—but having snack was something I observed children doing independently when they were ready or sitting down and sitting at a table having a snack by themselves. In my Waldorf classroom, or I think any Waldorf early child setting, having a snack together, eating together is the heart of the morning. When the children come
in the morning, we’re chopping vegetables or kneading dough for bread that day and all leading up to the meal we will share together and sit down together and practice waiting to be served and practice serving and practicing our manners.
Which reminds me of another activity I observed that day in the classroom: one activity was a child took a tray and there was a bar of soap and a cheese grater and the child grated and grated this to makes soap flakes and then put the soap flakes in a bowl and added water and then took an egg beater and beat the soap flakes into bubbles and foam.
When she was done then she went to the bathroom and dumped it all in the toilet and put everything away on the tray and
put it away and went on to the next activity. As I observed her I thought “Huh, that’s interesting.” Those are all
really great activities for young children.
It’s really building those fine motor skills, grating and then the transformation—that’s an early science lesson, the transformation of substances.
You watch the soap and the water mix together and become foamy bubbles.
I thought, in my classroom, we use a grater.
We use it to grate carrots for our snack, which we would have with rice and soy sauce that day.
And we use an eggbeater to beat eggs when it’s a child’s birthday.
When it was a child’s birthday we’d make a cake for the birthday child and start out by beating the eggs.
And then I thought in Waldorf education we’re using the same tools but we’re doing real work for a real purpose. That just struck me and it’s always stayed with me.
Anyway, just wanted to share that story with you. It’s not about good school versus bad school at all because there’s Montessori, there’s Waldorf, there are a lot of excellent, high-quality programs out there.
But if you’re searching, if you’re looking and just curious about the differences I thought I’d share that story with you and hope it sheds some light. I’m sure this will generate a lot of comments.
I would welcome hearing from Montessori teachers more about their comments on what I’ve described here. I hope that helps.