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Pre- School dilemma. waldorf vs. Montessori.

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.

Waldorf vs Montessori Preschool

The differences between Waldorf and Montessori

  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

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.

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!

Posted in Schooling on November 06 2019 at 09:48 AM

Author For Pre- School dilemma. waldorf vs. Montessori.

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