Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio Emilia: a comparison of philosophies

The similiarities and differences of three major alternative education methods

Montessori method of education

The Philosophy

Montessori is a child-centered educational philosophy where teachers serve as guides to each child’s educational progress. While students are exposed to an academic element at Montessori schools the distinguishing feature is children are able to learn at a pace that they set on their own. In Montessori programs the teacher’s job is to assist students in navigating materials and kids work at whatever level they are working at without judgment or corrective actions. This includes preschools, elementary, middle, and high school.

This differs in comparison to Waldorf (see below), which is a play-based approach and the belief that children are born to learn, whereas at a Waldorf school, children are said to have the traits of a good person already in them and just need to be brought to the surface. The method is also different from Reggio Emilia, a project-based approach that involves a more traditional style of learning.

That focus in Montessori schools to let children learn at their own pace works in conjunction with how classrooms are arranged: children are groups of three ages (six to nine, nine to 12, for example). The older children use their experience to help mentor and act as role models for the younger children and each group of students generally keep the same teacher for that three-year period to allow for teacher-student relationships to develop. This student dynamic allows for both younger and older students to build self-esteem.

Why parents choose Montessori

Montessori helps children acquire leadership skills and independence early on in their lives that will help them find success later in life. According to a study completed by the Education and Human Sciences Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, parents had a variety of reasons for choosing Montessori schools, in Toronto, Ontario, and elsewhere.

Montessori parents said the specific focus on academic and quality of the classroom environment; they valued individual learning, student-teacher and peer relationships, and the quality of academic programming; and hoped their children would learn independence, become self-motivated learners, have respect for others and gain confidence. Montessori schools can also be a great option for children with special needs, such as gifted learning abilities.


Waldorf school method of education

The Philosophy?

Founder Rudolph Steiner, a scientist and philosopher, wrote in the early 1900s that “Waldorf school education is not a pedagogical system but an art - the art of awakening what is actually there within the human being."

Schools are focused on a play-based approach and offer children a dependable routine where certain days of the week are set aside for activities like baking or gardening. They also follow a similar approach to classroom composition as Montessori schools: mixed-age classrooms with the same teacher for multiple years.

According to Waldorf Canada, for students to be successful, contributing members of society, children will need to develop into multi-faceted individuals with the desire and drive to always be learning. For this to happen, and allow for success and self-fulfillment students need to develop creative thinking that is imaginative, flexible and focused; build emotional intelligence, empathy and self-esteem; physical vitality, stamina and perseverance; and a passionate connect, appreciation and responsibility to nature, work and the society of men, women and children around them.

The philosophy believes that children come into the world with the attributes above already in them and laying dormant awaiting activation. The whole focus is to help students’ jumpstart these capacities and help them link these attributes to the academic school experience. Academic subjects are kept from children in Waldorf preschools until a much later age than Montessori. They are thought to be necessary but not especially enjoyable, so students aren't exposed to them until a later age. The day is filled with the arts and reading, writing and math aren't introduced until age seven or so.

Math and science, is woven into art, movement, and music. These experiences enhance the schoolwork and engage students in three essential ways: actively, emotionally, and thoughtfully. This focus helps to develop the skills and capacity children need as they move forward in life and develop into successful young adults. While Waldorf is similar to Montessori and Reggio Emilia in terms of helping develop children, the educational style focuses more on creative play rather than a prepared environment learning style (Montessori) and a project-based free-form approach to children learning about what they are interested in as a group.

Why parents choose Waldorf 

Based on a 2007 study of graduates, future success in life is almost a guarantee: nearly 94 percent of graduates attended university and 50 per cent of students went on to receive a Masters or Doctorate degree.

Teachers work with each child based on their individual gifts and challenges. Waldorf teachers see education not as a competition between students, but view it as a way for students to learn when they are ready. 'The right thing at the right time' approach is employed by teachers, and with observation of each student will introduce new concepts and knowledge at the appropriate time in the child’s development.


Reggio Emilia method of education

The Philosophy

Reggio Emilia-inspired schools are project-based: lessons are based on the interest of students. If children are interest in a certain subject and ask the teacher questions about a given topic, the teacher will engage students to learn for themselves, rather than just answer questions – a child realized and teacher framed approach to education.

Teachers will not only document on paper how students are developing, but will also take photos and videos and review the information with students throughout the year to help them realize their own growth and the potential that lay ahead.

Developed for use in the preschool and kindergarten classrooms, the method focuses on the idea of a self-guided curriculum, where the students learn the curriculum through exploration and projects to tailor the learning to their interests. Reggio Emilia influences in the classroom can be found in schools across Canada, including The Bishop Strachan School, Richland Academy, Urban Academy, and Vinci School.

Why parents choose Reggio Emilia

Parents who want their child to be a good citizen may choose a Reggio Emilia school or preschool. Children learn all about cooperation through the many projects, particularly how to solve problems and resolve conflicts.

The educational approach continues to excite and challenge students who are empowered through exploration, a self-guided curriculum and co-learning with their teacher to explore the world around them as they develop higher-order thinking, analysis and synthesizing skills.


Preschool approaches

If you want to learn more about these approaches at the preschool level, read our comparison guides. In separate articles, we compare Montessori to Waldorf, Waldorf to Reggio EmiliaMontessori to Reggio Emiliaacademic to play-based, Montessori to academic, and Montessori to play-based preschools

You can also read our guides comparing school approaches in general. In separate articles, we compare Montessori to Waldorf, Waldorf to Reggio Emilia, and Montessori to Reggio Emilia schools. If you want to compare specific schools one-to-one, visit our compare hub

Preschool questions (read our in-depth answers)

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