Montessori vs. Waldorf: An Educational Philosophy Comparison

Parents come to us at White Bear Montessori when they want an education for their children that is more than just academics. Montessori is a great way to accomplish this goal, but we recognize that it's not the only education philosophy that has merit. The progressive approaches that both Montessori and Waldorf offer young children have been tried and tested for almost 100 years but have very different educational philosophies. So what are the differences? I will walk you through both approaches so you can make a decision for yourself.


The Origins of the Montessori Method of Education

The Montessori Method originated from the scientific work of Dr. Maria Montessori drawing from the disciplines of medicine, psychology, anthropology and education in Italy around the end of the 19th century. In 1907, she opened her first classroom, the Casa dei Bambini, or Children's House, in a tenement building in Rome. From the beginning, Montessori based her work on her observations of children and experimentation with the environment, materials, and lessons available to them. She frequently referred to her work as "scientific pedagogy."


The Origins of the Waldorf Method

In contrast, Waldorf schools were founded originally by maverick Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1919. He was invited to give a speech to the workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, after which the owner of the factory asked him to start a school for the children of the factory-workers. Steiner agreed and the first Waldorf School was born.

The two approaches have many points in common. Both forms of education believe in educating the "whole" child, meaning their spirit as well as their intellect. They each believe in teaching educational concepts in a wide variety of ways, and both have strong attachments to nature. In addition, both philosophies have strong beliefs towards children having respect, knowledge and understanding, not just of the three Rs, but of the whole world around them including science, social studies, geography, art, music, and dance.

There are, however, some fundamental differences between a Montessori and Waldorf education.


Montessori vs. Waldorf: A Comparison


Montessori: Academics (math and language) are introduced when the child shows readiness, between the ages of 3 and 4 years old.

Waldorf: Academics are seen as necessary but not necessarily enjoyable and are introduced later, around 7 years of age.

Real vs. Make-Believe:

Montessori: Believe that children prefer the opportunity to do real work such as cooking, cleaning, caring for themselves, each other, and the environment rather than play make believe.

Waldorf: Early learning focuses on make-believe, fairies, arts and music. Play is viewed as the work of the young child and the magic of fantasy is an integral part of how the teacher works with the child.

Reality vs. Fantasy:

Montessori: Children need to be grounded in reality until they are able to distinguish what is real and what is fantasy.

Waldorf:  Fantasy and play are woven throughout the curriculum.

Materials with Purpose:

Montessori: Montessori materials are scientific didactical materials that serve a unique developmental and academic purpose.

Waldorf:  Children are encouraged to use their imagination with the classroom materials.

Individualized vs. Group:

Montessori: Lessons and activities are individualized, especially in the early years.

Waldorf:  Early learning is group work.

Age Groups:

Montessori:  Classrooms are mixed-age and grouped according to 3-year age groupings.

Waldorf:  Classrooms contain groups of same-age children.

Years In The Same Classroom:

Montessori:   Children remain with the same teacher for 3 years.

Waldorf:  Children remain with the same teacher for 8 years.

Who Leads Lessons:

Montessori:   Children choose their work, with guidance whenever necessary by the teacher.

Waldorf:  Lessons are teacher directed.


Despite the differences between the two methodologies, it can certainly be said that both Waldorf and Montessori value the child above all else. Both philosophies believe that education should develop free and morally responsible citizens who have a deep sense of social responsibility.

Unfortunately both approaches are in the situation of not being able to protect and regulate the use of the words “Montessori” or “Waldorf.” This means that in both cases there are schools that profess to follow the teachings of their founders but whose directors, well-meaning as they may be, have a variety of experience from simply reading a book on the subject to a Master's Degree. That's why we are a proponent of schools recognized by a guiding organization, such as AMI, which requires Master's level training for all teachers.

Finding The Right School For Your Children

Here in Minnesota, there are 13 Montessori schools in Minnesota that are recognized by the organization created by Dr. Montessori herself, the Association Montessori Internationale. However, there are many, many that are not authentic Montessori programs. Beware of any Montessori school that is not recognized by AMI or AMS. Almost all the state’s public Montessori schools include preschool, many serve children in K-6, and some include junior high and high school. However, Cornerstone Elementary in St. Paul is the only state public Montessori recognized by AMI. 

There are two options for attending a Waldorf School in Minnesota: City of Lakes Waldorf School in Minneapolis and the Minnesota Waldorf School in Maplewood. Both serve children in grades preK-8.

The best way to determine which approach is best for your child is to contact a school. If you would like to learn more about Dr. Montessori's most authentic method of educating children in both academics and character values, let us know by contacting us here or give us a call at 651-429-3710 and we would be happy to answer any of your questions. 

Danielle Cloe