Wondering what the difference is between Montessori vs Waldorf education is? Or which is better? Discover the differences, similarities, and top criticisms for these educational models.
What’s the difference between Montessori and Steiner?
The difference of one being a physician first, and the other a philosopher first, is the major difference that colors each of their approach to childhood development.
Dr. Montessori was an Italian physician with disciplines of medicine, psychology, anthropology and education around the end of the 19th century. She initially began creating the Montessori method by observing children in Europe and India who had been labeled as “retarded” or “uneducatabble” at the time, before opening her own school in 1907.
Rudolf Steiner was an Austrian philosopher who founded Waldorf schools in 1919. After giving a speech to the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, the factory owner asked him to start a school for the children of the factory-workers.
What are the similarities between Montessori and Waldorf education?
Both Montessori and Waldorf focus on respect for the child and educating the whole child, starting with the hands.
They each aim to create a lifelong love of learning in the students with “play” as the primary way of doing this; though play looks quite different amongst the two educational methods.
They both utilize hands on learning, natural and beautiful materials and rooms that are designed to stimulate the senses (in their own ways).
Each curriculum also has a focus on engage all the senses (though Steiner believed there are actually 12 senses, not just the 5 typically recognized), and practical life skills for young children.
Both are private schools typically who avoid plastic, batteries, and technology. You also won’t find homework or tests in either school (unless required at a state level or something comparable).
The major shocking similarity:
Both founders were members of the Theosophical Society. While the Waldorf Philosophy tends to accrue the primary criticism around esotericism, the truth is, both of these educational pedagogies believed in a Universal “oneness” and had ties to a very controversial society. I go into this more in the video above.
Montessori vs. Waldorf: The Differences
If I could summarize the difference it’d be that the Montessori Method is very pragmatic and prescriptive. Whereas Steiner is more esoteric, dreamy, and whimsical.
In short, I’d say in Montessori the role of the teacher can be boiled down to a couple of quotes from Dr. Maria Montessori: “Follow the child” and “work is the play of the child.” Whereas Waldorf’s mantra is “education of the head, heart, and hands.”
You’ll notice in the Dr. Montessori’s quotes put the child at the center. Montessori teachers are there as a guide. They observe the children, do not interrupt them, and really focus on preparing an environment that a child can move about freely and independently. Everything is self paced and self directed for the child. Even the materials in the classroom are self correcting, so they can identify the error on their own.
In the Waldorf mantra you’ll notice the word “education” and that’s the role of the teacher in a Waldorf classroom. The teacher directs a child-centered curriculum. Teachers gently + firmly guide children, much like a parent, based on a very specific curriculum about when certain materials should be introduced.
Play is defined as the engagement in an activity for enjoyment. Adults often forget this, especially when looking at a Montessori classroom.
However Dr. Montessori understood that children innately want to learn about the world around them. They have a strong desire to do the things they see adults doing, explore the objects in their environment, and so much more. Thus her quote “play is the work of the child” has become infamous.
For many adults, this is a hard concept to wrap their heads around. They think of play as something more similar to what you’d see in a Waldorf classroom children wearing silks and engaging in creative play.
That is NOT to say Montessori kids do not engage in pretend play (they do), however play in a Montessori classroom may look like children counting beads. Something most adults view as “boring” or “work” from their own school days.
Under the definition of play, both are actually play. And since Montessori classrooms allow the child to choose their activities, there’s no doubt that the child is enjoying the work they are doing.
Montessori begins to introduces core academic subjects (writing, reading, math, science, etc.) around 3 years old.
Again, these are things merely available in the room based off the sensitive periods Maria Montessori identified during the absorbent mind stage. Kids are not forced to do these things and there is no set pace for the curriculum. When a child decides to engage with these materials, it’s because they are enjoying it!
Whereas Waldorf does not begin to introduce core academics until first grade where they learn the basics of arithmetic and many Waldorf students not learning to read until around 7 years old.
In other words: A Montessori preschool will have lots of counting manipulatives and the ability to start learning letters and reading while Waldorf early education schools won’t introduce letters until first grade or 7 years old and focus on counting in early childhood by counting napkins while setting a table or whatever they are playing/doing in that moment.
Montessori classrooms are typically described as more stark or cold compared to a Waldorf classroom.
In Montessori classrooms everything has a place and is presented very neat and organized. Activities are on trays in specifics shelves for instance. Mats are rolled out for activities to be done on them.
Personally, I find Montessori classrooms can actually be kind of harsh on the eyes, especially when there isn’t enough space for all the “areas” to be set up. Montessori materials have a very limited/darker color palette of red, blue, and dark green overall (not that those are the only colors), combine that with all the wood it can feel a little stiff/stuffy.
Waldorf classrooms are more like a whimsical hygge home. There’s knits, essential oils or candles, lots of nature. Silks may be hung from the ceiling creating a sense of whimsy. You also won’t see any right angles in a true Waldorf classroom either; everything is curved edges or round, even the paper used for coloring as the corners cut off.
Waldorf focuses on a more colorful palette; the crayon set is just the colors of the rainbow actually. In fact, they doesn’t utilize the colors black, white, pink or earth tones. The Waldorf method is based on anthroposophical belief (which Steiner founded as well), which holds the belief that colors have spiritual powers & meanings.
As for the reason behind no black, Steiner has been quoted saying:
“Black is the color of spiritual death.”
— THE ARTS AND THEIR MISSION (Anthroposophic Press, 1964), p. 94.
“Black represents lifelessness; it is destructive, fatal darkness.”
— COLOUR (Rudolf Steiner Publishing Co., 1935), lecture 1, GA 291.
Though there has been heavy criticism this was actually a racist decision due to some of Steiner’s views later in his career.
The materials found in a Montessori classroom are typically the materials created by Dr. Montessori herself, like the pink tower. When a child expresses interest in it, the teacher takes them through the initial presentation (aka lesson) and then the child goes independently from there. While the classes are typically in small groups, there is a heavy reliance on independent or parallel work.
In a Waldorf classroom, the toys are typically handmade, with children eventually learning to create their own toys and learning materials. For instance, my daughter learned to mold bunnies from beeswax, make wool balls, and hand kites. As kids get older, they are required to learn to play a musical instrument and make their own carrying case for that instrument.
In a montessori classroom, children are typically in mixed age classrooms. For instance, most preschools utilize a 3-6 year old classroom, which is what Montessori utilized in her original school, Casa De Bambini.
Children are all the same age in a Waldorf classroom, however they often stay with the same teacher for 5 to 8 years.
I believe the reason core academics are handled differently between the two comes down to the differences in how Steiner and Montessori viewed educating about the “world” on a much grander level…
Montessori believed in teaching from the top down. Meaning once children enter the “second plane” of development Cosmic Education starts. This is basically where students learn about the whole (aka the universe) and then work towards the parts that make up the whole (e.g. planets, then continents, etc. working to the local level etc.). The idea is, by giving the child a “big picture” perspective, they can organize the parts that make up the whole within it. Children learn that everything is connected. As a montessori child myself, I can wholeheartedly attest to the joy/motivation this sparks when putting things together.
Steiner believed in teaching beginning with the parts, then moving to the whole. For instance, in Waldorf they focus on educating the hands, the heart, and the head. The hands are educated in early childhood until 7 years old (practice of doing) when children enter middle childhood where the heart is developed through imagination (practice of feeling), and in adolescence the head is developed (practice of thinking). It becomes increasingly abstract as you age to meet the child where they are at in their developmental understanding as they move out of the ego and into understanding of a greater world beyond them.
Here’s an excerpt from neuroscience educator Dr. Dee Joy Coulter’s article “Montessori and Steiner: A Pattern of Reverse Symmetries”
“Montessori would first introduce the manifested forms of the greatest mathematicians to the children – Platonic solids, Pythagorean geometric forms – and later introduce biographies and the ideas behind the forms. Steiner would ask his teachers to introduce the wonder of sacred number principles, the biographies of the mathematicians, and the spiritual quests of their day before introducing the forms.
Waldorf education reintroduces the questions so that the child can personally generate the spiritual quests that led to the answers, and then shows them what the culture has developed. Montessori education invites the child to reverence the answers first, the wonders of human cultural deeds, and then to progress to the seed elements of the finest of our manifested works.
Montessorians have the children discover geographical spaces and their spatial relationships early, to see how geography reveals our cultural interconnectedness. Steiner, on the other hand, would start with the local environment and gradually work outward in spiral to reach astronomy by grade 12, but he would reverse the spiral for history. In history, the child would begin with fairy tales, legends, and myths, then work on through Biblical and ancient recorded history to current events in grade 12. Steiner would pace this historical journey to match the unfolding consciousness of the developing child. The Golden Age of Greece, for example, would be addressed during grade 5, when children are their most sensitive about fairness, and newly able to become a democratic society themselves.”
The two schools of thought probably vary THE MOST when it comes to fantasy. In Montessori, there are no fantasy books until after the age of 6. Whereas in Waldorf, fantasy is a major focus from the beginning.
It’s not the Maria Montessori is against all fantasy, but again, she believes in providing context to children from a big picture perspective first. Thus she focuses on real people, places, and things in the first plane, and then introduces fantasy in the second plane so children can organize it in their minds accordingly. Her goal is for them to develop a concrete understanding of the real world, before introducing the abstract.
On the other hand, fantasy is a critical part of Waldorf and introduced right away via storytelling. The belief here is that play meets children where they are at and craving while also developing their ability for creative thinking and imagination. Additionally, the fantasy stories focus on age-appropriate morals and values to construct specific schemas in a child’s mind.
For instance, I was pretty against fantasy with my first. We focused very much on Montessori aligned pragmatic books. Until she started to struggle with anxiety. At which point I started researching why Waldorf read (dark) fairy tales to children. What I discovered was these fairytales actually had a much deeper symbolism and laid a strong foundation in our children for good winning over evil. Without these “tracks” built in their brain, we are leaving our children susceptible to being defined by a negative experience they have first hand. The key with fantasy is to only choose age appropriate stories (do not read the original Cinderella to a 4 year old!).
On the note above, obviously children in each setting will engage in pretend play.
However, because the Montessori approach is based so closely to real life, pretend play for Montessori students may look like reenacting what they saw the adults doing in the kitchen.
Whereas in a Waldorf setting, the child’s imagination has been filled with stories so you may see them reenact the story of “Sweet Porridge” in fantasy play.
Both Steiner and Montessori agreed that zero to six years old was about imitation in the child’s brain development, but they chose different approaches for how to proceed with this information.
This is a loaded section so I’ll briefly touch on it because it’s honestly beyond my scope of knowledge and people have very strong views on all fronts.
Dr. Montessori was an academic, Italian Catholic. Her belief was very much that teachers should limit their own personalities in the classroom, in order to give space for children’s personalities to fully emerge. You won’t hear much in the way of criticism on this approach, because again, it’s about letting the child unfold. Although, as years went on, she seemed to leave the Catholic church, and move more towards the Theosophical societies beliefs. Something you can see in her higher education curriculums.
Steiner on the other hand is a much more controversial human. His initial roots lie in the theosophy, basically the human soul undergoes reincarnation as a process of “karma” through spiritual emancipation of the human experience. But then went on to create his own spiritual belief system, anthroposophy, which he described as “knowledge produced by the higher self in man.” He believed humans could contact spiritual worlds.
Here’s what he had to say on it:
“Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge, to guide the Spiritual in the human being to the Spiritual in the universe. It arises in man as a need of the heart, of the life of feeling; and it can be be justified only inasmuch as it can satisfy this inner need. He alone can acknowledge anthroposophy, who finds in it what he himself in his own inner life feels impelled to seek. Hence only they can be anthroposophists who feel certain questions on the nature of man and the universe as an elemental need of life, just as one feels hunger and thirst.”
Steiner, Rudolf. Anthroposophical Leading Thoughts, London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1973
Both of these ultimately have undertones of a Universal oneness, a Cosmic connection through the Universe. Though because Montessori started her school early in her life/career you won’t see this as much heavy of an influence until later years. Whereas Steiner started Waldorf schools in the last 6 years of his life, so it’s really the culmination of his beliefs.
Biggest Criticisms of each:
What’s wrong with Montessori?
Too much freedom
The biggest criticism of Montessori I’ve seen is that it’s too much freedom.
One of the famous Montessori quotes is “freedom within limits.” Which essentially means children are free to do as they please, within reason of course. However many people struggle with what “limits” actually are. Thus Montessori children can feel spoiled, aggressive, or entitled in some people’s opinions.
Parents touring a Montessori classroom environment who do not learn about the philosophy may find the classroom or teacher cold and standoffish.
Forces children to grow up too fast
On the flip side of “not enough structure” some feel that the structure available to children, is too mature. Often this comes from not understanding that “work is the play of the child.” And thus they think kids are being forced to grow up too fast or aren’t having fun.
In modern times, it certainly has added to the pressure cooker of producing “high achieving kids” where Montessori schools are not necessarily following what Dr. Montessori wanted with children moving at their own pace, and are forcing reading and writing on children before they are ready because that is what we’ve come to expect.equate with the Montessori method.
Not trademarked/Quality issues
The name “Montessori” was never trademarked, thus any preschool, day care, toy or program can slap “Montessori” next to it’s name without any sort of training or accreditation. This has led to many Montessori schools popping up, that do not follow the Montessori method at all.
Additionally, Montessori has been equated to wooden toys and natural materials on social media feeds in the early years, which really has nothing to do with the montessori philosophy.
Repressive in nature
Montessori believed children from zero to six years old were in the “Absorbent mind” phase. Yet teachers were asked to check their personalities at the door. Meaning kids aren’t given the opportunity to model a great deal of nuance in the early childhood education setting. For my daughter, this left her feeling extremely anxious and untethered.
Struggles in teams
Additionally, due to the independent self-directed nature of Montessori classrooms, these children may have a harder time being a “team player” or in groups.
Why is Waldorf bad?
Religious and Cult Like Feel
Many distrust the spiritual and religious doctrines that color Waldorf’s education. While Waldorf schools are technically not affiliated with any religion, they do tell stories very much inspired by the Bible.
Critics have also likened nature rituals found in Waldorf to worshipping Paganism.
Racism + Antisemitism
The racist and anti-semitic undertones of Steiner’s beliefs that crept into the educational model is a heavily debated topic. One that many Waldorf schools have come out and renounced, while others have clearly held them throughout the schooling.
This is a pretty deep and nuanced conversation but here are the spark notes:
- The Theosophical Society, including some of its founders and members (like Steiner) had relationships to varying degrees with Nazi’s. Some people argue it was the Theosophical society who laid the framework for Hitler and the Nazi’s…
- “Reincarnation through the Races” is a belief that is exactly what it sounds like, and one that others held beyond Steiner, but hat Steiner published a great deal of work around as a philosopher. Essentially the belief was exactly what Hitler used: People reincarnate up through the races until they achieve the Aryan race as the top.
- Others argue that these views were reflective of the times, and that Steiner has actually published a lot of conflicting work around these two beliefs.
How to navigate this at a Waldorf School:
- Ask for a list of the required reading and trainings Waldorf Teachers must go through. These are typically around Steiner’s views, and become very familiar with which pieces the school has chosen to keep circulating.
- Ask if there is a skin toned crayon basket in the class, and if not, can you bring one in.
- LOOK AROUND! Is there diversity in the school? Not just amongst the staff, but the children.
- Do a google search and look at reddit forums to see if there are any students or teachers who left and have things to share
Waldorf schools require a lot of parent engagement
Given everything I just shared, this should be seen as a good thing, because you’ll know pretty quickly if this is or isn’t a match.
But many Waldorf schools require no (or very strict use of) TV at home. Required reading for parents. And parents nights are more like “book clubs” where you dig deep into child development instead of standardized tests.
Due to Steiner’s beliefs around karma and the souls need to seek, teachers following his methods don’t always intervene on things like bullying and the like, because they believe it’s the soul calling those experiences in and only the individual can heal it.
Definitely be sure to ask your school how they handle bullying, pay attention to changes in your child, and prepare them accordingly.
Is Montessori or Waldorf education better?
They both have their pros and cons.
Personally, I believe in a hybrid and think both are better than traditional education.
In favor of Montessori
As a former Montessori student, in my former career as a mental health counselor, I remember sitting in a team building day where we were doing an exercise choosing our clinical teams guiding “word of the year.” We had to freeform write whatever came to our mind during a set time, then narrow our list and share with our coworkers. Of course, one of the top picks on my list was “fun.” I was the youngest person in the room and was met with eye rolls and guffaws. I remember one person even saying, “are you kidding? Fun is for after work, what we do here is life and death.” To which I replied, “and that’s exactly why fun should be guiding us in the office.” For me, the idea that “work is work and fun is for the weekend” never sat right and I largely accredit my LOVE for work to Montessori’s definition. My daughter sees my joy and love for work and often sits in my lap while I write blog posts or edit videos. My philosophy in life is to live one you don’t need to retire from. Life’s too short and work should feel like play.
The other notable thing that I went through around that time in my career, was discovering just how much young adults, and people, struggle with practical life skills. So much so that I even wrote a 200 page life skills curriculum and taught it locally to groups and worked with individuals for almost two years. This is something BOTH educational methods teach.
Personal cons of montessori
Now with that said, I once heard a social worker say the difference between Montessori and Waldorf kids she saw in her practice came down to Waldorf kids having an easier time “fitting in” than Montessori kids. She explained that Montessori kids tended to hold stronger opinions and prefer to do things on their own. She felt that montessori kids had a harder time compromising and that Waldorf kids were very sociable.
As a montessori child myself, I agree with elements of her observation for sure; but I don’t think it’s as blanketed/black and white.
I am fiercely independent and very opinionated. I think Montessori kids have a tendency to questions things out of a need to make sense/organize information. And for a lot of people, they don’t like to be questioned. So they misinterpret Montessori kids natural curiosity as an abrasive criticism or personal attack on their own self worth/knowledge; which yes, can make montessori kids misunderstood and have a harder time.
Additionally, my daughter became very anxious and untethered at a Montessori school. I can likely only associate this with the repressive nature of the Montessori teacher in the learning environment.
In favor of Waldorf schools
With that said, I innately have a lot incommon with Waldorf. I believe in grounding the child and honoring nature, the power of colors on the psyche, learning about the seasonal rhythms of the world and how we are connected to them. I think spiritual growth is immensely important and beautiful for children; and is a vital part in educating the whole child.
My oldest child simply did not fit into Montessori’s pedagogy. She taught me first hand these last couple of years the modern practice of both Montessori and Waldorf and that some people innately skew one way over the other. My daughter’s critical thinking and problem solving is off the charts. Two things that are formulated much deeper in Waldorf through imaginative play and fantasy.
Cons of Waldorf
I pretty much outlined the cons above. While I 100% believe there are bad Waldorf schools and teachers out there, I think that goes with any system. Parents need to be on guard anytime you leave your child with anyone. I personally like that the negative history of Waldorf is so well known, because it’s easier to hold them accountable with many websites and reddit threads calling out problems much quicker than you may find in a traditional schooling system where guards are down a bit more.
Ultimately, I think it’s important for kids to feel supported in wherever their interests take them. I know it was very hard for me as a child trying to make sense of the things I knew deep down as adults often wrote it off as an “overactive imagination.”
I think the best approach actually depends on your child’s human design which is a video I’m SO excited to do this fall.
Human Design is like a blueprint to your soul. It has both Montessori and Waldorf elements to it. When I learned about it, it completely changed my life and explained SO much. There’s so much insight for parents in their children’s human design charts and it’s influenced so much of our parenting with our daughter.