Montessori vs Waldorf – a comparison

The difference between Waldorf and Montessori

What is the difference between Waldorf, also often called Steiner approach, and Montessori methodology?

I am going to help you take a look at the two a bit closer so you can understand the philosophies and see which one is right for you.

Obviously, being a Montessori trained teacher, I am biased. 

There are lots of Waldorf and Montessori similarities and they are both among the fastest growing education systems in the world. They both respect the child as an individual and emphasize the need to educate them as spiritual and creative beings.

They also both encourage the importance of a natural learning environment and limit the child's exposure to technology and television, while including lots of access to the arts.

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The Difference between Waldorf and Montessori

There are a few key differences between the Waldorf and Montessori methodology that may affect which one you decide is right for your family.

The Waldorf system was created by Rudolph Steiner who was a scientist and philosopher and is based on seven year cycles of spiritual development. It delays any formal learning such as reading, writing or math until the age of seven and instead focuses on the arts and make believe.

The Montessori system was developed my Dr Maria Montessori by observing and supporting the child's natural development. Learning is based around real life play but is led by the child so reading or writing are introduced when they show an interest in it.

The children in Montessori schools are grouped in three different age ranges: 3-6, 6-12 and 12-15 but are taught individually, whereas in Waldorf schools the set up is more traditional with children kept with others of their own age and each group's activities are led by a teacher. 

A key difference between Waldorf and Montessori teaching is the focus on make-believe or real life play. Waldorf believes children are naturally imaginative and teachings are based around storytelling and fantasy.

Montessori believes that children prefer to replicate the activities they see around them and create any imaginative play from real life experiences.

Why did I choose Montessori?

I chose and feel more comfortable with Montessori as it is based on the observation of the child so it is more in line with their natural needs. Dr Montessori said:

“It is not true that I invented what is called the Montessori Method. I have studied the child, I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it, and that is what is called the Montessori Method”

She had no preconceived ideas about children and education - she observed the children entrusted in her care and from those observations, designed her system.

If we truly observe and follow the child, some of them will eagerly read and write and count before they turn 6. Some of them will not. In Montessori, there is no need to reach a standard by the end of the year or push or delay their learning.

I also believe that many children struggle with fantasy. They find it difficult to understand the abstract and in fact, can be quite sensitive to, or scared of it, preferring reality based stories.

Young children's play is influenced by their experiences and although they may take one thing and turn it into something else – a wooden block becomes a sandwich – they rarely create scenarios beyond what they know.

Another criticism of Steiner's philosophy, is its lack of scientific integrity. His views on science, human evolution and so on were based on his own spiritual beliefs. He believed in Karma and reincarnation. More specifically, he believed in reincarnation in a specific race according to how evolved the person is. He also argued that if human beings develop brotherliness then the concept of race would be overcome. 

Even if current Waldorf/Steiner associations claim that the modern Steiner education is inclusive and non-racist, there is compelling evidence that Steiner believed in a superior race. He said "If the blonds and blue-eyed people die out, the human race will become
increasingly dense... Blond hair actually bestows intelligence... Brown- and dark-haired people drive the substances into their eyes and hair that the fair people retain in their brains.”
(Rudolf Steiner, HEALTH AND ILLNESS, VOL. 1. Lectures from 1922 Anthroposophic Press, 1981, pp. 85-86.). Those views were "mainstream" at the time of Rudolf Steiner and doesn't reflect what the Steiner movement is nowadays.

This quote also divides and you will need to make up your own mind. (Pro-Waldorf here, against Steiner here). 

As that idea is so wrong, it made me rethink some of his other ideas and I don't see them in line with what we know of the child's development. From what I read about Steiner schools, it's not clear how they present Steiner's ideas and the influence of the original ideas in today's classroom. 

Those are the reasons I have never considered a Steiner school for my children. 

However, using some insights from the Waldorf education at home is different.

Steiner died in 1925, only 6 years after he had set up the first Waldorf school. It's likely that the movement has evolved greatly. He also died before the Nazi's regime was in place. I wonder if he would have make some statements about his original writing about races. 

Maria Montessori went through the 2 World Wars, flew 2 fascist regimes and it shows her pacific view all along. But don't get me wrong, she first was delighted to be financially supported by Mussolini.  On the orderista blog, the author said: "As the years went by, Dr. Montessori’s ideological viewpoints, mainly as a pacifist, clashed with the Fascist administration and her mutual relationship with Mussolini ended. The situation became particularly worse in 1931 when Maria refused to order her teachers to take the fascist loyalty oaths, as all teachers, government employees and professionals were ordered to do. Furious, Mussolini closed the Montessori schools, and by 1934 Maria fled Italy to escape political surveillance and harassment". 

Historically, the Waldorf movement was mainly in Europe until the 50' then started to grow and develop in the 70' in the United States. It's likely (although I cannot pinpoint you to a specific source) that the movement has evolved and has been interpreted by schools and teachers in their own way. I can imagine that parents have taken on board some principles and made Waldorf extremely appealing. I am also attracted by the beauty of Waldorf toys and celebrations (as I was attracted by the Montessori materials to start with).

The Montessori movement is still very similar to its original ideas as Maria Montessori supervised and developed the schools and trainings to a set of standards for nearly 50 years. Her family is still the garant of her work and that makes it a strong, scientific and evidence based method. Angeline Stoll Lillard,a Professor of psychology, wrote the book  "Montessori: the science behind the genius". She shows that science has finally caught up with Maria Montessori. 

Learning from Waldorf and Montessori similarities and differences


Choosing a Waldorf or Montessori approach for your child is an individual choice and both have many benefits. You might decide that one fits your child best and place them in a preschool or school that follows that methodology. Due to the fantasy-based aspect, the lack of scientific evidence and the connection with racist ideas, I chose not to send my children to a Waldorf school. When it comes to choosing an alternative method of education, it's not simply about choosing something that it's not mainstream.

I invite you to visit schools, Montessori or Waldorf schools, and to question them about their principles, their curriculum, the way they make their school inclusive. 

Waldorf at home

Otherwise, when it comes to learning at home, parents can choose elements from both that they think their child will benefit from.

Many families like the beautiful wooden toys inspired by the Waldorf philosophy and others appreciate the Art activities suggested such as painting wet on wet, watercolour and modelling with wax etc. 

And establishing a rhythm is a positive aspect of the Steiner education but not exclusive to that philosophy. 

Actually, in my opinion, these 3 positive aspects are already embedded in the Montessori philosophy.  

When it comes to choosing one or the other, I don't believe you have to be exclusive. It's all about respecting the individuality of the child and there is no rule saying you have to strictly follow or abstain from principles of both.

What about you? Are you considering a Waldorf school? Do you integrate some elements in your family life?

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About the Author Carine Robin

Carine Robin has a Master’s Degree in Psychology, specialising in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006. It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew and she qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a preschool. Carine has been running a Montessori based parents and toddler group and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 14000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world. In 2018, Carine realised families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.