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Question: I’ve been looking at different schools for my children and keep hearing about Montessori and Waldorf schools. How are these different from traditional schools?

Lara Ashmore responds: Montessori and Waldorf methods are two of the best known alternative approaches to traditional education. Other alternative approaches include democratic and free schools, homeschooling and unschooling. Both Montessori and Waldorf schools address all aspects of child development — not just academic preparation. Many families find these alternative learning environments well suited to their children and opt for these alternatives over public or traditional schools.

Montessori schools

The teacher's task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child. –- Maria Montessori

Montessori Schools were started by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), an Italian physician and educator. She originally worked with children who were institutionalized and had developmental delays. The Montessori approach is based on five areas: practical life, sensory awareness, language arts, math and cultural studies.

Montessori’s techniques were considered revolutionary and her successes were duplicated in schools throughout Europe. Today, Montessori schools are an increasingly popular choice in the United States.

Waldorf or Steiner schools

Anthroposophy embraces a spiritual view of the human being and the cosmos, but its emphasis is on knowing, not faith. It is a path in which the human heart and hand, and especially our capacity for thinking, are essential. — Rudolf Steiner

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), an Austrian writer and philosopher, created a school for factory workers children in Germany. The Waldorf approach is intended to stimulate the spirit, soul and body of the child.

Teacher training and certification
Montessori and Waldorf teachers undergo specialized training and certification in child development, educational philosophy and classroom techniques. Many schools may claim to be Montessori or Waldorf schools, but their teachers have not undergone this extensive training. It is always wise to ask specific details of teachers’ certifications.

Tuition is generally high at these alternative schools to cover the expense of high-quality classrooms materials and ongoing teacher training. There are international organizations for both types of schools that maintain a listing of certified and recognized schools.

Montessori and Waldorf: similarities and differences

A comparison of typical kindergarten classrooms in traditional, Montessori and Waldorf environments

  Traditional Montessori Waldorf
To teach academic standards and objectives as determined by the state government
To create lifelong learners, problem solvers and contributing members of society Preserve wonder and magic of childhood, beauty, imagination
Classes Children grouped by age Multi-age groupings Children grouped by age; teacher stays with same class for first 8 years
Teacher role
To present standardized curriculum
Carefully prepares the classroom environment and allows children to select activities Guides children in discovery and exploration
Curriculum Segmented curriculum Prepared environment, integrated curriculum, emphasis on practical and family life, sensory, cultural materials Emphasis on celebrating seasons and festivals, emphasis on multisensory activities, fairy tales, songs, Eurythmy (combination of music, dance and speech)
Reading Letter recognition and phonics instruction for pre-reading skills Reading can start as early as 4 years Reading not taught until 2nd or 3rd grade (after permanent teeth come in)
Classroom materials Workbooks, coloring sheets, manipulatives Moveable alphabet, counting beads, sandpaper letters, solid geometric forms, wooden manipulatives Dress-up clothes, pretend play materials
Art Materials Finger paints, play dough, crayons Pencils, crayons, clay, paints, sewing cards Watercolors, beeswax modeling
Toys Plastic toys, trains, dolls, blocks, puzzles Puzzles, touch and sound boxes, play housekeeping and gardening tools, food preparation tools Wool dolls, wood tree blocks, play silks
Assessment Standardized tests Individual progress reports, standardized tests optional Non-graded teacher observations

For families interested in alternatives to traditional education, Montessori and Waldorf schools are worthy of carefully consideration. There are even homeschooling programs now available that incorporate these educational philosophies at home.

Learn more
Hot Topic: Educating Your Child: Does Method Matter? Montessori vs. Waldorf

Introduction to Educational Alternatives by Robin Ann Martin (includes Waldorf, Montessori and other alternatives)

Article comparing and contrasting Waldorf and Montessori by Barbara Shell (from a Waldorf perspective)

Montessori resources
Montessori, Maria, (1964). The Montessori Method. Schocken Books: New York.

AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) founded by Maria Montessori

Montessori schools (AMS-afilliated)

Montessori supplies and publications from Michael Olaf

Waldorf resources
Steiner, Rudolf. (2003) What Is Waldorf Education?: Three Lectures. Anthroposophic Press: Herndon, Va.

Waldorf Answers

Waldorf Schools (Association of Waldorf Schools of North America)

Waldorf supplies and toys

© Lara Ashmore

Lara is the founder and director of the Dallas, Texas, vegetarian group Veggie KIDS. She currently works with the Robert Muller Center for Living Ethics exploring creative uses of technology and conducts parent and teacher education workshops on a variety of topics including multiple intelligences, parenting in the digital age, multimedia scrapbooking and digital storytelling.


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