There are countless teaching methods when it comes to choosing a preschool curriculum. Montessori and Waldorf early childhood education have some similarities, but there are important differences to consider. Although both Montessori and Waldorf schools are play-based and believe that a connection to nature and the environment are vital, Montessori‘s method focuses on real-life experiences, while Waldorf’s emphasis is on the child’s imagination.
Montessori schools are named after their founder, Dr. Maria Montessori. She was the first female physician in Italy, and believed that children possess a natural intelligence. Dr. Montessori also subscribed to the belief that children’s development is marked by changes every three years, and the Montessori schools are designed around this philosophy.
Montessori preschools usually serve children three years of age through kindergarten or age six. Montessori called this period of childhood the “conscious absorbent mind,” believing that children of this age seek out sensory input, regulation of movement, order, and freedom to choose activities and explore them deeply.
The educational approach of Montessori is child-centered, and each child is valued as a unique individual. Children work alone or in groups, sitting or lying on small mats. Montessori materials are designed to be self-teaching and self-correcting. The materials and the students themselves are the teachers. Montessori teachers act as facilitators, working with the children individually and in small groups rather than as directors of the entire class. Materials are typically made of natural materials such as wood, ceramic, metal, and glass.
Children ages three, four, and five are usually all in same room. Children generally have the same teacher for three years, which allows teachers and students to develop close relationships. The mixed-age aspect encourages older children to help and serve as role models to the younger children, which helps them build their confidence.
Montessori preschools cover four different learning areas, including:
- Practical life involves activities such as pouring and stirring, cutting, pasting, and painting at an easel, which helps children develop their fine and gross motor skills.
- Sensorial includes materials that help children learn shape, sound, form, feel, and color. They use materials such as cylinder blocks, which contain 10 cylinders with knobs, each cylinder fitting into its respective hole. Children take the cylinders out and work to figure out how to put them back where they belong. This activity indirectly teaches kids how to hold a pencil, problem solve, and persevere to reach goals.
- Language and reading play a major role in a Montessori preschool. Rather than writing letters, children trace their fingers over sandpaper letters to feel how each is formed. Instead of reciting the alphabet, they learn the sounds each letter makes. With this approach, many Montessori children leave kindergarten proficient readers.
- Math is taught by working with manipulatives such as strings of beads and the Pink Tower, which is a stacking collection of blocks that are arranged visually in descending order, from smallest to largest.
Montessori’s focus on personal development and learning through play helps children develop a lifelong love of learning. Many children who attend Montessori preschools are very mature, creative, socially adept, and well-prepared for reading and math when they enter elementary school.
Founded by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher, Waldorf education espouses a unity of spirit, soul, and body, which is reflected in their common theme of heart, head, and hands. Waldorf schools group children in three cycles of seven-year stages, and preschool children have the same teacher for several years.
Although Waldorf is a play-based education approach, there is also a firm daily structure and routine, with set activities such as baking or gardening for each day of the week. Before age seven, Waldorf focuses on imaginative play and learning through imitation and doing.
Imaginative play is seen as the catalyst through which the child grows and develops, and there is an emphasis on creative learning, storytelling, singing, music and acting. It is believed that fostering the young child’s imagination will lay the groundwork needed for later academic subjects such as math and reading.
The Waldorf teacher initiates and directs learning, and there is an emphasis on cooperation. The classroom setting is very homey—warm and friendly, with natural materials and wooden toys, which bring a sense of spirituality and harmony to the classroom.
Children spend a lot of time playing outdoors and doing other activities such as painting, baking bread, listening to stories, using puppets, working in the garden or building with blocks. While the Waldorf environment is very structured, it is also serene and unhurried.
Regardless of which approach you choose, both Montessori and Waldorf believe in educating the whole child, and each philosophy teaches valuable social, emotional and academic skills that can help children thrive and reach their full potential.