The Difference Between Montessori, Waldorf, And Reggio Emilia (2023)

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Choosing the right preschool or kindergarten for your little one can often feel like a life-or-death decision. Is the school safe and loving? Is the teacher qualified? Does it meet my child’s needs while pushing them to grow? It’s a big deal!

Today we’re spotlighting three of the most popular preschool programs in the U.S. – Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia. These programs tick all the boxes for modern parents seeking a supportive, child-centered preschool.

We’ll dive into the many similarities as well as the differences between each school, equipping you with the knowledge you need to find the right fit for your child.

As a mother and researcher, learning about learning is my jam! I’m excited to share more about these incredible philosophies with you. Let’s go!

The Difference Between Montessori, Waldorf, And Reggio Emilia (1)

Table of Contents

What Are Montessori, Waldorf, And Reggio Emilia?

Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia represent the most popular non-traditional educational philosophies within the sphere of early childhood development. (Think infant care through kindergarten).

An educational philosophy describes certain beliefs around education such as its value and purpose, its implementation, and even how education fits into society as a whole.

Educators consider Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia progressive educational philosophies. Originally developed in Europe and inspired by pioneers of the New Education movement, these philosophies include an unusual amount of focus on developing the character and social skills of a child.

Academic work and rote memorization take a back seat to developing a young person who functions well within a community or culture.

Now let’s take a look at how these philosophies function in a school setting.

(Video) MONTESSORI vs REGGIO EMILIA // Key Similarities & Differences

Comparing Progressive Schools To Traditional Schools – Are They So Different?

A traditional school system (i.e. public schools, many preschools, and private schools) involves structured, hierarchical environments where a teacher determines the topic and how to deliver the information to students.

Within a traditional setting, many educators alter their academic planning throughout the year to reflect their students’ learning styles, but with strict curriculum requirements, there is a limit to their flexibility.


Progressive schools flip the traditional model on its head. A child’s interests, developmental goals, and individual learning styles inform and create the academic plan for progressive educators.

Class sizes in progressive schools are often smaller to permit a higher level of individual attention. But be warned: smaller student-to-teacher ratios and specialized materials typically involve a heftier price tag for parents.

Children thrive in both traditional and progressive school settings, and while I’m a huge supporter of progressive education, I was in traditional schools my entire life and learned a ton!

What Do All Three Educational Philosophies Have In Common?

You might be wondering what these three progressive educational philosophies have in common. The short answer – a lot!

Progressive schools such as Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia operate using similar foundational principles, including:

  • Egalitarianism (Their methods are beneficial to all genders and socioeconomic classes)
  • Emphasis on the natural world and the use of natural materials
  • Child-led learning
  • Mixed-age classrooms
  • Interdependencies (The teacher, the child, families, and the environment work in harmony)
  • Buy-in to the philosophy of the school recommended (or even required) for parents

Despite their many similarities, each philosophy approaches child-led learning in distinct ways. If given the choice between them, consider your child’s disposition and learning style when selecting the best school for your family.

What Features Are Unique to Each Philosophy?

Each educational philosophy builds upon a rich history of pioneering child development research.

We’ll barely scratch the surface of their differences in this article, but I’ve included enough information to prepare prospective families planning to visit a progressive preschool or primary school for the first time.

In addition, keep in mind that modern ideas and emerging research naturally influence how Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio-Emilia schools look in practice today.

How strictly each school adheres to a given educational model will depend on that school’s individual culture and values.

Plenty of schools (like my son’s) borrow ideas from one or more of these philosophies without using the labels “Montessori” or “Waldorf”. Don’t be afraid to expand your school search to other self-directed or child-led programs!

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What Features Are Unique to Montessori?

Through years of scientific observation, founder Dr. Maria Montessori determined that children enter four planes or periods of development before reaching young adulthood at age 24.

(Video) Early Childhood Education (Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio Emilia)

The Montessori method utilizes these planes to understand a child’s learning style, interests, personal goals, physiological and psychological needs, and so much more.

(I refer to these planes of development all the time as a parent! They’re a great resource).

In classrooms, teachers (also known as guides) use systematic observations in the style of Dr. Montessori to uncover subtle clues about a child’s inner thoughts, needs, and motivations. The teacher takes this knowledge and applies it to their class plans and activities.

Long periods of focused free play precede periods of rest and recovery. Students concentrate on improving their skills with important everyday tasks like using a zipper or wiping a table.

Montessori classrooms evoke a sense of order and calm. Montessori schools strive for beauty and minimalism in their decor, which serves to invite a child to play, promote quiet focus, and permit independent movement.

Is Montessori A Good Fit For Your Child?

A Montessori education offers structure and sequence as well as time-tested curriculums. Children attend Montessori programs through high school even in the United States.

In addition, classroom activities lean towards close-ended work with clearly defined endpoints that are easily assessed. In this way, Montessori schools are not a huge leap for families accustomed to the traditional school system.

Due to its popularity, Montessori parents also enjoy a wealth of free, high-quality online resources (see our articles on Montessori Reading, Montessori Potty Training, and more!)

One of the great things about the Montessori method is that parents can also locate these materials as well as established communities of Montessori parents and more options for schools.

Traditional Montessori programs can prove challenging for children preferring group work, kinesthetic learning, or project-based learning. Montessori students complete work on a floor mat while sitting or at a small table and much of their work is individual.

Strict adherence to the original Montessori method is rare, so if your child is a wiggle worm or a social butterfly like mine, talk with the school’s director to find out more.

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What Features Are Unique to Waldorf?

Waldorf education (founded by Rudolf Steiner) is based on the belief that children nurtured in a loving environment with compassionate and prepared adults become peaceful, community-minded members of society. Makes sense to me!

Like Dr. Montessori, Mr. Steiner believed children experience cycles of growth now described in modern Waldorf classes as hands, heart, and head. Based on these growth cycles, young children do not start any “academic” learning, including reading and writing, until they are 7 years old.

Instead, the first seven years encourage whole-body learning where all of a child’s available senses activate.

(Video) Waldorf vs. Montessori Education: What's the Difference?

All Waldorf classrooms include a rhythm of the day, a daily schedule guided by the seasons, and the needs of the students. Pretend play, crafting, plenty of time outdoors, and oral storytelling are central components of the daily rhythm.

While all three educational philosophies promote the use of natural materials, Waldorf takes it to another level. Visiting a Waldorf classroom feels like stepping back in time before the era of plastic toys or electronic devices.

Is Waldorf A Good Fit For Your Child?

Providing a Waldorf education for your child is a way of life.

Don’t be surprised if the school sends home a list of recommendations on how to carry Waldorf into the home, including severely limiting or eliminating screen time for any student under 7 years old. Waldorf schools also tend to develop a close-knit community of like-minded parents.

Children with developmental delays or unique educational needs benefit from the structure of Waldorf classrooms where children are grouped by developmental skill rather than by age. The experiential, sensory-heavy, and gently paced activities suit children with higher sensory needs, too.

Like in Montessori, the Waldorf curriculum covers students from preschool all the way to high school. Literature, math, science, and history are eventually covered as part of the curriculum for older children.

Finally, The Waldorf curriculum derived many of its ideas from a spiritual science developed by Rudolf Steiner. This may or may not clash with your family’s own spiritual ideas and practices, so it’s worth researching and discussing with the school’s director.

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What Features Are Unique to Reggio-Emilia?

Parents and educators living in Reggio Emilia, Italy first developed the Reggio Emilia method of learning during the economic recovery following WWII.

The method is so unique to its geography that Reggio cannot be faithfully replicated anywhere else. Instead, modern schools following Reggio Emilia classify themselves as Reggio-inspired.

Early childhood education philosophers like John Dewey heavily influenced Reggio Emilia, resulting in a curriculum full of hands-on learning within a community-focused culture.

Reggio instructors, called atelierista, place the child at the center of their own learning “story.” With plenty of training, atelierista uses written, verbal, and visual documentation to make a child’s learning process apparent to the child.

If, like me, you find this a bit challenging to visualize, check out these documentation examples from an actual Reggio-inspired classroom!

The role of parents and community in Reggio Emilia is essential. Reggio emphasizes a child’s sense of place in the world (in their family, their community, their city, and even globally) as central to their understanding of themselves.

Is Reggio-Emilia A Good Fit For Your Child?

Reggio-inspired preschools offer only open-ended activities. Artistic expression, creativity, and self-development take priority over anything resembling academic work. For this reason, I consider Reggio Emilia the most progressive of the three educational philosophies discussed.

(Video) MONTESSORI VS WALDORF

This philosophy of education might fall outside the comfort zone for parents concerned about a lack of formal curriculum or academic kindergarten readiness.

Highly social kids, budding artists, and children who naturally lean toward group work thrive in Reggio Emilia programs. Fully mixed age groups offer unique peer collaboration experiences for younger and older children.

Finally, unless you’re in a major city, locating a Reggio-inspired school requires some research. While some elementary, middle, and high schools borrow ideas from Reggio, you’re also not likely to find the Reggio-Emilia philosophy applied outside of preschool or kindergarten.

So… Will It Be Montessori, Waldorf, Or Reggio Emilia? Maybe Something Else Entirely?

Phew! We just covered loads of new concepts, ideas, and information to factor into your search for preschools or schools for your little one.

Perhaps you’re sold on progressive schools and ready to take the leap? Or maybe a traditional school environment feels more like your child’s speed? At Undefining Motherhood, we’re always pro what works for you and your kiddos!

Keep in mind what a school looks like on its website and how they function in real life sometimes differ, so don’t skimp on a full tour of your child’s school before going through the admissions process. The school AND the family gotta vibe!

Wherever your search leads you, we hope you find a nurturing environment for your child that also meets the needs of you and your family. You got this!

The Difference Between Montessori, Waldorf, And Reggio Emilia (5)

Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio-Emilia each offer a unique approach to child-focused learning. Which educational philosophy speaks to you?

Britt Carter

Brittany Cantrell is an Epidemiologist at her local health department who oversees a team of beautiful, talented women. Though she specializes in infectious disease prevention, she is a strong advocate for all public health professionals. She is the owner and author of the mindful travel blog, The World Enough, where readers are empowered to live with presence and without fear. She was born and raised in the rolling foothills of the north Georgia mountains. In her spare time, you can find her helplessly pinned to the couch by one of her two cats, heading to a yoga class, or planning her next adventure.

(Video) Reggio & Montessori- similarities & differences

FAQs

The Difference Between Montessori, Waldorf, And Reggio Emilia? ›

Reggio Emilia focuses more on collaborative learning whereas Montessori focuses on independent learning. Reggio Emilia classrooms are more flexible and open-ended whereas Montessori areas are more structured. Reggio Emilia teachers are seen as partners and guides whereas Montessori teachers are seen as directors.

What are the similarities between Waldorf Montessori and Reggio Emilia? ›

The similarities between Montessori and Reggio Emilia classrooms encourage children to think freely, with open areas for students to explore and self-guide their own learning. Both high-quality, unconventional classroom environments support the unique learning models of each school.

What is the disadvantage of Reggio Emilia approach? ›

The Cons of Reggio Emilia

As learning is child-directed and project based, it is very difficult to show parents that their children are actually learning. There are no worksheets sent home, as an example, to show that their child has learnt their letters of the alphabet.

Can you combine Montessori and Reggio Emilia? ›

In a school that combines Montessori and Reggio Emilia approach, a teacher might set out Montessori materials in Reggio-style centers. Depending on the needs of the learners, she may choose to present the Montessori work process or simply allow the students to explore.

Why is Reggio Emilia approach the best? ›

Unlike traditional elementary schools where the curriculum is extremely structured, a Reggio Emilia curriculum is flexible, hands-on, and largely interest-based. This approach allows children to guide their own learning experiences, based on their passions, interests, thoughts, and observations.

What are 3 similarities and 3 differences between the Montessori & Reggio Emilia approach? ›

Both approaches come from taly. Both promote self-guided learning. Reggio Emilia focuses more on collaborative learning whereas Montessori focuses on independent learning. Reggio Emilia classrooms are more flexible and open-ended whereas Montessori areas are more structured.

Why Montessori is better than Waldorf? ›

Main differences between Montessori and Waldorf schools. Academics: Montessori schools focus more on core academics, at least in preschool. Waldorf schools normally don't introduce core academics, at least formally, until grade 1 or 2. Work and play: Montessori schools favour work over play.

What is the criticism of Reggio Emilia? ›

Criticisms of Reggio Emilia Schooling

The main criticism of the Reggio approach is that it is not a formal model, with defined methods, and teacher certification. Without teacher certification it is sometimes difficult for teachers to truly know how to implement this model, and classrooms can sometimes be chaotic.

What are the critiques of Reggio Emilia? ›

A criticism of the Reggio Emilia curriculum has been that in the absence of a written curriculum there is a lack of accountability to the wider society. Advocates of the Reggio Emilia approach argue that there is a detailed recording of the curriculum process, which opens their practice to criticism and scrutiny.

Is Reggio Emilia play based? ›

Yes, the Reggio Emilia method is play-based, allowing children to use hands-on exploration to discover and explore their interests. Using play as a medium, children are actively encouraged to use all five senses to explore the world around them.

Are there 3 teachers in Reggio Emilia schools? ›

The Reggio approach suggests there are three “teachers” that are involved with children's learning – the parents, the classroom teachers, and the environment of the classroom.

Does Reggio Emilia teach math? ›

The Reggio Emilia philosophy believes that math is understood and mastered through real life problem solving; through direct experimentation and observation, math concepts are learned.

Are Reggio parents the first teacher? ›

Parents, after all, provide the ultimate welfare of students, and are therefore granted total respect by Reggio Emilia instructors as the child's first teacher.

Does Reggio Emilia have a curriculum? ›

The Reggio Emilia approach is an educational philosophy and pedagogy focused on preschool and primary education. This approach is a student-centered and constructivist self-guided curriculum that uses self-directed, experiential learning in relationship-driven environments.

What is unique about Reggio Emilia? ›

Unlike other philosophies, the Reggio Emilia approach encourages that children should be treated as active collaborators and not subjects or passive observers.

What is the main focus of Reggio Emilia? ›

The Reggio Emilia philosophy is an approach to teaching, learning and advocacy for children. In its most basic form, it is a way of observing what children know, are curious about and what challenges them.

What age group is Reggio Emilia for? ›

The Reggio Emilia approach, developed by Italian psychologist Loris Malaguzzi in the late 1970's, is an educational philosophy focused on preschool students aged 3 to 5 years.

Is Waldorf play based? ›

Striving to be figures worthy of imitation, Waldorf early childhood educators nurture each child's flowering, providing gentle, yet sensory rich environments and play-based activities that encourage the young child to investigate the natural world, explore social relationships, and expand imaginative capacities.

What is alternative to Montessori? ›

Waldorf schools have a similar classroom environment as Montessori schools with many of the classrooms being mixed-age / grade classrooms. However, the main difference is in the learning styles, Waldorf focuses on creative play and Montessori has a structured educational curriculum.

What are the weaknesses of Waldorf education? ›

Some common drawbacks mentioned in connection with Waldorf schools are the same things that many parents like, such as the lack of emphasis on technology and standardized testing, and the focus on imaginative play in early childhoood (formal reading instruction does not begin until first grade).

What was Montessori most criticized for? ›

Some critics say that Montessori's emphasis on allowing students to explore their environments for themselves and work on their own projects discourages social interaction. Some go so far as to say it hurts children's social development.

What type of child thrives in Montessori? ›

Kids with special needs, such as learning or physical disabilities, often thrive in a Montessori setting. 3 Materials used in Montessori settings engage all the senses. Students are free to move about the classroom, which is an advantage for those children who require a lot of physical activity.

Is the Reggio Emilia approach child-centered? ›

Reggio Emilia is a child-centered approach to early childhood education that was developed in a northern Italian town of the same name shortly after World War II, and Reggio-inspired practice is a teacher's and/or school's interpretation of the Reggio Emilia approach.

Does Reggio Emilia prepare for kindergarten? ›

Preparing children for kindergarten

Reggio preschool programs help prepare children for kindergarten by emphasizing state learning standards through on-going educational experiences.

Is Reggio Emilia student centered? ›

Many schools in the U.S. take inspiration from Reggio Emilia, offering a student-centered environment that encourages children to learn through experience, express themselves and play a role in directing their education.

What does a Reggio Emilia classroom look like? ›

A Reggio inspired classroom is a nontraditional learning environment where there are no assigned seats. Children have easy access to supplies and learning material, and are consistently inspired and encouraged to direct their own learning.

What does art in a Reggio classroom look like? ›

Art Inside the Reggio Emilia Classroom

Rather than leading children through product-oriented art activities, teachers offer students mediums like colored pencils, tape and glue, watercolor paints and brush, clay or collage artifacts, allowing them to experience the process of creating art.

How are Reggio Emilia classrooms different from traditional classrooms? ›

In a traditional classroom setting, it is very teacher-centric, and teachers lead the class with a particular, predetermined curriculum. The Reggio Emilia philosophy, however, puts the child in control, so the classroom is child-centered where the teachers and children are working together in learning.

Is Reggio Emilia Religious? ›

Reggio Emilia Cathedral (Italian: Duomo di Reggio Emilia; Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta) is a Roman Catholic cathedral (and one of the three main religious buildings) in Reggio Emilia (Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy).

What is an example of Reggio Emilia? ›

Reggio Emilia examples Here are some examples of Reggio Emilia in the classroom: Digging and pouring in a sensory table. Experimenting with art and drawing on an easel, paper, or other materials. Discovering insects, leaves, and flowers, and sorting and collecting things they find in the playground.

What are Reggio activities? ›

Reggio Emilia activities are self-guided and aim to allow children to have rich educational experiences through hands-on learning and relationship building. Its fundamental principles are respect, responsibility and community, which are to be achieved through exploration, discovery and play.

What are two similarities between a Reggio classroom and a Montessori classroom? ›

Flexible learning: Both Montessori and Reggio schools give students lots of freedom. With some guidance from the teacher, kids can choose their own work and activities. They're also free to move around the classroom, work independently or in groups, and work at their own pace.

What are the similarities and differences between Montessori and Waldorf? ›

Even though both strategies lay strong emphasis on experiential learning and the role of the child, their underlying philosophies diverge. While Montessori education encourages natural curiosity with a focus on independent learning, Waldorf schooling emphasizes holistic advancement through creativity and imagination.

Can you identify the similarities between Montessori and Waldorf education? ›

Commonalities Between Waldorf and Montessori Methods

They both lean toward the idea that less is more, limiting the use of computers and technology in exchange for toys that encourage imagination, role play, and the development of fine motor skills.

What are two similarities between the views that Maria Montessori and John Dewey held about learning? ›

Dewey and Montessori educational philosophies John Dewey and Maria Montessori both were the famous scholars on early childhood education, their philosophies were similarly to advocated learn by doing, child-centered and education needs to value the social interactions between the children and the environment.

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