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Three Approaches to Natural Learning: Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf

I have been reflecting on education and pondering the different options available to us when it comes to our children’s “school years,” a subject I plan to wrap up tomorrow. With all that on my mind, it seemed only appropriate that I post this article, which was originally published at the Natural Parents Network. For those who did not read it back then, I hope you enjoy! I would love to hear your thoughts on any or all of these methods. I’ll also be linking up to Montessori Monday at Living Montessori Now.

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The pre-language area in my former Montessori classroom in Austin.

While the multitude of options for child education are a wonderful thing, wading through the various guiding philosophies can feel a bit overwhelming. To make it a bit easier on parents, or perhaps to spark some interest, I’d like to give a brief overview of three of the most common “alternative” methods of child education. Be aware that there is so very much more to each of these. This is merely a bit of info to give you some background knowledge or perhaps to be a starting point for your own research.

The Origins of Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf

Montessori is the philosophy and practice developed by Dr. Maria Montessori of Italy. Dr. Montessori attended medical school at a time when women doing so was virtually unheard of. Upon graduation, she began work with institutionalized and mentally disabled children. She developed a range of materials and methods to aid them in their development, cognitive and otherwise. When her students, who had significant challenges to learning, performed just as well as did the “normal” children in the education system of her time, Montessori began to question that system and set out to try her methods with “normal” children. She established the first Casa Dei Bambini (“Children’s House”) for young children living in tenement housing in the San Lorenzo district of Rome, Italy in 1906.

Reggio Emilia also has its origins in Italy, in the province of Reggio Emilia. Its beginnings came in the wake of Italy’s post WWII freedom from fascist rule. The father of the approach was a middle school teacher by the name of Loris Malaguzzi, who collaborated with families to create a new system of education for young children – one that was child-centered, recognizing and honoring the individuality of each child. The first Reggio Emilia schools were truly a community effort, being built literally from the ground up by the families who would be part of their communities. Thanks to Malaguzzi’s work, by 1963, the city government had begun to assume responsibility for the management of the people’s schools and the first municipal preschool was opened.

Waldorf schools, also called Steiner Schools, are based on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher whose feelings on education were intimately connected to his spiritual philosophy. The first Waldorf school was started in Germany in 1919 following the publishing of Steiner’s first book on education in 1907, The Education of the Child. Interestingly, this first school was opened to serve the employees of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette company on a request from its owner. That first school quickly grew to include a large number of students with no connection to the factory, however, and before long the model had inspired the opening of similar schools around Europe. By 1938 the movement had made its way to the United States as well.

The Methods in Present Day

Montessori schools today serve children from birth all the way through high school. The age group most commonly served is the same one with which Dr. Montessori began her work in the first Children’s House: ages 2 to 6. The Montessori name is not protected, so there is nothing to prevent any individual, with or without training and an understanding of the philosophy, from opening a school and calling it a Montessori school. Because there is no single, central, organizing body with which schools must be registered, it is difficult to say exactly how many true schools there are, but montessori.edu estimates that there are approximately 4,000 certified Montessori schools in the US, and 7,000 worldwide. The majority of schools in the US are private, but public programs and charter schools do exist. There are some 200 public Montessori programs in North America today. The American Montessori Society and the Association Montessori Internationale are the two most widely recognized organizations certifying teachers and accrediting schools that follow Dr. Montessori’s philosophy and employing the materials she developed. Lists of affiliated schools can be found on their websites.

A model of the Solar System, a group project created by the students at the Olive Tree Learning Center (Reggio Emilia) in Austin, Texas. Submitted by Jordan, Reggio guide.

Reggio Emilia schools originally served children from infancy through age six, but in more recent years educators inspired by the model have sought to apply practices similar to those used in the schools of Reggio Emilia to the elementary, and even the middle school classroom as well. There is no prescribed Reggio Emilia method, no certifying organization, and no set of requirements, so it’s difficult to say how many Reggio inspired schools exist today. The North American Reggio Alliance provides a map of related schools, but it is certainly not exhaustive, showing only a handful of the schools in North America. Municipal Reggio Emilia infant-toddler centers and preschools continue to thrive in Reggio Emilia and serve as a point of reference for inspired educators around the world. A traveling exhibit called The Hundred Languages of Children was created by the teachers of Reggio Emilia in 1981 and showcases their work with the children.

Waldorf schools today are found in more than sixty countries, with some 2000 or more early childhood programs alone. North America has at least eleven training programs through which teachers can learn how to implement Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy with children. Waldorf programs serve children from birth through early childhood, and even through the high school years in some locations. Organizations such as the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America (WECAN), The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA), and the International Association for Steiner/Waldorf Early Childhood Education (IASWECE) help to preserve the ideals of Waldorf Education, support teachers, and keep the methods relevant to today’s children.

Methods

Montessori teachers believe that the young child is guided by a sort of inner teacher, and that this naturally draws them to activities and experiences that will help them to complete each stage of their development in succession. The role of the teacher is to prepare and maintain a “prepared environment” that is carefully ordered and rich with materials and opportunities that allow each individual child to follow their inner drive for experience and learning. With the children, the teacher’s role is first and foremost to observe, using what they learn to determine how they can change the environment to best serve the children. He or she is also there to be a help to the children, offering individual lessons on new materials and guiding the children in their work when needed. The environment is furnished with materials unique to the Montessori method, many of which were designed by Dr. Montessori herself. The materials are arranged from simple to complex, carrying the child from one level of understanding to the next, they are appealing to the child, both visually and in that they are enjoyable to work with. One essential characteristic of the materials is that they contain a built in control of error, or some characteristic that allows the child to clearly tell when they make a mistake, allowing for self-correction.

Montessori focuses on nurturing the child’s in-built desire to learn and therefore does not involve any punishments or rewards, trusting instead in the child’s ability to learn from the natural consequences of their actions. Montessori classrooms are multi-age. Instead of having each year in a separate room, children are grouped by planes of development. Birth to 18 months are often seen together, then 18 months to two and a half years. 2 1/2-6 year olds work together, then there’s 6-9, 9-12, and so on. This allows younger children to learn from their older peers and offers older children the opportunity to act as mentors, role models, and teachers themselves. See this link for an insightful look at a typical day in a Montessori Children’s House.

Documentation Panels at a Reggio-Inspired School. Photo Submitted by Jordan, Reggio Guide.

Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia inspired schools take a collaborative approach to learning, viewing the child as a social being. Teachers are concerned with children as part of the entire group and seek to foster meaningful relationships between children and their peers, the entire community, and the environment. An important principle of Reggio education is the hundred languages of children. Malaguzzi described children as having one hundred ways of thinking and learning, through work as well as play, through creativity, through science as well as imagination, fantasy as well as reality, and so on.

Teachers in Reggio-inspired schools do not follow a pre-determined curriculum, instead supporting the exploration and learning of the children in their care through any of these “hundred languages” The multi-age classrooms of Reggio-inspired schools generally have two teachers, with no hierarchy between them, who act as a collaborators in the children’s learning: researching, observing, and documenting in different stages of the work going on. The environment is considered to be the third teacher, and is designed for learning and exploration that fosters the development of the child’s one hundred languages. The classroom is meant to be an extension of the rest of the child’s world, and is therefore designed with a beauty and complexity that reflects the culture in which the children are growing up. The environment also reflects the project-based approach to learning in Reggio schools by adorning the walls with “documentation panels,” chronicling the work of the children on previous projects as well as current ones. This school’s website offers a description of their Reggio-inspired classrooms and a description of their daily schedule. This school’s blogs also provide an insightful look into the life of the school.

A Waldorf Grade School Classroom. Photo Credit: Will Merydith on Flickr

Waldorf

Waldorf education sees the child as a whole being, made up of body, soul, and spirit; and attempts to nurture the whole child, helping him or her to rise to their fullest potential. Waldorf schools provide a beautiful, simple learning environment that feels much like a home. In early childhood, it is furnished with open-ended toys and activities that allow children to use their own creativity and imagination. The curriculum in a Waldorf school is not purely academic in nature, but includes art, practical activities, and physical education as well. Seasonal celebrations have an important role in the rhythm of life in a Waldorf school. The development of the academic curriculum is referred to as “spiraling up” and “out” as it appeals to the natural interests of the child based on developmental stages as they grow, and later goes ‘out,’ taking a more in-depth look at things that have been studied in the past.

The role of the Waldorf teacher, too, changes to meet the developmental needs of the child. In the early years, he or she nurtures the children as they adjust for the first time to school life. In early childhood, when children learn a great deal by imitation, the teacher acts as a role model in the classroom. Soon, as children grow older and seek an authority to learn from, the teacher’s role shifts slightly. In the ideal situation, the same teacher will stay with a group of students throughout the eight years of elementary and middle school. This gives the teacher a unique ability to get to know the individual children and how best to teach them, and allows for a deep level of collaboration with parents, as the teacher becomes almost like another member of the child’s family. This site offers a look into a typical day in a Waldorf Kindergarten.

Reflections

“Having been one of three sisters to start off in Montessori and now having three sons to do the same, I can see in so many ways how Montessori celebrates the individual and respects the whole community so clearly. My sons have such different personalities, but Montessori allows them to be exactly who they are, caters to their strengths while challenging their hesitations in the most nurturing manner. Dedicated Montessori teachers are the greatest gift you can give your children. The foundation they recieve from them is simply remarkable.” -Catherine, Montessori mom to Alex, Ryan, and Charlie in Fort Collins, Colorado

“I love working with young children in the Montessori system, because the philosophy flows so naturally with the development of the whole child: mind, body, and spirit. Montessori philosophy guides children to respect themselves, others, and the world around them.” -Monica, Montessori Guide in Austin, Texas

“As a Reggio Emilia guide I love being able to truly follow the child and the group as a whole through the whole process of the group project. Recognizing that we all have gifts to offer and they are all of equal importance is the embodiment of Loris Malaguzzi’s One Hundred Languages of the Child. Seeing a group of young children truly helping each other and working together is incredible. No matter where these children end up on their journey through life, the basis of kindness, together[ness], and grace are always there.” – Jordan, Reggio Guide in Austin, Texas

“What I love about Reggio is that the children are capable and confident, and are encouraged to explore their environment freely…Another aspect about Reggio that I absolutely love is the use of the classroom, and how it’s looked at as a third teacher. The children are encouraged to view the documentation board and remember their work from the past weeks.” -Adrian, Reggio Guide in Austin, Texas

Waldorf teachers strive to look for and cultivate the capacity for genius in every student. Rather than seeing our mission as filling students’ brains with information, we try, through our method and our curriculum, to unlock capacities for genius in all students. The famous Einstein quote, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination,” is a fundamental tenet of Waldorf education.” -Lori Kran, Waldorf teacher in Cincinatti, Ohio

“…Every student at the Cincinnati Waldorf School learns how to bake bread, sew stuffed elephants, knit socks, crochet bags, carve wooden bowls, plant flowers, play the violin, build wooden bridges on forest paths, sing, dance, act, and play together regardless of gender.” -Margaret Kran-Annexstein, former Waldorf student

Further Reading

See: Three Approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia for a more in-depth look and a comparison of these three methods.

For an interesting look at the connection between Montessori and Waldorf education, see: Montessori and Steiner: A Pattern of Reverse Symmetries

See American Montessori Society, Association Montessori Internationale, and Montessori School of Oakton for more info on Montessori, or visit: Wikisori Parent Resources for a great list of articles and blogs with Montessori info.

For more on Reggio Emilia, see Understanding the Reggio Approach, North American Reggio Emilia Alliance, Mustard Seed School, and The Municipal Infant-Toddler Centres and Preschools of Reggio Emilia

For more on Waldorf, visit: Waldorf Education Musings: Lori Ann Kraun’s Kranium BlogWaldorf Answers, Waldorf Education

Please share your links, reflections, and insights in the comments!

20 Responses to Three Approaches to Natural Learning: Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf

  • This is so well written!! great post!!

  • Jess says:

    I am very interested in Waldorf education and how to mesh it with public school education. I don’t have the resources available to send my children to a Waldorf school, and to be quite honest not sure if I have the temperament to home school my children. Do you think there would be a way to incorporate?

  • Wonderful post, Melissa! I find it fascinating to see the different views of each method in different areas. In my master’s program in England, I was somewhat surprised that my professors had a very negative view of Montessori because of schools and teachers who approached Montessori rigidly. I had to explain to them that Montessori education can be approached in a variety of ways. They loved Reggio Emilia, though, and didn’t really say anything about Waldorf. I’m partial to Montessori, but I believe all three approaches have a lot to offer. For homeschools, I think the parent’s and child’s personalities and learning styles can make a big difference. And I always find it interesting that a blend can work well also. Thanks so much for linking up with Montessori Monday. I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/LivingMontessoriNow.

    • melissa says:

      Thank you, Deb! I’m always disappointed to come across negative opinions on Montessori that are based on misconceptions – and in my experience, they’re just about all based on misconceptions! I love the freedom available to professionals, but at the same time wish there were some way to protect the name from those who are just trying to make a buck.

      I’m partial to Montessori as well, but I love the respect for the child that all three methods employ, and the willingness to let childhood progress in its own natural way. There is so much good in each method, and I love to see the way families weave together the elements that appeal to them.

      Thanks again for sharing!

  • This is a great summary of these. I combine these three in my home, a tricky but wonderful balance :)

    Thanks! I’m your newest follow!

  • Rach says:

    Thanks Melissa. This is a great concisely written reference point. I like its impartiality as well. Go you, non-judgemental gal!

    • melissa says:

      Thank you, Rach! I really tried to keep it impartial despite my very real preference, so I’m relieved to hear that it read that way for you.

  • very well explained – it’s so important to understand and find the best fit for your family and child!

  • emily says:

    Hello, Thank you for this post. I too research to compare the three approaches. I have a certification in Waldorf and taught at a Waldorf school for 8 years, then I worked at a Montessori for three, and am earning a certification in Montessori. I also research Reggio, and am very much in love with aspects of it too. For me and my three young children, no one pedagogy fits, but a combination of all three works beautifully. I am working to create a curriculum and school based on all three. I find it difficult to work in a school committed to only one way of educating a child, when children are so different, and have so many different ways of learning. I think the teacher of the future has all these pedagogies at her ready and can use them to change her curriculum to meet the needs of the child, not expect the child to change to meet the curriculum, as it is now.

    • melissa says:

      Thank you for your comment, Emily. The idea of a curriculum that weaves all three of these philosophies together fascinates me – what an incredible task to take up! I would be so interested to learn a bit more about your project and what you plan to do with it (implement only in your own school, publish?). Have you written about your plans on your blog? Best of luck with your work!

  • What an informative and thoughtful article! Thanks for sharing it. I especially like how Montessori educators are described first as observers of the children, and then as facilitators of the learning environment, allowing for changes as needed. I was a teacher’s aide at a public Montessori school years ago, and found this to be very true!
    -jaime

  • teresa says:

    You are so brilliant! I want to be more like you someday as a blogger, and write things that are so informative and interesting.
    I love this so much. We’re a Waldorf family and I really resonate with many of Steiner’s writings. It works for me.
    I never knew what Montessori really was and I love having your description. Actually, I’m using this to tell people what Waldorf is about too!
    All three systems sound wonderful to me. I don’t think one could go wrong here.
    This is really, really great.

    • melissa says:

      Thank you, Teresa! That is so kind of you to say.

      I agree that each system has things to offer. The biggest thing for me is that the child is respected, and that’s something I feel all three philosophies cover.

  • What a fantastic resource! Thank you!

    Stumbled :-)
    Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama recently posted..Baby Loves His Cat! (Video Clip)My Profile

  • Sheryl Morris says:

    Thank you for this.

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