A Tale of Two Preschools - Comparing Montessori and Waldorf by Carol LaLiberte
A tale of two preschools
Comparing Montessori and Waldorf
by Carol LaLiberte
I recently overheard two mothers chatting at a nearby playground.
"My husband's niece is going to go to a Montessori preschool," one said.
"Montessori? What's that?" her friend asked, pushing her daughter on a swing.
"It's a school where kids get to do whatever they want all day." Both moms laughed out loud.
"Like that really works!" said one to the other.
As a Montessori mom, I cringed -- even though I knew she was partly
right. Children do get to make choices as to what they want to do
during the school day at authentic Montessori schools. But that is only
part of the picture.
As common as misconceptions are around school models like Montessori
and Waldorf, at one point in my life I too was as confused as both of
those moms, wondering if Montessori was the best fit for my preschooler.
The Montessori experience
Let me rewind the tape a bit. As a mother of a three-year-old,
active, curious son, I wanted a preschool that would both nurture his
love of learning and allow him to move as he learned. I spent a year
prior to his first year in preschool searching for such a place, having
faith that when I found it, I would know it. I also found out as I
traveled to schools, watched preschoolers playing, and talked to
teachers and directors, that we are so fortunate to have wonderful
educational choices for children in Western Massachusetts. I began to
see that just as there are many different types of children out there,
there are also lots of great preschools.
Montessori schools, named after their founder, Dr. Maria Montessori,
the first woman physician in Italy, are places that look very different
from more traditional preschools. Still, you'll find Montessori methods
at work in many area preschools. Maria Montessori believed that
children were naturally intelligent and that their development was
marked by three-year changes -- thus her rationale for multi-age
So in a Montessori preschool, for instance, there are children who
range in age from three years through kindergarten or age six. This is
the time of life Montessori called the period of the "conscious
absorbent mind," believing that children of this age sought out sensory
input, regulation of movement, order, and freedom to choose activities
and explore them deeply.
The Montessori teacher shows the utmost respect to their students.
Visiting families often note the tone and warmth spoken both between
teachers and students. Teachers act as facilitators, working
individually and in small groups rather than as directors of the
learning. Children work alone or in groups, working on small mats,
their bodies stretched out along the floor, using Montessori
In a Montessori preschool there are four distinct learning areas.
The first, Practical Life, helps children work on fine and gross
motor skills by pouring and stirring, cutting and pasting, and painting
at an easel.
The second, Sensorial, finds children working with materials to
learn shape, sound, form, feel, and color discrimination. In Sensorial,
it is not uncommon to see a Montessori student working one-on-one with
a teacher to build the "pink tower" -- a series of pink blocks that fit
from largest to smallest.
The third, Language and Reading, is an important part of the
Montessori classroom: Children trace their fingers over sandpaper
letters to understand how each is formed. Rather than reciting the
alphabet, Montessori children learn the sounds each letter makes, an
important precursor to beginning reading. With this approach, many
Montessori children leave kindergarten reading proficiently.
Math, the fourth learning area, takes on special meaning in the
Montessori preschool. Children learn by working with manipulatives,
such as beads. It is not uncommon to see chains of beads broken into
units of tens lining the classroom floor as children delight in seeing
how high they can count.
For many children, this builds an intrinsic love of learning and an independent approach to learning and to life.
The Waldorf experience
While both Montessori and Waldorf schools believe children need a
connection to the environment, they are different in that Montessori
focuses on real-life experiences and Waldorf emphasizes the child's
imagination and fantasy.
Waldorf schools were founded by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian
scientist and philosopher. Steiner believed in a unity of spirit, soul,
and body, and Waldorf schools reflect that in their common theme of
heart, head, and hands.
Waldorf schools group children in three cycles of seven-year stages.
Students remain with the same teacher from first grade through eighth.
Before age seven, Waldorf focuses on imaginary play, learning through
imitation and doing. In fact, imaginary play is seen as the catalyst
through which the child grows and develops.
Although a Waldorf curriculum is rich with activities in oral
language, music, and constructive and creative play, written language
in books and instruction in other academic areas is specifically
omitted. It is believed that fostering the young child's imagination
will lay the groundwork needed for later academic subjects such as math
The Waldorf teacher initiates and directs the learning, playing the
role of performer as he or she creates a learning environment that
brings a sense of spirituality and harmony to the classroom.
On a visit to a Waldorf preschool, you may see children singing
songs, painting, baking bread, listening to a story, using puppets,
working in a garden or building with blocks. You would notice that the
materials are natural and that toys and dolls have minimal details, to
allow children to use their imaginations more fully. The setting is
homelike, the environment serene and unhurried.
Although both Montessori and Waldorf have preschool programs, many
of the schools in our area also continue beyond the preschool level.
There are both public and private Montessori schools in Springfield,
Longmeadow, and Northampton. There is a Waldorf school, the Hartsbrook
School, in Hadley.
Whether choosing a more traditional nursery school or a Montessori
or Waldorf school, what matters is that your child's first experience
with school be a positive one, and that their classroom is a good fit.