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Going to School

Comparing Preschool Philosophies: Montessori, Waldorf and More

As you search for the best preschool for your child you’ll need to consider the school’s philosophy or approach. Learn about the most prevalent preschool philosophies to help you choose a school that meets your child’s needs.


This approach, developed by Maria Montessori in Rome in the early 1900s, is child-centered, with teachers serving as guides. In the Montessori school, play is a child’s work, says Wana. While there is a focus on academics, the distinguishing feature is that children learn at their own pace. There are special Montessori toys called manipulatives that are self-corrective; this means that a child knows if they assembled a puzzle correctly, for example, based on the toy fitting together, not because someone showed the child how to do it. “In Montessori programs it’s really the teacher’s job to help the kids find their way into the materials, a lot of which look like puzzles that engage the child at this level,” Pianta says. “Kids work at whatever level they are working at. You don’t organize the room according to a specific age.”

That focus on letting children learn at their own pace also affects how classrooms are arranged, with children ages three, four and five all being in the same room. This allows the older children to serve as role models for the younger ones, and also exposes children to different ages. Children generally have the same teacher for those three years, allowing close teacher-student relationships to develop. The mixed-age aspect also encourages older children to help the younger children, which helps build their self-esteem.

Who It’s For
Many parents choose Montessori because they believe it helps their children acquire leadership skills and independence in general. Jennifer Lucas, who chose Montessori for her daughters, ages five and three, likes the structure of the program and how children learn to work quietly and independently at a task. She also likes the mixed-age setup, although it took her oldest daughter time to adjust to being the oldest in the class. “She was always used to having her older friends and was one of the youngest. All of the sudden, most of her friends had moved on and she had not. It did not take long, and she has really grown this past year and has embraced being a leader and not a follower,” she says.

Learn more at:


If you find a Waldorf school, you can trust that it is true to the Waldorf philosophy, since each school and all of its teachers must be Waldorf certified. This play-based approach is characterized by a predictable structure, providing children with a dependable routine, such as certain days of the week for set activities like baking or gardening, as well as mixed-age classrooms with the same teacher for multiple years. “There is an emphasis on creative learning, reading, singing, acting … It’s great for kids who want that predictability, but there is creativity there. It’s a blend,” says Karissa Sparks, vice president of marketing for GreatSchools. There is also an emphasis on cooperation, and the setting generally appears like a home—warm and friendly, with wooden toys and natural materials.

What stands out about Waldorf is its stance against traditional grading systems and exclusion of media in the curriculum. Waldorf does not include media (computers, videos or electronics of any kind) and also does not involve academics, which means no homework, tests, handouts or even desks. Children are introduced to formal reading skills in the first grade. The programs are “all-weather” and children spend a lot of time outdoors.

Who It’s For
Parents may choose Waldorf because they want to help develop their child’s individualism. “A Waldorf education teaches kids how to think, not what to think, and to develop themselves as well-rounded individuals with an innate curiosity and love of learning,” says Jamie Quirk, Communications and Outreach Director at Waldorf School of Princeton in New Jersey. “When they leave the Waldorf environment, they are equipped to rely on their own inner compasses to help steer them on their individual journeys, rather than fit into one specific niche.”

Learn more at:

Reggio Emilia

Although you may not come across many Reggio Emilia schools, there are many Reggio Emilia-inspired schools based on the approach developed in the 1940s in the town of Reggio Emilia in northern Italy. After World War II, the community, along with schoolteacher Loris Malaguzzi, came together to develop schools that would help children become better citizens. “The overall philosophy is that kids are really encouraged to explore. The teachers are there to help them explore,” Wana says.

Reggio Emilia schools are known for a project-based approach, which many preschool programs have borrowed. In a project-based curriculum, lessons are based on the interest of the students. As Wana explains, if children playing outside encounter a flower and start to ask the teacher questions about how it grows, instead of directly answering the questions, the teacher encourages the group to “find out together.” The class may then build a garden and learn all that entails, while acquiring other important premath, prereading concepts. Another example would be setting up a restaurant in the classroom based on the class’s interest in playing in the kitchen. As Wana explains, projects become “child-originated and teacher-framed.”

Reggio Emilia programs are also known for documenting what children do, taking photos, making videos, writing observations. Then children and teachers can review what they’ve done throughout the year.

Who It’s For
Parents who want their child to be a good citizen may choose a Reggio Emilia program. Children learn all about cooperation through the many projects, particularly how to solve problems and resolve conflicts.

Learn more at:

Other Preschool Programs

This curriculum, which can be found in a lot of community-based programs, such as the local church or YMCA, revolves around a concept of active participatory learning, holding that “children learn best through hands-on experiences with people, materials, events, and ideas.”

Learn more at

Bank Street
Very similar to play-based learning, Bank Street was developed by the Bank Street College in New York City. Advocates hold a child-centered philosophy and believe that children are “active learners, explorers, experimenters and artists” and benefit from a diverse curriculum. The system stresses the importance of materials in the classroom and views the teacher as a “facilitator of learning.” This method aims to help children make sense of the world around them by studying multiple aspects of social studies.

Learn more at:

Creative Curriculum
Developed by for-profit Teaching Strategies Inc., this system provides teachers with textbooks and written materials that outline a child-centered approach. The company describes it as a “research-based system” that is being used in increasing numbers of preschool programs.

Although many of the philosophies and curricula overlap to some extent, it’s more common to see a formal curriculum when you visit local preschools, even if the program calls itself play-based. “Increasingly as parents, and to some degree school systems, start demanding a more educational kind of experience and more skill development out of their kids’ time in preschool, you see many, many more instances of a kind of more formal curriculum being infused into a preschool day,” Pianta says.

Learn more at:

Parents who want to be most involved and have a say in their child’s preschool education often choose to take part in a coop. A coop preschool may subscribe to one or more philosophies, but there is generally an emphasis on cooperation and resolving conflicts. Parents help run the school and help out in the classroom, working closely with the teachers. They are able to see their children in the learning environment and can develop partnerships with the teachers.

“The benefits of the coop is that your child sees you there,” says Sparks, whose child goes to a coop preschool. “Studies show that just the act of being there sends a very strong message that education is important. We know that it’s very important that a parent show up at school and the child see them.” Coops may be tricky for parents who work full-time or have other children in the home, but parents love being more involved in their child’s learning on a daily basis.

Learn more about other factors to consider when choosing a preschool.

  • Ramona Von Moritz

    The part about Waldorf schools is extremely misleading and not factual! I have been involved in Waldorf education for almost 35 years, In England, Germany, British Columbia and the United States. In first grade, the children are most definitely taught…quite formally…beginning reading skills…as well as math. And, in ALL the grades, after Kindergarten, there are academic subjects, from math and English composition to projective geometry, physics and chemistry….and beginning in the older classes, there most definitely IS the use of computer technology. In some Waldorf schools, the high school students BUILD COMPUTERS! The major difference between the Waldorf method and other methods is that all types of art— from drawing, painting, sculpting, puppetry, fabric artistry (knitting, crocheting, dying, spinning, weaving, felt making, silk painting, clothes designing and sewing) woodwork and metalwork—to all forms of drama and music—-are used, to teach each and every child, regardless of talent….Physical activities, from eurythmy and games to camping and pentathlon events, to competitive sports in the higher grades, develop physical prowess and team spirit. Waldorf schools help children to become creative thinkers as well as creative doers, to become proficient and confident in many skills, and to become well-rounded, proficient and confident adults. You will find, if you care to look deeply enough, that Waldorf students’ university applications go immediately to the top of the pile in the best schools! You will also find former Waldorf students working for NASA, as well as designing and creating their own entrepreneurial endeavors…I am extremely disappointed with your report, and expect you to correct its false impressions immediately!!

    Ramona von Moritz

    • Johannes Mani

      The discription above relates to Waldorf preschool, not classes one to twelve. Yes, Waldorf schools often do offer a wide and creative field of opportunities.

      • E. Smiles

        This review also forgot to mention the Waldorf’s spiritual core: Anthroposophy

        • vwlizard

          While your child won’t be taught anthroposophy directly, all educational decisions and activities are based on it. Do careful research and if you do not agree with any part of the philosophy, stay far, far away.

    • Bruce

      If your response is the result of a Waldorf education, I am keeping my child away. The article clearly states that in first grade children are taught beginning reading skills. Also, this article is about preschool philosophy. Finally, you seem a little hostile so I don’t think you represent the best Waldorf has to offer.

      • Angel Phoenix

        I’m sure even the most educated people should be careful not to confuse passion with hostility. Even meek and mild people would understand passion arising out of being misunderstood or misrepresented which is quite clearly all that was meant by the response above. Just because she is right doesn’t make her wrong.

  • Lauren Adeline

    Thank you so much for the comparisons. I’m just learning about all of these methods for the first time and it’s nice to find a source that isn’t bias, just informative.

  • Carmen Pérez Coscoja

    We are a couple of artisans who have educated our children in the Waldorf School “Escuela Libre Micael” in Madrid, Spain. That’s why we have known this pedagogy and developed a Waldorf toys line in our workshop.

    Now, along with other artisans, have a website with which our products can be delivered to any part of the world. You can see it
    at the following link:

    Kind regards


  • @HintMama

    Thanks for the helpful info. I referenced it today on my site:

  • Kathryn Tabler Tian

    Montessori materials are not “toys” but a sequenced set of equipment designed to teach isolated concepts incrementally. Teachers do demonstrate and then observe as well as keep detailed records on each child’s progress through the curriculum. While the age groups are combined 3-6 6-9 and 9-12, each child’s needs and learning are met
    individually. Teachers observe and record children’s work throughout the daily work cycle. Montessori is child centered only in that the individual child’s needs are accounted for. There is a set curriculum and sequence in every Montessori classroom, though the child can be given latitude on how and in what order they work through their days
    work. Montessori should be a collaboration between the Directress and student.

  • Chopped Liver

    How can you talk about Waldorf Education without once mentioning clairvoyant founder Rudolf Steiner and his Spiritual Science aka Anthroposophy. There is a huge amount of spiritualism involved in Waldorf education which personally I enjoy. This is integrated into every aspect of the curriculum and I feel it is beneficial to the child and society to have more spiritual citizens.

    I also have a child in a Montessori school and it is totally different than Waldorf. I prefer the Waldorf way myself, but education is definitely one size fits all and what may work for one child may not work for another.

    • vwlizard

      Many parents might not be comfortable with Anthroposophy. If considering a Waldorf school, I suggest you explore it, as all educational activities and decisions are based on this philosophy.

    • Evelyn Chong

      How do we know whether a child is more suitable for Waldorf or Montessori? What are the characteristics / behaviours of a child that we can observe to help deciding which approach to go for?
      Do you see any difference between your children that went through these 2 different education methodology?

  • Peggy McLeod

    I think the author didn’t do much research on the “research-based” Creative Curriculum. How they ended up describing it as a formal curriculum and using the word “textbook” for CC in beyond me.
    The overall summaries were great, but they got Creative Curriculum all wrong just because it was developed by a “for-profit” organization.

  • Jill Lutz

    The Montessori Method is a wonderful method for children to learn at an early age. The Montessori Method lets children explore through order, concentration, coordination and independence inside and outside. Children learn with all their senses and with concrete materials. Reading starts with sandpaper letters. Children learn to read with ease much faster than the Waldorf or Reggio Emilia. Montessori’s genius comes through loud and clear.

    • Angel Phoenix

      Learning to read fast or early has nothing to do with anything, in fact more and more people read earlier yet end up reading far less for pleasure after being over stuffed with dead facts about the world around them rather than experiencing them first hand. There is less interest in reading than there ever has been and its all due to early reading. Reading too early burns out the interest in what is written, too early. Where as teaching reading when the written materials actually matter to the child creates a love of reading and soaking up information in its written form. First grade is the perfect time to start creating lifetime lovers of the written word. Before that everything is about hands on discovery of the world around you through play and imitation. Teaching children to read too early only distracts them from this process and forces them to grow up much faster than needed, through the over saturation of adult directed material and advertisement from which they have not yet created a filter. To prevent said messages from being absorbed into their own being and sense of what the world really wants, needs or expects from them as individuals or citizens they would need to not know it is there. Sometimes there is a place for ignorance. Let them keep their bliss until first grade or suffer the damage of knocking down their self image and esteem before its even been built up. Why rush it?

  • JLSN

    Is there a school setting that combines or uses methods from all? I love the Montessori and Waldorf concepts but I also want some of the things from a traditional school. I feel grades are important as it gives students and parents a way of knowing what a student needs to work on, or where they are weak in a subject; but I also love the idea of child driving their education. I also love the hands-on and exploring the outside world, outside of a text book. I love books and believe you can learn anything from them, but its nice to see and experience things first hand. I am so torn on to what approaches I should do for my son who is 2.

    • naomi

      I think that each childcare school is never 100% absolute in their philosophy. Ie. the emphasis on a play based curriculum but clearly, there is still structure, records of the child’s growth and skill development, and so forth. Perhaps your best bet is to visit the centres in person to get to know how suitable they are for your family and child. Talking about it with other parents, friends, teachers can also be helpful in gaining more insight..

    • Heather Brown

      Hello JLSN! I hope you found a school setting that works well for your son. I just wanted to mention that what you described, a combination of the best approaches to education, was once my dream. I have my undergraduate degree in elementary education and then chose a Montessori track. I now have my Montessori credentials for ages 3-12 and a Master’s degree in Montessori Education. What I learned on that journey was that when you take one part of the philosophy out, or try to merge it with other approaches, it loses its brilliance. Schools that have attempted some sort of hybrid model morph into something entirely different–what some people like to call “Montessomething” instead of “Montessori” schools. Those often look much more teacher directed or much more wild than environments holding true to the philosophy. Also, this article provides a very limited glimpse of each approach. There are many important principles that overlap (for example, there is most certainly creative expression and a focus on developing into engaged citizens in Montessori–I can’t speak for the others since that’s not where my experience is). It’s been my experience, time and time again, that just when I thought of a way to “improve” Montessori I read or learned something that made me realize, “oh, she had it right to begin with, I just didn’t understand how to do it.” Haha! My two cents is to observe lots of schools and go with the one that feels right! Even the best philosophies can be tanked by a poor program!

  • Monica Wiedel-Lubinski

    Please don’t overlook Nature Pedagogy! Nature-based preschools are growing in popularity due to their hands-on approach to learning, daily outdoor hikes and outdoor play, and inquiry-based exploration. Children have joyful learning experiences every season, in all weather. The children become aware of their role as stewards in the natural world and form lasting positive relationships with nature. You may want to check out to learn more about The Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center, but many others exist as well (EX. The Audubon Nature Preschool in Chevy Chase, MD). As the founding director of The Nature Preschool, I am biased! But hundreds of families have enjoyed the benefits of our nature preschool since we became licensed in 2010-11. Our learning community continues to grow, and we’d love to grow with you!

  • Karina E

    Montessori materials are tools we call “work”, not toys. They don’t play all day, they work, discover, think, analyze, solve problems, correct themselves, challenge themselves, and continue to grow and develop.

  • MyeshaThach478

    Useful article ! I was fascinated by the analysis . Does someone know if my company can find a sample Direct Loans Endorser Addendum copy to type on ?

  • Jan
  • Leeza

    Hello parents,
    I was wondering if I could ask your advice on something. My daughter is 2.5 years old (I know that this is way before the age of diagnosis) but our daughter has always been a little different than her peers. We decided to keep her out of full-time daycare because we wanted her to get the extra attention she needed (so I stopped working).
    She goes to a preschool for a few hours a day now, and the educator has had talks with us about how she is an amazing, smart child but has trouble following rules/listening, has a lot of energy, and has certain quirks (she doesn’t like certain clothing textures, or certain noises, or change, or most foods, etc). She said maybe we should take her to get her hearing checked because she ignores often what someone is saying to her – yet if you do a check i.e “what does a cat say?” – she will respond so I think it is more selective hearing. It can be very difficult to do certain things with her, because she is very particular and gets overwhelmed easily.
    She is a wonderful sweet child though and we have managed to get use to her quirks because in the end, kids will be kids. We have been warned though to ensure she is developing at her full potential (i.e go for regular checks with doctor, speak with educators, research adhd and information processing disorder, etc). We are doing everything we can.

    Sorry for a long backstory but what I need to ask, is if you would know which school above is best suited to a hyper and particular child who doesn’t really do well in group activities? Not that we won’t work on it with her but we want her to have the best chance possible.
    We have her enrolled at 3 years old for the Waldorf, but do you think Montessori is better suited for a child who may have adhd?

    Thank you for your information.
    -Concerned parents

    • Meg M

      Hi! I actually was just like that child to be honest! I went to a traditional preschool and was fine, it’s not so much the program that matters as it is the teachers. They were kind, patient and flexible which helped me immensely. Hope this helped!

      • Leeza

        Thank you. :)

    • Heather Brown

      Hello! I am a Montessori teacher trained for ages 3-12. I don’t have experience in Waldorf, but I will say that Montessori can be perfectly suited for your daughter. I have worked with many children who sound like your little one with great success. One of the things I love about Montessori for children who have a unique set of needs is the emphasis on community. Children in Montessori classrooms are generally very good at giving and receiving help according to their strengths and goals. Also, because it is a completely individualized approach your daughter will be met where she is. That being said, while the philosophy can work for any child not every Montessori school authentically practices the philosophy (or has teachers with the experiences needed to support every child). Set up and observation and talk with the teachers, intimately describing your daughter’s needs, and have a dialogue about whether the school would be a good fit.

      • Leeza

        Thank you very much!

    • Nimak

      Hello, my daughter has always been very different. She is extremely hyper, was a terrible sleeper, transitions are very difficult on her and she wears her emotions on her sleeves – OK well sometimes on her fist because she has impulse control problems and she hits. She has been enrolled in Montessori since she was 3 years old and we could not be happier. I know what it is to watch your child struggle. I get it. I believe in preparing the child for the path and not the path for the child. Unfortunately, as a new mom with a child who struggled I spent hours a day trying to create the perfect environment for her when what she needed from me was help to navigate the environment. I am not by any means saying this as a judgement on what you are doing. My point is the Montessori school she attends helped me to see how to create a child who can navigate her own path even though I have a child who reads books while standing on her head.

      In case it is any further assistance . . . we started our child in occupational therapy around 3. I learned later we could have started her much younger. She was diagnosed with sensory processing dysfunction. She is an extreme sensory seeker. The OT helps a great deal. However, as we are approaching her 5th birthday and we will have a meeting with her primary care doctor very soon. We will have the occupational therapy and behavioral health reports in hand to discuss our next steps.

      I can tell you as a mom of a child who has always been different there were very low points were I felt very isolated. Especially since she is a very caring emphatic child who can also be aggressive. The other kids at play dates could handle the ebb and flow while my first and oldest could not flow in the least. She walks against the tide wherever she goes and she is rather happy doing it. I spent years feeling like a failure as a mom,then came her diagnosis and baby number two, our son. He is very different. He is able to flow and the usual transition and behavior techniques one would use on a kid work for him. Thank goodness!

      My apologies for getting off track. My point being we are having success with Montessori and at your child’s age occupational may also be an option for you. I wish someone had mentioned occupational therapy to me early on.

      All the best in your search and parenting journey.

      • Leeza

        Hello Nimak,

        Your post really touched me, my husband and I truly appreciate you taking the time to share your experience and give us advice. My daughters behaviour mimics your daughters, and we have been thinking about calling an occupational therapist for a while now because we also suspected SPD. I wish I could type more but she’s up (of course) at this time of night, and I have to go get her down for bed. Thanks again, your post could not have come at a better time.

        • Sana

          Hi Leeza, I know this is several months old, but my son was very sensitive to change/transition, very sensitive to different foods/textures,terrible sleeper and it was a challenge to start preschool last December after he turned 3. My pediatrician introduced us to the term ‘highly sensitive child’ and hit the nail on the head. Things make more sense and I am able to understand and manage his ‘personality’ more. If you need more information please let me know. Good luck.

  • jack roark

    great article–thank you!

  • S

    Where does jolly phonics stand with all this?

  • Elaine Vigneault

    While it is correct that a distinguishing feature of Montessori is that children work at their own pace, Montessori is not “play based”. This is misleading. The materials are ‘self-corrective’ yes, but they are not toys and it is not play. It is specifically referred to as ‘work’ by teachers/guides.

    Also, with Montessori reading is introduced as early as necessary. In most countries things are organized in a way that encourages reading – for instance in English we read left to right so things are usually organized to progress from left to right for all subjects in a Montessori classroom so that children become accustomed to working from left to right as a matter or course in preparation for reading.

    it’s also worth noting that Montessori has a peace curriculum and encourages peaceful conflict resolution skills, even in the very young. This is not necessarily the same approach other schools take – compliance with authority is often prioritized much higher in other schools than in Montessori schools.

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