Friday, July 26, 2013

Comparing Educational Philosophies: Montessori and Waldorf

NAMC Montessori and waldorf comparing philosophies education

I have to admit that I learned about Waldorf before I learned about Montessori. I lived about a mile from the Rudolf Steiner College in Sacramento and, being curious, I stopped in one day to learn more. As a public school teacher, I was fascinated by alternative forms of education. Continue reading to learn about some of the key similarities and differences between the Montessori method and Waldorf education, as we start a "for-beginners" series comparing alternative educational methodologies.

The Montessori Method and Waldorf Education - Comparing Alternative Educational Philosophies

Rudolf Steiner was an Austrian philosopher, social reformer, and esotericist who was interested in the synthesis between science and mysticism. Like Montessori, Steiner took a humanistic approach to education, educating not just the mind, but the body, soul, and spirit as well, believing that the cognitive, emotional, social, and behavioral were interlinked.

Similar to Montessori, Steiner’s first school was developed to serve the children of working families. In 1919, the director of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company invited Steiner to open a school in Stuttgart, Germany to educate their employees’ children. (Today, Steiner’s method of education is simply known as Waldorf.)

There are other similarities between Montessori and Steiner as well. They both:

  • emphasized the development of the whole child
  • believed in the importance of childhood and in protecting children from the stress facing adults
  • based their education on the needs of children and not on governmental curriculum
  • believed in surrounding children with natural objects and exposing them as much as possible to the natural world

NAMC Montessori and waldorf comparing philosophies education girl in wheat field

There are, however, some fundamental differences between Montessori and Waldorf education.


  • Academics (math and language) are introduced when the child shows readiness, between the ages of 3 and 4 years old.
  • Children prefer real objects that fulfill a purpose.
  • Children need to be grounded in reality until they are able to distinguish what is real and what is fantasy.
  • Montessori materials are scientific didactical materials that serve a unique developmental and academic purpose.
  • Lessons and activities are individualized, especially in the early years.
  • Classrooms are multi-age and grouped according to 3-year age groupings.
  • Children remain with the same teacher for 3 years.
  • Children choose their work.

Steiner (Waldorf)

  • Academics are introduced around 7 years of age.
  • Learning and play go hand-in-hand. Early learning focuses on make-believe, fairies, and the arts.
  • Fantasy and play are woven throughout the curriculum. 
  • Children are encouraged to use their imagination with the classroom materials.
  • Early learning is group work.
  • Classrooms contain groups of same-age children.
  • Children remain with the same teacher for 6 years.
  • Lessons teacher directed.

While Waldorf encourages imaginative play at an early age, Dr. Montessori believed that all materials and toys should purposefully teach concepts. She encouraged the child’s imagination by introducing them to the greater truths of the universe and believed that “The true basis of the imagination is reality” (The Advanced Montessori Method, pg. 196).

Despite the differences between the two methodologies, it can certainly be said that both Waldorf and Montessori value the child above all else.

Both philosophies believe that education should develop free and morally responsible citizens who have a deep sense of social responsibility.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate

As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Friday, July 26, 2013.


  1. While both methods offer wonderful ways to educate, I feel some of the rigidity of how Montessori materials limit the child from creative play or exploring open ended questions with the mindset of the materials can only be used one way. The self directed activities are limited to very ridged ways that the child can use the materials. I Like the materials in Montessori but do not like the strictness of how you must present and use them in one way only. Hardly encourages problem solving and thinking outside the box.

    1. Igmccarville - yes, presentation is rigid, BUT the way the child uses the materials is not. The presentation is set because it is part of a greater picture in layering the learning - the specific actions of the presenter demonstrate pencil grip, respect and a specific shape, length, texture, that is shown with that material. For the child there is great freedom in working with the materials to learn. To correct themselves for as long as they need to until they are satisfied. Once the child knows the process there is incredible variety in the ways they use the materials. One Directress marveled at the combinations the children came up with - especially the pink tower and the rods.

  2. Just as there is a right way and a wrong way to utilize machine or cook a meal, so too is the process of using the Montessori materials. The Montessori materials were scientifically designed with an exact purpose. Each material naturally leads the child in a progression of steps, allowing the child to fully understand and internalize the concepts presented, allowing for experiential learning and improved retention. The Montessori teacher demonstrates the appropriate use of the materials to ensure the child’s success. Later, as the child has mastered their use, there are extensions which involve higher level thinking and creativity. In addition, as long as the materials are being treated respectfully and no one is in danger of being hurt, the child is free to use the materials to explore their capabilities.

  3. In order to think outside the box, you must know the box firt.


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