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

Written by NPN Guest on February 7th, 2011

Natural Learning

The Pre-Language Area in a Montessori Children's House. Photo Credit: Author

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 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.


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 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.


“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 with the community in the comments!


Melissa Kemendo, Author of Vibrant Wanderings

Melissa has perfected the art of working from home without being gainfully employed. She is mom to two vibrant, curious children, with whom she and her husband live and adventure in the Washington, DC area. When she’s not baking, pushing swings, and attempting yet again to summit laundry mountain, she’s working on the Montessori community program for which she acts as teacher, to her own daughter and a handful of other children. She can also often be found writing about something Montessori-related, or just motherhood in general, on her blog, Vibrant Wanderings.

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

  1. Kelly  

    Thank you for the introductions, Melissa! My children have been in Montessori for the last 3 years.

    I would add to your reveiw that an important element of Montessori is the peacefulness of the environment; a Montessori primary classroom is an amazing sight…the children are so calm, focused, and cooperative with one another. The emphasis on peaceful group dynamics, conflict resolution, and cooperative learning is a real plus for us… and dovetails so nicely with our peaceful, attachment parenting and gentle discipline philosophy at home.

  2. Annicles

    I looked into all three philosophies and would be say that Montessori and Reggio Emilia are child-centric and based on a firm and scientific inderstanding of what a child is and how s/he develops, coupled with a respect for each individual child and their learning journey.

    I was horrified with what I found out about Waldorf-Steiner schools and heartily wish that they would not be grouped with the first two schools. The philosophy is not based on a respect for children and their development but on manipulating them to conform to an “ideal” of childhood that has no basis in how children actually develop. Furthermore, there is a strange anti-scientific stance that is taken, whereby simple truths are not taught, in favour of strange fable-like answers to questions such as “What is the solar system?”.

    The whole philosophy is based on teaching through a narrow art style, which means that a child who is not motivated by this type of learning is left without a way to learn. Also, children are not just not taught to read before the age of 7, they are not allowed to learn to read before the age of 7, where-as we know that there is a sensitive period for language which has been and gone by then.

    I was also pretty revolted by the way that the teacher is expected to categorise children according to star signs. This is not taught in the classroom, except through some pretty subtle means – story time and so on but the teacher is expected to try and influence the children into becoming interested in this strange “German-ish” mythology.

    To me, this philosophy, which looks the most gentle and child-centric actally looked the most brutal and least child-centric after my research.

    • Melissa  

      Really interesting stuff, Anna. Thanks for sharing your experience. I have not had the opportunity to see a Steiner school in action, but from the Waldorf families I know, there definitely seems to be a great deal of respect for the child. I’m definitely interested to hear more perspectives and do further research.

      • Annicles

        I think that the difference between families who call themselves Waldorf or Steiner and enjoy the lack of pressure and the emphasis on learning through nature is a very different kettle of fish to the full blown Steiner philosophy which is very peculiar indeed. You have to delve a bit to find the full truth because Steiner instructed his teachers not to let the parents know exactly what the philosophy is. It is kept quite secret. The only way to find out is to read articles by people who have learnt about the Steiner philosophy but ultimately rejected it, whch does mean that you are reading biassed material. However, even bearing that in mind, it looks very different to the natural, loving, nonpushy ideal it protrays.

    • else brown

      I have seen Waldorf and Montessori schools in action as a parent. I highly respect both schools. I am now familiar with Reggio Emilia as an Oma (German grandmother) and I am truly charmed by my grandchildren’s interest in music, dance and art. But what is this thing called “German-ish” and why the need to discriminate against an entire culture. It is ironic that one would do this while evaluating child development practices.

    • D Erica Phillips

      I thank you for your comments and experiences too.. I to have interviewed young waldorf students about 13-16 and though I have friends that enjoy the school , I found your statements to be true .. when I spoke to the teens there were some that felt the years of being in one class with one teacher began to feel too much like a house or family and began to have a sense of imprisonment , lack of growth began and a sad boredom was unfortunately born within the child / young adults… Some people love this technique and i do like some of it but also feel I can relate to what you are saying based on talking to real people going through the program.

    • Amanda

      I have to disagree with this comment as I have studied this philosophy for over a decade & worked in a progressive Steiner kindergarten. The info on the web I s very misleading. I have noticed the children who have experienced this form of education are worldly, capable, creative & genuinely has s string sense of who they are in this world. It does envoke a spiritual sense of seeing the bigger picture & knowing how to tap into essential life skills. Teachers focus on who are they are as a human being not only what they teach! There is a deep reverence & respect to the child where they meditate on their students & strive to understand the whole being. It’s favinating- a philosophy based on science of human evolution, brain functioning & spiritual understanding.
      From my experience- teachers are so dedicated and creative & teach to meet the needs of the phases of childhood! Sure some are stuck in the 1900 but it’s moving more modern with a Reggio flair!

  3. Amy  

    Thank you, Melissa! This is a lovely, comprehensive overview for parents to get to know more about each philosophy. I’m with Kelly on the peace of Montessori, but I have never been to one of the other two 🙂

  4. Kim

    Thanks for the overview of the different styles. I very much enjoy a lot of the Montessori ideas and projects.

  5. Alicia @ Lactation Narration  

    My daughter goes to a Reggio school, and I would say that there is a very large emphasis on learning through art. They also emphasize learning outdoors at her school, but I don’t know if that is general Reggio or just her school. I think that art is a big part of Reggio though, which I point out because I didn’t see it discussed in the article.

  6. katie m

    I wasn’t even aware of the other 2 methods (other than Montessori). Thank you for opening up my eyes.

  7. jenna  

    Thanks for the great overview of the 3 styles. I didn’t know about the Reggio Emilia method. I really like the Montessori method as well–I was introduced to it several years ago when my cousin (who is now in her teens) went to a Montessori school. I was so impressed by how well she did that I vowed then and there to teach my children the Montessori way.

  8. joy

    Very nice overview. Some of the Waldorf comments are a tad harsh. I chose not to send my daughter to a Waldorf school because the teacher (who would then spend 6 years with my kid) was a rigid, dogmatic person. My neighbor sent her daughter to the same Waldorf school with a warm, flexible teacher who was neither rigid nor dogmatic.

    As with any educative system, the individual teacher’s understanding of the system and their ability to apply it correctly is what makes or breaks the success of that system.

    Here Montessori has the advantage of certification and consistent training of teachers. On the other hand, Montessori is not copyrighted and anyone can claim to have a Montessori school.

    Waldorf has sketchy training programs that vary wildly in quality and philosophy, according to my friend who pursued the Waldorf teacher-training.

    My favorite Steiner quote: “I don’t want to be believed. I want to be understood.”

    Too many teachers are believers, in Montessori or in Steiner or in whatever the latest magic bullet… If you read the works of Montessori & Steiner directly it’s easy to see the broad similarities. If you then compare those similar ideas to current neurological research on brain development it’s clear that a lot of those airy fairy ideas that early educators stumbled upon intuitively (as with Steiner) or through scientific analysis (as with Montessori) are now supported by current research.

    Hanging on to the no-longer-relevant techniques and/or refusing to adapt is the biggest problem with both methods.

    I’m confident that Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner both would be the first to revisit their original ideas in the context of today’s knowledge of neurology in order to achieve a greater understanding of human development.

    Both tried to describe the function of the brain before we had instruments to “see” it.

    Both tried to describe the blindingly enormous potential within each child without the common nomenclature of the neurological and behavioral sciences.

    Both recognized that the human brain learns best when hands and eyes work together.

    I look forward to the day when educators of every ilk will review the massive body of evidence damning our antiquated, industrial-revolution teaching model. When we seek insights with open minds from those systems that have managed to achieve some successes, it appears that those settings have two things in common:
    1. a profound respect — even awe — for the developing child

    2. a sincere desire to structure the learning environment to meet the needs of children (rather than structuring education to meet the needs of factories, corporations, churches, governments, and even working parents)

    • tt

      Excellent comments above! the best teaching methods should be ever evolving and adaptive to the children and social environment.

  9. Heike Larson  

    Thank you for this very thoughtful article! Both my children attend a Montessori program and I work in parent outreach at LePort Schools, a group of seven Montessori schools in Southern California. Ever so often, I get a question about Reggio or Waldorf, and this will be a nice article to offer to the parents who ask these questions. For those of your readers who’d like to see Montessori in action, we have hundreds of pictures on our web site, and you can see them here: