Montessori vs Waldorf: Understanding the Main Differences

montessori vs waldorf

As a former Montessori teacher, it’s a frequent occurrence that someone asks me to explain Montessori education. 

Although Montessori has become more widely known over the years, it can be difficult to understand if you’re not familiar with it. Inevitably during these conversations, some folks will follow up with the clarification, “So, is it like Waldorf?” 

It’s an understandable question, in addition to being two of the fastest-growing educational methodologies around the world, the two ideologies have some distinct similarities. Both were founded in the early 20th century in Europe, Montessori in Italy, and the Waldorf philosophy in Germany.

Both believe that the needs of an individual must be met before the needs of society. Montessori and Waldorf education encourage learning through play, a connection with the natural environment, and expression through art. There is also a distinct emphasis on the individual child and independent learning in each of these methodologies. 

Montessori and Waldorf place great importance on educating the whole child. More than just cognitive development, a child’s spiritual, mental, psychological, and physical development are significant as well. 

While Montessori and Waldorf do share some important similarities and many of the same goals, there are key differences between them. We explore the fundamental differences and look at which of the systems is best for your child.  


Montessori School Overview

Montessori schools are based on the Montessori Method, an educational philosophy devised by its founder and first female, Italian physician, Maria Montessori in Rome during the early 1900s. The Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) was founded in 1929 with the distinct purpose of making Montessori available to children worldwide. 

When you walk into a Montessori classroom, you can tell immediately that something is different. Low shelves are filled neatly with carefully placed Montessori materials, children work independently or in small groups on rugs or small tables, and there is the quiet hum of focused students.

Kids are encouraged to follow their own, natural curiosities, think critically, work collaboratively, and be accountable to themselves and the community. 

The Montessori Method is a child-led educational system within a multiage classroom, where the teacher’s role is more of a guide and children learn at their own pace. Montessori-trained teachers give a lesson to an individual or small group before a material can be used, continuously modeling respect for the environment and the individual.

These Montessori materials, as well as real-life and multisensory elements, are incorporated into the learning environment in order to foster independence, citizenship, and personal responsibility. 

With a keen focus on practical life skills, Montessori puts a strong emphasis on hands-on learning as children follow their own interests and curiosities. Most Montessori schools offer preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school education from age three to grade six. Some continue through middle school and even into high school. 

There are five, key areas of study within a Montessori classroom: Practical Life, Sensorial, Math, Language, and Cultural. The Montessori curriculum is vast and encompasses critical thinking, hands-on learning, real-life experiences, practical life, and research that inspire young children to become lifelong learners. 

There are around 20,000 Montessori schools worldwide, 3,000 of which are in the U.S. Of those, only 570 are public or magnet schools. Since the majority are private schools, with tuition ranging from $12,000 to $15,000 per year, it can make attending a Montessori school a difficult proposition for many.  


  • Montessori often builds a deep sense of self-confidence, independence, and personal responsibility in children through its child-led classrooms. 
  • The Montessori Materials offer hands-on learning opportunities at every stage, in every subject, and during every lesson. 
  • In every classroom, there is a deep focus on learning in the areas of language, math, culture, and practical life. Children are often inspired and encouraged to go above and beyond, following their own curiosity, and deepening their understanding of the world around them. 
  • Research shows that children who attend Montessori schools have significantly higher achievement in mathematics and literacy. 


  • The cost of most Montessori schools is similar to a private school, making them difficult for many families to afford. 
  • Due to the need for Montessori-trained teachers, there may not be a Montessori school in your area.
  • Some critics believe that because of Montessori’s individualized approach, students may have a difficult time adjusting to traditional education, both in terms of social skills and classroom expectations.


Waldorf School Overview

Waldorf schools were started in Stuttgart, Germany by philosopher, artist, and scientist, Rudolf Steiner, when the owner of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory asked him to start a school for the employees’ children. The first Waldorf school opened in 1919 and by 1928, it had found its way to New York City. 

The Waldorf curriculum is threefold, engaging the head, heart, and hands; in other words, thinking, feeling, and doing. The Waldorf teacher uses this basis to educate the whole child through a methodology that integrates academics, practical skills, and the arts. 

According to the Waldorf philosophy, childhood is broken up into three distinct phases of about 7 years each. Birth to age 7 is the time when children learn best through their senses and imitation. Sensory-rich, play-based environments are provided for young children to explore their natural environment, laying the foundation for future development. 

Between the ages of 7 and 14 or first grade through grade 8, the Waldorf curriculum is alive with storytelling, fantasy, and imaginative play. Teachers guide these older children through formal academic learning, developing their morality and understanding of their place in the world.

Children 14 to 21 develop independent intellect and the ability to examine the world abstractly. Students in Waldorf high schools are given autonomy over their education. 

Waldorf schools embrace a tech-free classroom and encourage play, creativity, and discovery, especially during early childhood education. The focus throughout all of the grades is educating the whole child, not necessarily about traditional education standards. 

There are roughly 130 Waldorf schools in the United States and 1,200 Waldorf schools and 1,900 Waldorf kindergartens worldwide. Tuition varies widely from $8,000 per year to a whopping $34,000 a year, depending on location, length of the school day, and other mitigating factors. 



  • There is a slower pace to education in a Waldorf school, with a focus on the basics, such as sewing, dance, and plenty of outside exploration, which many families appreciate.
  • Children are treated as individuals, and the curriculum is catered to their pace. Waldorf educators believe that each child develops at their own pace and they teach each child when they’re ready. 
  • Collaboration is encouraged as students work on group projects, while competition between students is discouraged.  
  • Waldorf students have the freedom to explore, express their creativity, and experiment in a safe, supportive environment. 


  • Although the cost varies greatly, most Waldorf schools require tuition and it can be cost-prohibitive for some families. 
  • Waldorf schools don’t follow the typical education benchmarks and therefore, some parents might not be comfortable with the feeling that their child is “behind.” 
  • Because there is not much opportunity for competition, some critics argue that kids enrolled in a Waldorf school might not develop the same skills as their peers, making it difficult to interact socially. 
  • There is no standardized testing or technology in most Waldorf schools. This can also make it difficult for kids to relate with other peers or to acclimate to life outside of the classroom.


The Differences Between Montessori and Waldorf

Both Montessori and Waldorf offer alternatives to traditional education, but there are some clear differences between them. These include:

Practical vs. Fantasy 

Montessori methods focus on practical, real-life activities, while the Waldorf methodology emphasizes the child’s imagination and make-believe. 

Although Maria Montessori believed that there is a sensitive period for imagination, she encouraged children to explore the world around them in response. In a Waldorf school, fairy tales, make-believe, and fantasy are central to the curriculum. 

Child-Centered vs Teacher-Centered  

In a Montessori classroom, teachers are guides and role models and the environment is child-centered. They give hands-on lessons and step away, allowing the child to follow their own curiosities as they make their way through the Montessori materials. 

A Waldorf teacher is at the center of the classroom, often taking on the role of performer, especially in the early years when writing and reading are omitted from the curriculum.

Classroom Composition

Montessori classrooms consist of children of different ages, going in 3-year cycles: ages 3-6, 6-9, and 9-12. 

Waldorf classes adhere to a more traditional grade structure, although the same teacher will usually follow the same group of kids for 7 years. 


Which Students Typically Do Better Between These Two Types of Philosophies 

Children who are self-directed, can work independently, and work well alone or in small groups will likely be successful in a Montessori environment. Parents often choose Montessori schools because of the leadership skills and independence it inspires.

They like the multiage environment as well as the structure and the Montessori materials. Because children work at their own pace, it’s ideal for a myriad of learning styles, special needs, and giftedness. 

Parents really appreciate how Waldorf schools encourage true independence, teaching them how to think instead of what to think. Children who are drawn to fantasy and make-believe, thrive in an environment that doesn’t have much structure, and will appreciate a creative environment will likely do well in a Waldorf school. 

Because both systems allow children to move freely throughout the classroom, children who require a lot of physical activity will likely find a comfortable home in either environment. 


How to Choose The Right Type of School for Your Child

You know your child best. So when you’re ready to look at schools, be sure to follow your instincts as you research your options. We hope this guide has helped you on your journey.

The best way to find out which school is best for your child is to schedule a tour. The American Montessori Society offers a handy search option to find Montessori schools in your area. Find a Waldorf school by searching here

Understanding the basics of each philosophy will go a long way in helping you decide and is an excellent start. Seeing a classroom in action, meeting the director, and watching the teachers interact with the children is the only way to truly know if it’s the place for your child.


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