Alternatives to Montessori: Comparing Waldorf vs. Reggio Emilia

It’s fantastic to see more parents interested in play-based learning approaches.

When I started teaching over 13 years ago, play-based learning was more niche than today. Of course, Montessori is still the most well-known, play-based learning approach. Millions of parents and teachers worldwide share their Montessori centers and activities on social media.

But there are also other play-based learning approaches that are child-focused and encourage creativity. Waldorf Education and the Reggio Emilia approach are two alternatives to Montessori that are also becoming more popular.

What is Waldorf Education?

Waldorf education was founded by Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner in 1919. Waldorf’s education is based on Steiner’s spiritual philosophy called “Anthroposophy,” which views each person as a spiritual being and sees a close connection between the physical world and the spiritual world. The aim of Anthroposophy is to create harmony between the two worlds.

Waldorf schools do not teach students Anthroposophy, but Waldorf teachers study it in order to understand the teaching philosophy of Waldorf better. Waldorf education is spiritual. However, it just doesn’t teach a specific religion and belief system. Families from various religious and non-religious backgrounds send their children to Waldorf schools.

Waldorf Philosophy & Curriculum

The curriculum in a Waldorf school aims to educate the whole child, including their spiritual aspect, through artistic expression, imaginative play, and practical skills like cooking, handicrafts, and gardening, which help students form a deeper connection with their spirituality. Students also have lessons on morality, ethics, and values.

The Waldorf approach is child-focused and individualized and takes a holistic approach to education. Teachers are seen as guides and facilitators who help their students learn, develop, and grow based on the individual needs of each child. There is a set structure and fixed schedule during the school day, but there is some flexibility within that structure for students to express themselves and explore.

ALSO: Ways Parents Might Accidentally Sabotage Their Child’s Education

A really interesting thing about Waldorf is that the same teacher remains with the student for several years. This is known as “looping” and is believed to be better for students because the teacher can better tailor their lessons and activities to their students. Waldorf school also typically goes up to high school.

Students learn primarily through storytelling and experimentation. So, instead of reading a textbook about Cleopatra, a Waldorf teacher will tell stories about ancient Egypt and get students to act out different scenes. This makes the material more engaging and memorable for students.

Waldorf Classroom & Materials

A Waldorf classroom is designed to be cozy and inviting, with furniture and materials coming from natural sources. Some classrooms have a blackboard with students sitting on chairs and facing the teacher, while other classrooms don’t have any furniture at all and students sit on cushions on the floor.

Toys and learning materials are made from wood, wool, and other natural sources. Toys have a very minimal style, with faceless dolls made of wood and wool being commonly used. The dolls are faceless to encourage imagination. Paintbrushes are used frequently for learning and expression, but some classrooms will use crayons, pencils, and pens.

Waldorf Homework & Exams

Instead of emphasizing homework and exams, Waldorf students have assessments in the form of oral presentations, essays, and projects that focus on the student’s understanding of the material rather than how much they have memorized.

Waldorf homework is more creative than traditional homework, with students doing activities like making models or writing a story to reinforce the ideas that they have explored at school.

Waldorf and Technology

Waldorf schools do not use technology until high school; even then, it is very limited. Parents are advised to avoid using technology at home as well. This is to foster creativity in children and get them to use physical tools and natural materials to learn about the world.

Waldorf’s Strong Focus on the Arts

All Waldorf students learn to play instruments and make different forms of art using pottery and sculpting. There’s also a Waldorf dance all students have to do, called “Eurythmy,” which is a form of interpretive dance where kids “learn to move in thoughtful and disciplined ways in collaboration with others.”

What Kinds of Children Would Thrive in a Waldorf School? 

Creative and artistic kids who are outgoing and need a lot of freedom would do really well in this type of school. If your child is artistic and loves dram or performing, they will thrive in a Waldorf school. 

What is the Reggio Emilia Approach?

I was a Reggio Emilia preschool teacher for four years and have adapted the Reggio learning approach to my teaching even after leaving the school to teach online. Before that, I taught at traditional schools and was quite miserable because I didn’t believe in telling kids what to do and think.

It’s important to teach kids how to think, how to find the answers, and how to do things for themselves.

The Reggio Philosophy & Curriculum

The Reggio Emilia approach is an educational philosophy and approach that was developed in the city of Reggio Emilia, Italy, after World War II. It is based on the belief that children are capable, curious, and creative individuals with the right to be in charge of their own learning and express their ideas and opinions.

Like Waldorf education, the Reggio approach is child-focused and individualized, but students in a Reggio school have much more freedom. Students learn at their own pace and can focus on doing activities that they’re interested in. Students learn by having fun and exploring different materials and centers.

Reggio teachers are seen as facilitators of a student’s learning journey. We present activities and design centers based on what students are interested in. During a typical school day, Reggio teachers are closely observing their students and taking note of what their interests are in order to develop these interests and skills further. Students are never forced to do any activities and can explore centers freely.

The Reggio Learning Space

There’s a reason why most Reggio teachers will use the terms “learning space” or “learning environment” instead of classroom. A Reggio learning space looks nothing like a traditional classroom. Instead, the Reggio environment uses a lot of natural materials and furniture. Recycled materials are also frequently used. The space is made to look and feel like a warm and cozy home for kids, with child-sized furniture, wall art at their eye level, and various fun centers spread around the space.

A huge part of the space is devoted to making different forms of art and is referred to as an “atelier.” It looks like an art studio for kids. Another very “Reggio” center is the lightroom which has a light table and projector for students to explore light and shadow using different materials. The lightroom looks like an interactive, avant-garde art installation for kids. They love playing there.

Reggio: No Homework, No Tests. YAY!

Reggio schools do not follow a curriculum, and there is no homework and no tests. Instead, students can explore different centers based on their interests and work on projects centered around a different theme every year.

Reggio’s Strong Focus on the Arts & Independence

Reggio schools have a big focus on the arts, but kids do not have to participate if they don’t want to. There is also a strong focus on kids being independent and helping themselves. My preschool students learned how to eat by themselves, wash their hands, and clean up. This is important because it gives them confidence while developing their fine motor skills.

Reggio: Geared More Towards Toddlers?

Most Reggio schools only cover preschool and kindergarten. My school did go up to the 6th grade, and a few schools will go up to high school, but that is not typical. Some elementary school students found it difficult to transition from a Reggio school to a traditional one, so it’s important for teachers and parents to make sure that the transition is easier.

What Types of Kids Would Thrive in a Reggio Environment?

All preschool and kindergarten-age kids would thrive in a Reggio school because of its play-based learning style that focuses on independence and self-expression. Toddlers will learn how to socialize and improve their fine motor skills while developing their confidence and having fun.

ALSO: What is the Flipped Classroom Model?

For elementary school kids, Reggio Emilia is great if your child is creative and does well in a learning environment where they have a lot of freedom and can choose what they want to learn about. Some kids do need more structure and hate art, so if that’s your child, then Reggio is not the right fit for them.

What if Your Child Needs to Attend a Non-Reggio School When They Get Older?

Suppose the Reggio school your child is going to doesn’t have a high school. In that case, you might want to find alternative high schools to send them to after they leave their Reggio environment.

If your child is going to attend a traditional high school, then it’s better to send them to a traditional elementary school or a school with a similar learning style as the high school to make that transition easier for them. You might also homeschool if you struggle to find the right school once your child gets older.

So, what are your thought on Waldorf and Reggio? Which one do you like most and why? Let us know in the comments below!

Tracy Lowe

Tracy is a writer and filmmaker from Los Angeles, but Thailand has been her primary home for over a decade. She has more than 13 years of experience teaching young children and is a major proponent of the Reggio Emilia approach to learning.

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