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Montessori vs Waldorf Early Years Education

Growing into Motherhood

What a journey motherhood has been so far!  My eldest is 5. Only 5 years of motherhood and it has grown me more than anything else.I have learned so much both from experience and from study and exploration of different ideas, strategies and approaches to the issues I've faced with my children.

I consider both my boys to be quite sensitive.  They would be the shy ones at the back of the nursery queue clinging onto me. The ones who wouldn't engage so much with their peers, and my youngest has “delayed” speech.  If it wasn't for all the reading, speaking to professionals and other mums and so on, I may be tempted to look to my parenting skills and ask "What have I done wrong?".   But the more I learn, the more it reinforces that children are not just a product of their environment or your parenting..(yes the old nature/nurture debate) some degree you do have to "Work with what you've got".  Children need different approaches, and you can do much to support them, but sometimes you can't shape their behaviour in the way you want.   They cannot be programmed, like a washing machine, to produce the results we are hoping for - that their foibles all come out in the wash!

Accepting our children warts and all, teaches them self-love, which is the best gift of all (George Vallient).  Sometimes the hardest lesson for us parents is that they will grow and change when they are ready, and we just need to be there to hold their hand and help them transition.  What a difference to my old ideas - before I was a mum - which was that anything can be achieved through discipline, and that if you had a 'naughty' child  (I now use the term 'wilful') that they simply weren't being disciplined enough!

My youngest goes to a Montessori nursery, and the journey I've had with him has highlighted this 'simply handholding' need more than ever! Joining a nurseryI am a huge fan of Rudolf Steiner, let's get that out of the way!  He was a fantastic polymath (a knower of many things).  When I first discovered him it was at a time when I was also discovering how much of the world is linked together, that science is nature, and music is maths, and a many other things that bring the right side of the brain - typically the creative side - in harmony with the left - the academic side.  So you can imagine how I felt when I discovered he had evolved strategies for health, education, farming, science and more! The more we develop as humans the more brain-balanced we become.   When my youngest - Noah - was 2, I wanted to send him to nursery for a few hours a week so he can socialise with his peers. We chose the same one his brother attended happily.  

He really struggled and the nursery's approach - for me to stay with him - wasn't helpful. It was noisy, boisterous and overwhelming for him. My staying only made him fear me leaving that entire time.   There was little involvement from the staff. I was recommended a nursery down the road which is a Montessori and when I went just for a visit I ended up leaving Noah there for 2 hours! It was quiet, respectful and calm.   The staff are very nurturing and considered in their approach and they are happy to do 1:1. He has really grown and the support they have given him to grow at his own pace, meanwhile recognising his quiet sounds for the words he means, has been fantastic.

Both Montessori nurseries and Waldorf Nurseries can be very different between themselves, just as any other standard nursery can be different from one another.  They may share certain values and ideas, but they implement them in different ways, have different budgets and staff. So what I am about to describe may not fit well with your experience of your provision. Shared IdeasBoth Montessori and Waldorf schools/nurseries (named this because Steiner's sponsor Emil Molt established the first Steiner school for his company 'Waldorf') believe that each child has a spirit, that we are spiritual beings that need nurturing and that play is absolutely vital to our learning and wellbeing. 

They believe in letting the child lead, using natural materials that can be felt, and experienced with the senses.

Image of Tiny Land's ladybird making kit, bringing simple Maths, Art and Nature together!

The standard Early Years Framework implemented by the government is based on Jean Piaget's - a Developmental Psychologist - ideas about play, how children think, process information and learn. Before his ideas developed in the 1920's, people treated children in a similar way to young adults. Early Years sets certain standards which enable children to select their own toys or activities, so that they can play with choice. Being forced to play a game isn't play at all. Their WILL is absolutely vital in the process of learning.  See my article on Play and inspiring learning here( Standard Early Years Vs Montessori. 

The main differences from the standard Early Years and Montessori is that Montessori have a very considered approach to the games the children play. Maria Montessori devised ways of utilising Play to provide learning opportunities. The activities can isolate the challenge or difficulty, for example: Instead of giving different coloured numbers when learning numbers, make them the same colour.  Then they are equal and their difference being their values, enables the child to see what is truly different about them, and not be bombarded with lots of variables.   Simply put it makes learning easier and accessible. 

A Montessori Classroom taken from

Also some activities give a control of error, so that only 2 items fit onto the 'Number 2' board, and 3 items fit onto the 3 board etc. A child cannot get it wrong as such, and the activity itself guides them. The teachers are not teachers but guides, supporting a child through activities that they select. Certain types of play may not be allowed indoors, as this could be considered outdoor type play (climbing etc) and it usually set for designated times (at my son's nursery they have a sports lady come and provide sporting activities). The emphasis is on preparing them for the real world, i.e school in a holistic way. Play is called 'work'. Fantasy is not normally a feature of these settings and role play is often limited. Montessori Play has certain rules which are there to engage the player (Peter Grey - Psychology Today). It's all about the presentation of the lesson. 

From my own experience, Chemistry was such a dry subject for me at school. Yet now because of it's relevance and context, I find myself learning about ionic bonding for my foaming bath products! (

The effect Tiny Land Bath Crayons have on bathtime!!

Montessori Vs WaldorfIn stark contrast Waldorf education does not teach reading and writing until the age of 7.  Instead, the focus is on nurturing the child's feelings about education itself.  To love learning. They are not so concerned with what a child can achieve when they are playing, but more what they are experiencing.  Role play, fantasy and imagination are strong themes in Waldorf because it enables the child to express themselves, and create their own world which enables freedom for them.  Children really are allowed to be children.

A Waldorf Classroom

Where Montessori's believe a child selecting their own activity to be freedom, Waldorf believe that true freedom comes from them choosing not to play within the confines of the activity, but to chose the format of the play itself. For example, deciding that the Giraffe isn't to be placed within the empty puzzle space it has been designed for, but rather to be a player in a zoo fantasy and walked around the nursery and fed grass from outdoors. 

Loose parts/open ended play has become quite popular as common objects can be made into many things by the child. Play Therapy works on the basis that play is the language of the child and what they are doing demonstrates their current understanding of the world around them or them 'working things through'.  Loose parts/open ended play is not Montessori style – it's almost the opposite. 

Steiner children play outside a lot, and help with chores. (Google for a typical Waldorf Kindergarten – many images are of forests!) There is still structure to the day, as rhythm is important for their biological clock. Seasons are strongly marked and repetition is key. The emphasis being on providing the child with the space they need to grow into their own bodies, be familiar with the world around them and to be comfortable in their own skin. To acquire the necessary love and will required for more formal learning when 7.  So what now?  

Tiny Land products enable you to set up loose parts play with an encouragement toward literacy or numeracy

The approach you may wish to adopt may – like anything else – depend on your child's personality. In some ways I associate the Montessori style to more left-brained children. Those who are keen to learn maths and literacy – often girls. The Waldorf style may be more beneficial to those who are more creative and expressive.   Although each setting may cater for both, and this is a generalisation.  For me, Montessori has done wonders for my youngest as it was a quieter and more nurturing setting than the mainstream. However if I had a Waldorf nursery nearer to me (we do live near Forest Row but just a touch too far for the commute) I would have opted for this for both my children.  For me sometimes a Montessori activity can be too contrived and limiting, and I'd prefer more freeform outdoor time, rich with climbing trees, fantasy and imagination - than an organised sports activity.   Although there is value in the Montessori activities (we all need to beencouraged and pushed outside of our comfort zones) success for me is not whether my child can write at 5 rather than 7.

A successful child is a happy one - one who grows to have a flexible and positive outlook on life and all it throws at them. This can be learned regardless of the educational background. Being in an environment where they are loved and cared for is the most important thing. Rarely will a setting provide everything you want in the way that you want it to be delivered. Both my children benefit from a slower pace and are not ready for literacy at 5, but you may find the opposite is true for your children. Remembering that there is Maths in Music and Science in Nature, perhaps a mixture of the two styles would be the perfect place!

Since writing this blog originally for BabyTodd (A child / family show, showcasing local businesses I have enrolled my youngest into an outdoor nursery once a week and the mixture of progressive activity at Montessori and open outdoor play has hugely benefited him.  I also think he has needed the extra 'push' that the Montessori nursery have given him.  They encourage him to use his speech whereas I accept his language as it is, as I can understand him anyway.  Although I stand by my comment that girls are generally more studious, boys can have a tendancy to be lazy with non-physical tasks and being in an environment where the rules are 'we use our words' can really help them too!

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