Sunday, October 18, 2009

Waldorf and Montessori - Fantasy Versus Reality

Many parents are familiar with the Waldorf and Montessori education models but not always clear on the differences between them. My children have been in both types of schools, so we had the pleasure of learning about both models in theory and in practice. I appreciate and respect many things about both modalities and I do understand that there can be a great deal of variation in many Waldorf and Montessori classrooms around the world.

Typically Montessori encourages a firm grounding in reality for a child and their materials help to cement that understanding. At the Montessori school my children attended, children were not to play with the manipulative materials in a way that is not in keeping with their purpose. For example, the math beads were to be used for counting in a certain sequential way when a child is ready to use them for math purposes. The classrooms emphasize order, with tidy workstations and plenty to do as a child chooses. While I do love the way Montessori encourages a child to learn through the use of manipulative materials instead instead of more abstract methods, I also appreciate the way Waldorf encourages fantasy play.

In a Waldorf classroom, play is considered a fundamental part of learning and fantasy is viewed as essential to creating happy and imaginative students. Waldorf teachers capitalize on the power of a story to teach children. The classrooms are beautiful and inviting. They are dreamy and colorful with found items from nature and plenty of gorgeous, natural fabrics draped to create a sense of space. In addition to creating the setting of the room, fabrics are also used to play make believe. Waldorf advocates for plenty of imaginative play and the teachers encourage it by providing natural toys made of wood or cotton that are minimally finished to encourage a strong sense of imagination. I love how the stories about Andy Add and Sammy Subtract help to bring alive an abstract idea.

In the Waldorf school we were a part of, there were plenty of stories on fairies. Children were told stories of fairies that mirrored their lives and helped them to make sense of their world and the world they cannot see. My children have built many a fairy house, using found objects in nature or a cardboard box. I love how it brings out the nurturing side of them (building a comfortable shelter for them) and their creativity. My children have written to their fairies and received answers and an occasional small gift from them. It is sort of like Christmas each time it happens, but it is not about the material item they get (a fortune cookie, a few coins, a figurine, some stickers) but the delight at the special connection and attention that they love.

In an eclectic education, the best of both can be used. I try to make use of manipulative materials and a story to make sense of an abstract concept. We do frequent nature walks, taking pictures of items that we will later use to learn. For example, we went on a photographic scavenger hunt this week, taking pictures of things that are brown, things that are dry, things that are soft, etc. to use for a sorting exercise later for my four year old. I am grateful that we can draw from the wisdom of both modalities to make our homeschooling experience all the richer.


  1. It is do refresing to read your educational information! I have tried both methods for my son education. So far he has chosen Waldorf as his favorite! It has giving him a very cozy, sensitive and wonderful perception if himself, nature and the world around him!

  2. Hi Chic Mommy! Our kids did well in both schools but they much preferred Waldorf too for the exact reasons that you mention. It was so nurturing and richly imaginative. I loved the way the create reverence for nature and imbue a sense of spirituality.