Montessori, Reggio Emilia and Waldorf: What’s the Difference? 

Montessori, Reggio Emilia and Waldorf are all different styles of education with similar principles. You may have heard of them before, but do you know what sets them apart? Here is a refresher on these three unique philosophies of education.  


Montessori is a philosophy and pedagogy based on the scientific research of Dr. Maria Montessori,” says Jeff Groh, director of The New School Montessori in Cincinnati. “Children are grouped in multi-age classrooms, where students are engaged in hands-on, self-paced, collaborative work. Multi-age classrooms allow older students to be leaders and mentors while providing opportunities for younger students to work with older classmates on group projects.  

In Montessori classrooms, teachers do not stand in front of a class giving lectures. Montessori teachers also don’t ask students to work on the same thing, at the same time, in the same way. Rather, they walk throughout the classroom working one-on-one with students, or in small groups,” Groh says. At the core of the Montessori philosophy is the belief that all students have a natural desire to learn, explore and joyfully work toward independence through knowledge and discipline.” 

Children move freely throughout the Montessori classroom environment, working with the teacher, individually or in small groups while they choose activities that interest them. Their movement is unrestricted by the teacher, unless it endangers themselves, other people or their surroundings.  

Learning isn’t just contained indoors. Outdoor environments are important in Montessori schools, and offer opportunities to engage with the natural world. 

What if an argument arises in the classroom? “Children are taught how to regulate their own social interactions,” Groh says. “Through fun role-playing activities and appropriate modeling, the teacher demonstrates the best way to respond to arguments or new situations, giving the child the ability to act confidently and pro-socially when an actual problem arises. The result is a self-regulating classroom, in which natural social tensions are resolved mostly by the children themselves.” 

Reggio Emilia 

At the cornerstone of the Reggio Emilia philosophy is the image of the child, says Caitlin Schroff, education director at The Compass School in Cincinnati. 

“Children are viewed as capable of finding answers to their own questions, and Reggio-inspired teachers are meant to facilitate the learning process, rather than to simply relay information,” Schroff says. “Questions and wonderment drive learning, and oftentimes a large-scale project is created in order to better understand a recurring idea or topic. For instance, if children are noticing birds flock to a bird feeder, teachers may begin to display books about birds, binoculars and clipboards near the window. If the interest grows, a teacher may begin to incorporate more opportunities to learn about the birds. Eventually, the children may want to build more feeders, offer different types of seeds or treats, or track the types of birds visiting the feeders. The opportunities are endless.”  

The topics covered in a Reggio-inspired classroom can be extremely broad, and sometimes unexpected, due to the nature of the philosophy. This makes it a perfect place to develop a child’s creativity.   

Learning standards are usually incorporated into the project work, versus designating a specific time of the day for literacy or math. A classroom inspired by the Reggio philosophy can be the perfect place for a child to realize their potential as a member of the community.  


“Waldorf education is a worldwide independent school movement developed in Europe 100 years ago,” says Karen Crick, enrollment director at Cincinnati Waldorf School. “Today, Waldorf education is represented across the globe, with about 1,000 schools and nearly 2,000 early-childhood programs in over 60 countries. The Waldorf curriculum focuses on academic excellence, with a rich experience in the arts, social inclusion and outdoor education. In addition to rigorous academics, Waldorf students learn compassion, resilience, creativity, balance, problem solving and independent thinking — exactly what our world needs most right now.” 

Hands-on learning is fundamental to a Waldorf education. Activities that are often considered “extras” at other schools — such as art, music, movement, gardening, world languages, drama, woodworking, nature studies and painting — are incorporated into the academic program. Rather than using textbooks and worksheets created by others, children at Cincinnati Waldorf School combine academic and artistic skills to create their own books, which demonstrate and deepen their learning.   

“Waldorf students are given an active, vibrant education without the pressure of timed tests, report cards and unwieldy amounts of homework, making school and learning a joyful experience,” Crick says 

“Our world is changing rapidly, and Waldorf schools are committed to equipping students with the confidence and competence to navigate the change, transformation and uncertainty that goes with it,” Crick continues. Skills such as critical thinking, creativity, social intelligence and flexibility of thought will be critical for the future. Waldorf students cultivate all of these skills, along with a lifelong love of learning that enables them to thrive in high school and college, as well as become successful adults who are of service to the world.” 

While each of these philosophies of learning have components that are unique to their style, one thing is for certain: all of them have plenty to offer children in the way of an enriching educational experience.  

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