Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pre-school eductaion: Waldorf vs. Montessori

I have recently been reading a lot about how young children learn, and there are two educational philosophies that I think are wonderful for the pre-school aged child: Montessori and Waldorf.


My son, Aiden had the opportunity to attend a wonderful little Montessori school for  2 1/2 years, from age 2-4.  I fell in love with Montessori. He learned so much there, and in such a loving environment.  Montessori strives to nurture the whole child - emotionally, intellectually, and physically.  They are very intent on fostering independence. They let the child choose his own work and pace of learning.  The areas of learning include:

Practical life (this includes improving fine and gross motor skills through pouring, scooping, lacing, folding, sweeping, dusting, etc.)

Sensorial (includes sorting, matching, putting things in order by size, weight, color, etc)

Language -  from 2009-2010 edition of Child of the World, Montessori from Three to Six Years :

Reading and writing should not be taught to a child before age six or seven, but, given the sensorial experiences of appropriate materials a child of normal intelligence will quite naturally teach herself to read and write sometimes as early as three or four years of age.
Here is a quote from Dr. Montessori about her experience in the first Casa dei Bambini, "house of children," in Rome in the beginning of this century:
Ours was a house for children, rather than a real school. We had prepared a place for children where a diffused culture could be assimilated from the environment, without any need for direct instruction . . . Yet these children learned to read and write before they were five, and no one had given them any lessons. At that time it seemed miraculous that children of four and a half should be able to write, and that they should have learned without the feeling of having been taught.
We puzzled over it for a long time. Only after repeated experiments did we conclude with certainty that all children are endowed with this capacity to absorb culture. If this be true—we then argued—if culture can be acquired without effort, let us provide the children with other elements of culture. And then we saw them absorbfar more than reading and writing: botany, zoology, mathematics, geography, and all with the same ease, spontaneously and without getting tired.
And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher's task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.

Math (uses hands-on materials where the child can compare size, weight, and numbers both by sight and touch- for example, they use beads to teach decimal places: one single bead, a rod of 10 beads, a square of 100 beads, and a cube of 1000 beads. Give the child a #: 1,316.  Then she is to put (starting at the left) one cube , then 3 squares, then 1 rod, and finally 6 single beads. The child is then actually looking at 1,316 beads to get a visual idea of that number as an amount, and is learning about the physical order of decimal places in a written number.)

Art  - art history and appreciation, as well as experimenting with many different art materials and techniques


Recently, I began to learn about Waldorf education.  In some respects it is very much like Montessori.  They respect children as individuals and aim to nurture the whole child.  Waldorf students also spend a lot of time on 'practical life" type activities.  However, they have fundamental differences.  In Waldorf, the teacher leads, not the student.  They have the same goal as Montessori in that they want the child to become good at decision making, but they believe that giving them too many choices too early hinders their decision-making abilities rather than helping them.  They also don't believe in teaching concepts to pre-school age children. They do not even expose them to letters and numbers at the pre-school level.  They believe that these years are a time to foster the child's imagination through make -believe play and a time to allow the child to spend his energy on physical growth.  They believe rhythm and balance are essential in daily and weekly routines and seasonal traditions.  Songs, rhymes, and stories (especially fairy tales) are part of each day.  Toys at a Waldorf pre-school are all-natural and very simple: cloth dolls, wooden toys, silk squares, pinecones, stones, shells, etc. - many are things that children can pretend are different things at different times.  In Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne says that make-believe play helps develop executive function, which includes the ability to self-regulate, to amend one's behavior, emotions, and impulses appropriately to one's environment and situation.  They believe art is important for children to experience, but they mainly use only a few media: watercolor paints, beeswax for sculpting, and block crayons.

We have started attending a weekly play group at the local Waldorf school. Both of my boys are thoroughly enjoying it.  In fact, although this group is for ages 18 months to 3 years, and Aiden is tagging along, I think he is getting more out of it than Owen.  I think it is a good release for him after a long day of Kindergarten.

I really like aspects of both philosophies, but I really wish I knew exactly how doing one over the other affects children in the long-term.  Do Montessori -trained kids grow up to be more intellectual?  Do Waldorf-trained kids grow up to be more imaginative? Is one group better at making decisions?  Does one group have more of a sense of inner peace and well-being? While I have not found concrete answers to these subjective questions,  I have found scientific data that backs up practices of both philosophies.

For now, I think I like the idea of mixing the two philosophies.  I lean toward Montessori in following the child's lead. I think introducing concepts is a good thing, and if they want to learn them, let them.  However, I think it is also important to set aside time each day simply for imaginative play.

A typical Montessori classroom

A typical Waldorf classroom

Some Montessori materials

Some Waldorf-inspired toys