A Different Kind of Classroom

Unpacking the Waldorf and Montessori Traditions

By Erin J. Bernard

Julia Child. Chelsea Clinton. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. What do these successful folks share in common? A Montessori education. Advocates of non-traditional elementary schools argue that tossing out tests and rote learning in favor of creativity and freedom begets smarter, happier kids, but is an alternative classroom right for your child? We break down two fast-growing approaches.

Waldorf schools

The history: The Waldorf method was developed in the early 1900s by German spiritual-scientific researcher Rudolf Steiner. His education-as-art approach seeks to stimulate children’s hands and hearts as well as their minds.

The approach: All the world’s a stage, and childhood is its wondrous first act. Waldorf’s rich curriculum encourages kids to seek meaning through interactions with music, myth, theater, writing, dance, language, and nature. Waldorf divides development into three phases: birth to six/seven years, seven to 14 years, and 14 to 18 years. The idea? Inspire kids with age-appropriate curriculum tailored to awaken their natural empathy and curiosity. Young learners are dazzled with music and make-believe, with traditional academic subjects delayed until grade one and reading deferred until after writing. The use of electronic media (especially television) is heartily discouraged at home.

The classroom: Waldorf classes run from preschool through high school. School grounds are lovingly decorated with colorful student murals and boast rambling gardens. During the elementary years, students have the same teacher and classmates for up to eight years. There is little competitive testing and few textbooks before fifth grade. In lieu of grades, teachers provide comprehensive yearly evaluations.

The downsides: Waldorf’s strict screen-time policies can be tough to enforce, and delaying reading skills may disadvantage kids who later transfer to a traditional school or have latent disabilities. Many Waldorf schools also lack ethnic diversity.

Find out more: Visit

Montessori schools

The history: Early in the 20th century, Italian doctor Maria Montessori honed her approach while working with Rome’s poor youth. Her method views play as a child’s “work,” and places kids– not teachers – at the center of the educational experience.

The approach: Schedules, be gone! The Montessori tradition nurtures freedom by letting kids learn uninterrupted and on their own terms. Children work through weekly study plans in the order and pace they choose, with emphasis on true-to-life tasks such as cleaning, studying maps, and caring for pets or plants. Teachers are facilitators, guiding quietly from the periphery. Learning is gauged through oral exams, presentations, portfolios and self-assessments. Families are often asked to significantly limit at-home screen-time.

The classroom: Formal education begins at age three, and many schools run through grade eight. Students stay with one teacher for several years running, and the emphasis on diversity and community means classes are large (25-30 kids each), with a two-to-three-year age range. Younger children learn from older peers, who mature through this mentoring. Classrooms are buzzing workshops filled with realistic, tactile learning materials, and children move about freely, dusting, polishing, sewing, and hammering.

The downsides: Mixed-age classrooms may disadvantage older or gifted kids, while easily over-stimulated or aggressive children may not thrive in this less-structured environment. As with Waldorf, strict screen-time rules may be unrealistic for some families.

Find out more: Visit



Posted on Aug 04, 2014

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