Montessori vs Reggio Emilia vs Steiner-Waldorf vs Froebel

➡️ Video Lesson
➡️ Study Card
Montessori vs Reggio Emilia, explained below
➡️ Key Points

Key Points in this article:

  • All contemporary perspectives embrace play-based learning
  • Differences include divergent ideas about technology, multi-age class groups and how much the teacher should intervene in learning
  • Use the table of differences to see a direct comparison of each

Read Also: A List of 107 Effective Classroom Teaching Strategies

Early childhood education is dominated by five student-centered play-based approaches to education: Montessori, Steiner, Reggio Emilia, Froebel and Forest Schools. This article compares these perspectives.

screenshot of table summary
I made this table summary comparing these approaches – it’s linked at the bottom of this article.

1. The Montessori Approach

children playing with building blocks

Montessori education is a child-centered approach developed by Dr. Maria Montessori. It values hands-on, self-directed learning and collaborative play. Classrooms are designed to foster independence, with children of different ages working together in the same environment. Teachers act as guides rather than traditional instructors. The goal is to develop the whole child—socially, emotionally, physically, and intellectually.

I’ve broken down various elements of the Montessori approach below.

➤ Video Lesson: Intro to the Montessori approach
➤ Key Features of the Montessori approach
  • Multi-age classrooms
  • Unobtrusive teachers
  • Resource rich environment
➤ Founder of the Montessori approach

The Montessori approach was founded by Maria Montessori in 1907 when she founded her Casa dei Bambini in Italy.

➤ Background Information

Maria Montessori was an Italian scientist who used methods of scientific observation to develop her approach to education. To this day, her approach emphasizes observation of children learning and tweaking of learning environments based on teachers’ observations. Children are encouraged to use experimentation and trial-and-error to learn.

➤ Theoretical Foundations of the Montessori approach

The Montessori approach is based on the cognitive-constructivist theory. Montessori believed children learn in clear stages, much like another cognitive-constructivist: Jean Piaget.

Montessori has four stages or ‘planes of development‘. The two main stages are the first two:

  • Birth to age 3 represent the “unconscious absorbent mind” and
  • Ages 3 to 6 represent the “conscious absorbent mind”.

Montessori’s multi-aged classrooms are grouped based on the above two periods of development.

➤ Role of the Teacher

The teacher is ideally an unobtrusive director, aiming to eventually not interfere with learning as children develop self-competencies.

The teacher should observe and record children’s learning, but it is recognized that interrupting children during learning could disturb their momentum, motivation, interest and thought processes.

Therefore, the goal should be to support self-directed learning and self-discipline.

Here’s a quote I love about Montessori’s idea of the teacher:

“The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’” – Maria Montessori

➤ Role of the Environment

The Montessori classroom is resource rich.

Children can use resources around the classroom to help them problem solve and discover new things. Educators use their observations of children to provide the children with resources that help them meet their current developmental needs.

The Montessori classroom is also an orderly and structured environment, where objects have their own place.

➤ Practical Applications of the Montessori approach

The Montessori classroom emphasizes sensory and practical experiences. Lessons are task-oriented, where the teacher sets out a task and encourages students to complete the task without interference from an adult.

➤ Classroom Structure

The Montessori method uses multi-age classrooms that are based on predefined stages of development (0 – 3 and 3 – 6). This multi-age focus is a prominent aspect of the Montessori approach that is only found in one other approach listed in this article: the Reggio Emilia approach.

➤ Montessori Perspectives of Childhood

Montessori sees children as ‘agentic’. This means she thinks children as competent and capable of self-development. You might compare this to a view of children as ‘innocent’, where children are generally seen as incompetent and in need of protection.

For Montessori, children are seen as being able to learn and discover on their own when provided with a resource-rich environment.

Related: 13 Key Social Constructions of Childhood

Read my full guide to Montessori education here

2. The Steiner / Waldorf Approach

children cooking

Waldorf-Steiner education, developed by Rudolf Steiner, focuses on holistic development through arts, academics, and practical skills. It emphasizes imagination and creativity, with a curriculum that integrates storytelling, music, and visual arts. Classes are structured around developmental stages, with a strong emphasis on nurturing a child’s inner motivation. Teachers often stay with the same class for several years to build deeper relationships. The goal is to cultivate free-thinking, well-rounded individuals who can contribute meaningfully to society.

I’ve broken down various elements of the Waldorf-Steiner approach below.

➤ Video Lesson: Introduction to the Waldorf-Steiner approach
➤ Key Features of the Waldorf-Steiner approach
  • No technology or academic learning until 7 years of age
  • Nature and natural materials emphasized
  • Communal living prioritized
  • One teacher stays with her class for several years
➤ Founders


The Steiner-Waldorf approach was founded by Rudolf Steiner and Emil Molt in 1919.

The term ‘Waldorf’ comes from the tobacco factory which commissioned the school. Molt, the director of the factory, asked Steiner to establish the school for the children of the factory’s employees.

➤ Background Information

Steiner was a philosopher who believed in cultivating children’s spirituality. He was inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea that children are best raised in natural, homely and comfortable environments uncorrupted by the outside world of adults.

➤ Theoretical Foundations

The Steiner-Waldorf approach embraces a humanist view of teaching and learning.

Steiner was in touch with the idea of children as innocent who need to grow up within nature and protected from the adult world. This approach is also very much concerned with nurturing students’ emotions.

Here, you can see that Steiner less concerned with a constructivist pedagogy; and more concerned with a humanist approach which embraces holistic spiritual development.

➤ Role of the Teacher

The teacher in the Steiner-Waldorf school is a moral leader, promoting harmony and a sense of community. The teacher encourages students to care for one another and their environment.

The teacher is much more interventionist than in either the Reggio or Montessori approaches, working to reinforce their own personal convictions about morality, humanist spirituality and the importance of care for one another.

The teacher is also considered a ‘chief storyteller’, and much of what is learned takes place through stories.

➤ Role of the Environment

The environment should appear natural, warm and homely. Toys and materials are often made from wood and are hand-made. Earthy colours are used to promote links to nature.

➤ Practical Applications

Academic learning is delayed until age 7 to keep children ‘innocent’ and in a state of ‘natural childhood’ as long as possible. Before this age, the focus is on play and discovery. There is a strong focus on art, imagination and creativity.

Today, Steiner-Waldorf schools often also prevent the use of technology until students are older than 7. This helps children stay in touch with nature more; but critics argue that children need to be exposed to technology early on in order that they are raised ‘digital natives’. Some argue that this is important for children to get jobs in the digital economy.

Nonetheless, Steiner-Waldorf educators believe technology can wait as it can be a negative influence on young children.

➤ Classroom Structure

A unique aspect of the Steiner-Waldorf approach is that the teacher tends to stay with children for multiple years in a row.

Steiner-Waldorf classrooms are not usually multi-age (students tend to all be the same age in the class), marking a point of difference between the Steiner and Montessori approaches.

There is a strong focus on daily routines that revolve around organised group meal times and training in harmonious domestic and communal living.

➤ Waldorf-Steiner Perspectives of Childhood

The Steiner-Waldorf approach tends to see children as innocent. There is a strong focus on protecting children from the adult world and keeping them in natural environments. This is evident, for example, in the prevention of technology in the classroom.

It could also be seen that children are considered agentic, but this is emphasized less than in the Montessori and Reggio Emilia approaches, as childhood innocence is at the fore for Steiner.

Read Also: 7 Waldorf Education Criticisms

3. The Reggio Emilia Approach

children playing with blocks

The Reggio Emilia approach to education, originating in Italy, emphasizes child-led learning and exploration. It views children as capable and curious, with a focus on their interests guiding the curriculum. Learning environments are carefully designed to encourage creativity, collaboration, and communication. Teachers work as co-learners and researchers, documenting children’s progress and ideas. The approach values community and parental involvement, believing education is a collective and dynamic process.

I’ve broken down various elements of the Reggio Emilia approach below.

➤ Video Lesson: Introduction to the Reggio Emilia approach
➤ Key Features of the Reggio Emilia approach
  • A focus on democratic values
  • Group work and interaction with the community prioritized
  • Teachers work in pairs
  • Children seen as competent and capable
  • Multi-age classrooms so younger children can learn from older children
➤ Founder

The first Reggio Emilia school was founded by Loris Malaguzzi in 1946. He established the school 20 minutes from the town of Reggio Emilia. The first school was funded through the selling of a tank from the war.

➤ Background Information

The Reggio Emilia approach grew out of a desire in post-WWII Italy to create a more democratic future for Italian children. The focus was on cooperation between children, learning democratic skills, and creating links between children and their communities.

➤ Theoretical Foundations

The Reggio Emilia approach is grounded in the sociocultural theory of education.

Malaguzzi (the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach) embraced Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory idea that children learn best through social interactions between adults and students. This is different in emphasis to Maria Montessori’s approach, which embraced Piaget’s ideas of the child as ‘lone scientist’ who is self-taught

Malaguzzi also rejected Piaget’s idea that all children develop in universal stages; rather, they develop at their own pace as they move through their ZPD in social contexts.

Here, then, you can see that it is a ‘social’ constructivist approach that is dominant: social interactions are very important in Reggio Emilia schools.

➤ Role of the Teacher

The Reggio Emilia teacher is considered a guide, not an ultimate authority figure. The student’s individuality and agency to make their own decision and come to their own conclusion is respected.

A unique element of the Reggio Emilia approach is that teachers often work in pairs so that they can talk together about the needs of students and help one another out.

➤ Role of the Environment

The Reggio Emilia environment emphasizes social interaction between children and children, adults and children, and adults and adults.

The classroom is an extension of society, and society and cultures should be invited into the classrooms. This means there is often involvement of experts such as artists coming into the classroom.

Malaguzzi defined the classroom environment as the ‘third teacher’ to highlight how it is central to a child’s learning.

➤ Practical Applications of the Reggio Emilia approach

Classrooms are often democratic and involve students in decision-making. Group work is central.

➤ Classroom Structure

Multi-age classrooms are often used in Reggio Emilia schools, but for different reasons to Montessori.

While Montessori sets multi-age classrooms based on pre-defined developmental stages, Reggio Emilia sets multi-age classrooms to encourage children to learn from ‘more knowledgeable other’ peers.

➤ Reggio Emilia Perspectives of Childhood

In the Reggio Emilia approach, children are seen as ‘agentic’. This means they are considered capable and powerful. Democratic participation and active citizenship are encouraged from the earliest possible age.

A great quote from Malaguzzi (the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach) that demonstrates his view of child as agentic is below:

‘… our image of the child is rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent and most of all, connected to adults and other children.’

4. The Froebel Approach

children playing with clay

The Froebel approach to education, developed by Friedrich Froebel, is the foundation of the modern kindergarten system. It emphasizes play as the primary mode of learning, recognizing it as essential for children’s development. Froebel introduced educational tools called “gifts” and “occupations,” designed to stimulate creativity and understanding of the world. The approach fosters a child’s natural curiosity and encourages self-expression through hands-on activities. Teachers act as facilitators, guiding children through structured play to develop their social, emotional, and cognitive skills.

I’ve broken down various elements of the Froebel approach below.

➤ Key Features of the Froebel approach
  • Teacher considered a gardener who helps children bloom like flowers
  • Children provided age-appropriate toys (‘gifts’) and activities (‘occupations’)
➤ Founder

Friedrich Froebel came up with his own approach to educating children.

➤ Background Information

Froebel was a European philosopher and architect who believed that children’s cognitive development would naturally unfold through exposure to their environments.

He developed toys that corresponded with what he believed to be the natural progression of children’s cognition. He is famous for the metaphor of the teacher as gardener and student as flower.

➤ Theoretical Foundations

Froebel was an influential cognitive-constructivist theorist. He believed that children develop through natural stages and bloom like flowers (somewhat like Montessori!).

He was one of the first people to highlight the importance of play using toys and tools for cognitive development. He believed age-appropriate toys must be provided to help progress child development.

➤ Role of the Teacher

The teacher is considered a gardener who nurtures a child’s development as it naturally develops. Teachers should observe children’s development and sensemaking and provide experiences and gifts designed for helping children’s sensemaking (very similar to Montessori, but with a stronger emphasis on mathematical and symbolic learning).

➤ Role of the Environment

Froebel wanted to expose students to a prepared environment that involves ‘gifts’ (developmentally appropriate toys). The gifts were:

  • Gifts 1 – 6: Play with 3D solids.
  • Gifts 7 – 9: Play with 2D shapes, lines, points.
  • Gift 10: Framework: Play with frameworks that represent solids with lines and points (Skeletons of 3D shapes).
➤ Practical Applications of the Froebel approach

Froebel believed kindergartens should involve songs, movement games and craft activities (‘occupations’) that help students learn through the 5 senses.

Froebel’s gifts (toys) and occupations (crafts) should help children make symbolic representations of the real world.

Students should be exposed to the world through play to develop understanding of the nature of the physical world. Playing in the real world gives context to students’ knowledge (He is very much against rote learning).

➤ Classroom Structure

There is no mention of specific age grouping requirements from the Froebel philosophy.

➤ Froebel’s Perspectives of Childhood

Froebel viewed children as agentic. He believed children try to make sense of the world through engagement with objects in the world. Children should therefore be given freedom to explore (this emphasis on freedom links well to ‘agentic’ construct).

5. Forest Schools

children playing in tree

The Forest Schools approach to education focuses on outdoor, nature-based learning experiences. It encourages children to engage with the natural environment through hands-on activities and exploration. This approach aims to build confidence, resilience, and independence by allowing children to take risks and solve problems in a natural setting. Learning is child-led, with educators acting as facilitators to support individual interests and discoveries. The goal is to foster a deep connection with nature while developing a wide range of personal and social skills.

I’ve broken down various elements of the Forrest Schools approach below.

➤ Video Lesson: Introduction to Forrest Schools
➤ Key Features of the Forrest Schools approach
  • Children learn entirely outdoors and in forests
  • Risk taking is encouraged
  • Started in Denmark but has spread throughout the world
➤ Founder

Founded in Denmark by Danish Educators and exported around the world in the 1990s and 2000s.

➤ Background Information

Forest Schools originated in Denmark, but spread to other Western nations in the 1990s and 2000s. They are now popular in the UK (as Forest Schools) and in Australia (as ‘Bush Kinders’).

Forest Schools follow a play-based approach and embrace Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea that children have a special connection with nature.

The Forest Schools approach is underpinned by the Danish philosophy of friluftsliv. This philosophy believes that raising children in nature can help them experience freedom, fresh air and a spiritual connection to the earth.

➤ Theoretical Foundations

The Forest School approach sees children holistically, which corresponds with a humanist view of teaching and learning. A holistic understanding of childhood emphasizes children’s cognitive, social and physical development.

The approach can also be considered constructivist, as it has a strong emphasis on ‘learning by doing’. Children spend their time outdoors experiencing and engaging with nature to develop knowledge.

➤ Role of the Teacher

The Forest School teacher should be a guide who encourages children to explore their natural environments. The teacher encourages children to explore and play but lets children lead the learning experiences (it is ‘child led’).

While safety is a concern, the teacher should not aim to eliminate all risks. Instead, they should be happy with ‘safe enough’ where obvious risks are eliminated, but don’t go overboard stressing. Some risk is good for learning.

The teacher focuses on building trust between themselves and the students – i.e. teachers should trust students to self-regulate.

Teachers also focus on ceremonial events like campfires and student presentations to start and end all learning sessions.

➤ Role of the Environment

Learning is entirely outdoors, preferably in natural forest environments. The learning environment should be open-ended. Open-ended learning means that children create their own adventures: they choose how to use the resources in their environment.

Outdoor lessons should take place in all weather conditions – so students need to come prepared for hot, cold, wet and even snowy conditions.

➤ Practical Applications of the Forrest Schools approach

Teachers need to ensure children are well dressed for the weather conditions. Students should be taught how to manage risks themselves, which requires a lot of early scaffolding.

There are eight principles of Forest Schools, which teachers can use as a practical approach for applying the Forest school philosophy for their own teaching.

➤ Classroom Structure

There is no mention of specific age grouping requirements in the Forest School approach. This marks a clear difference from the Steiner and Montessori approaches.

However, the Forest School approach does emphasize that children should be exposed to forest environments for a sustained period of time: one-off outdoor activities are not enough. Preferably, all learning should be in forests for several weeks at a time.

Some UK adaptations have one day a week spread over a term as a compromise due to curriculum constraints.

➤ Forrest School Perspectives of Childhood

The Forest School approach sees children as agentic. Children are seen as able to manage themselves and assess their own risk tolerance in their lives. Trust between children and adults is emphasized, where it is a give-take relationship rather than having the teacher as the ultimate authority figure.

Read my full guide on Forest Schools here


These alternative approaches to early childhood education are united in their embrace of childhood agency and freedom of choice. They emphasize learning by doing and constructivist learning. If you’re interested in other alternative approaches, consider reading about the Te Whariki curriculum in New Zealand.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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