Montessori and Reggio and Waldorf OH MY!

Distinguishing between early childhood education programs is hard enough. You have to account for all sorts of factors like the location of the program, when you need care, how skilled are the teachers, the cost, etc. However, on top of that you will undoubtedly encounter programs that say they are Montessori based or Reggio Emilia inspired or some other thing. What do you do with that?

If you’re like me (and I’m sure many of you reading are MUCH smarter than me) you will nod politely and say “oh how nice” all the while being too embarrassed to admit that you don’t understand what these Italian sounding names have to do with taking care of a child.

So for those of you who like me who are confused by these terms I’ve decided to compile a quick and dirty description so you can quickly tell the difference between the programs.


The Montessori Education Method (or “Montessori” for short) was developed by Dr. Maria Montessori following her medical training. With the help of a Baron Franchetti and his wife, in 1907 Dr. Montessori established a school called the Casa dei Bambini in Citta di Castello. There she implemented her educational model based on her philosophy of human development.

The model is based on two basic principles. First, children and developing adults engage in psychological self-construction by means of interaction with their environments. Second, children, especially under the age of six, have an innate path of psychological development. In short, the tools to develop psychologically are within us and therefore education’s role is to facilitate that natural process.

This gives Montessori classrooms a very different feel from a normal classroom. For example, the teacher often takes on the role of a facilitator who helps the child as they freely explore the many activities on offer in the classroom. The toys themselves are also very unique. They are meant to teach the child a specific skill, whether it be a motor skill or some sort of math or language learning, and are designed in a way so that the child can tell just using the toy or participating in the activity that they are doing it right. The whole point being that the child discovers on their own rather than through the teacher’s instruction what the right thing to do is.

Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia also came from Italy but instead of being named after a person it is actually named after town where it originated. Namely, the town of Reggio Emilia. The education model was developed after World War II by pedagogist Loris Malaguzzi with the help of the parents in the villages around Reggio Emilia.

The Reggio Emilia education model was very much influenced by the Montessori model that predated it. Under this system the child is considered the key agent in their education and they are able to choose projects that help them along their learning path. Children are considered to be “knowledge bearers”, so they are encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas about everything they could meet or do during the day. “Influenced by this belief, the child is beheld as beautiful, powerful, competent, creative, curious, and full of potential and ambitious desires."[1]

This means children are meant to be taken very seriously and encouraged to opine on all sorts of matters. Teachers are trained to recognize that they have a lot to learn from the children.

A key aspect of the Reggio Emilia model is that the whole community has a hand in helping to educate a child. That is why the model is named after the town because the whole town was part of the educational project, not just the educators. This must be an amazing place to visit! However, that is why a particular center will say they are Reggio Emilia “inspired” because in order to technically be following the model a whole community beyond a center would have to be participating. That’s why centers that follow this model will expect a lot of parental engagement and participation in the child’s learning process.


Moving across continental Europe we come to the Waldorf education model which is sometimes called the Steiner education model after its founder Rudolf Steiner. The first Waldorf school opened in Stuttgart, Germany in 1919 and it is now the largest independent school movement in the world with over 1,200 independent schools, 2,000 kindergartens and 646 centers for special education in 75 countries.

Rudolf Steiner’s pedagogical style focused very much on experiential education- allowing children to learn by example and through opportunities in imaginative play. Classrooms are meant to resemble a home and place an emphasis on simple, natural materials both in their design and in both the toys that are present there. Children follow a regular daily routine that includes free play, circle time and practical tasks (e.g. cleaning and gardening). There is a large emphasis on artistic work and very little quantitative evaluation. Finally technology and electronic media are highly discouraged.


So those are very basic descriptions of the education models that you might encounter. What I wrote above just barely scratches the surface in describing these models so if you would like to more please look them up and dig more deeply.

The real question though is what to make of the various daycares and preschools that say they use these models?

First of all, you must know your child. There is no perfect educational model that works for everyone. Some introspection will help you come to some conclusions about what might work in you and your child’s case.

Second, it is important to bear in mind that centers implement these educational models in different ways. Even two schools that are say they are Montessori might have different ways of handling the classrooms. This is in part because they models themselves don’t have specific requirements but more have guidelines that schools and educators should follow but it is also because the names Montessori or Reggio Emilia aren’t a standardized brand (like McDonalds); they are models that are implemented by independent schools. There are accrediting organizations such as the American Montessori Society but not all Montessori schools would necessarily be a part of one. So do your due diligence and don’t assume all schools are the same because they have these models in their name or on their website.

Finally, many centers will say something even more vague like “we incorporate Montessori concepts in our model” or we are “Reggio Emilia inspired but have more of a focus on play”. In essence, the centers are saying they are taking concepts from these models but doing their own thing. That OK! In fact it could wind up being better. However, that just puts more onus on you to try to figure out what exactly they are doing in the classroom.

The Bottom Line

There are many education models out there and these are three of the most common. However, there is no perfect one. The goal is to figure out which would be right for you and your child and then to ask some questions to get a sense of what exactly is happening in the classroom of the centers you are interested in. So don’t be intimidated by this jargon and trust your instincts about which place seems right. Because at the end of the day whether a place is Reggio or Montessori or some other type of model, what really matters is that your child is in a safe, nurturing and enriching environment.

Easel - Daycare When You Need It!

Ever had your care fall through? Now you have another option with Easel.

We offer "Daycare When You Need It!" and help parents book spots at quality daycares near them—even at the last minute. Click here and fill out the “book care now” form if you need care. Or signup to stay in touch with Easel!