Reggio Emilia vs. Montessori vs Waldorf Approach: What’s the difference?

If you are a parent looking for options to support their child’s early education, you may have heard terms like Reggio Emilia, Montessori, Waldorf, and many more! And we’re sure these words might have left you a bit bewildered while you’re on this journey to find the best school for your child. Reggio Emilia, Montessori, and Waldorf are nothing but unique teaching philosophies which schools imbibe in their approach to supporting early childhood education. They are the three most prevalent alternative education programs available in the US. 

Most first-time parents find this information overwhelming because there are plenty of options, and all seem good. So deciding which environment your child will thrive in becomes a challenge. To ease your confusion and help you make the right decision, we have curated this blog post wherein you will learn about the above three approaches, their unique features, and what sets them apart. So, let’s get started!

Early childhood education philosophies: History and a brief overview

1. Reggio Emilia Approach

Reggio Emilia Approach

Originating in the city of Regio Emilia, this approach to early education came into existence after World War II. Loris Malaguzzi and a group of parents created this model of education, which considered kids as active participants in their learning endeavors. The approach was officially established in 1963 and has gained international recognition ever since. Unlike Waldorf and Montessori methods, Reggio Emilia does not offer certifications, so most schools following this approach are Reggio-inspired and not officially accredited. 

The philosophy believes that children have “a hundred languages” to express themselves, and the role of early education is to help kids develop these languages so they can interact with community members and their environment effectively. It believes that children can learn on their own when offered self-guided activities. Kids learn through project-based activities, and teachers act as co-learners, guiding students just when they need to. In school, kids get new experiences and perform several hands-on Reggio Emilia activities, which promote social skills, collaboration, and self-regulation in an open-ended learning environment. 

2. Montessori Method

Montessori Method

The Montessori method of teaching was founded by Dr. Maria Montessori, who was born and brought up in Italy and earned a physician’s diploma in pediatric medicine. During her degree, she worked with several special needs children and those close to the poverty line and realized that children were capable of self-learning. She invested her time observing how kids learned and developed when placed in an environment that helped them build their interests and abilities. She then devised the Montessori method, which has gained worldwide popularity since then. 

The main philosophy behind Montessori education is that children are self-directed learners who can learn through collaborative play and hands-on activities when given suitable age-appropriate materials to interact with. Things like wooden fine motor manipulatives, sandpaper letters, puzzles, and counters are commonly found in a Montessori classroom. There is no teacher-led learning; all kids learn at their own pace. It helps develop social skills, independence, and self-esteem in children. A typical Montessori classroom comprises separate areas for sensorial inputs, practical life, language, mathematics, and cultural studies. Kids are involved in self-directed ‘work’ time at stations set up with different activities. 

3. Waldorf Education

Waldorf Education

This pedagogical approach was founded by Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian educator, spiritual scientist, and philosopher. The philosophy gets its name from the first school, which was inaugurated in 1919 in Germany for kids of employees working at a cigarette factory known as “Waldorf Astoria.” Since then, it has become one of the most prominent educational approaches in the world. 

The Steiner or Waldorf philosophy believes in “the art of awakening what’s actually there within the human being.” It assumes that children are born with intellectual attributes which lay dormant until they are activated through various creative expression activities. The approach stresses the importance of creative play, including art, music, cooking, movement activities, and outdoor exploration. It puts little emphasis on academic learning until kids are older.

Reggio Emilia vs. Montessori vs. Waldorf: A comparative chart of the three educational philosophies

Reggio Emilia Approach

Montessori Method

Waldorf Method

Main philosophy

Kids are competent learners who gain knowledge through interactions with peers and the environment. 

Children can direct their own learning when placed in a prepared environment with materials that spark curiosity, independence, and skill development. 

Education should have a balanced approach with an emphasis on nurturing a child’s imagination, creativity, and emotional well-being along with academic learning. 

Classroom Setting

Considered as the child’s third teacher, the classroom is mindfully designed to encourage learning. It has lots of natural light and open space for free movement, open-ended toys, wooden furniture, natural materials, and student work decorating classroom walls.  

The prepared environment of a Montessori setting has separate learning areas, child-sized wooden furniture and toys, open shelves for easy access with soft, warm lighting, and simple wall décor. 

Designed in a home-like setting with walls painted in light pink color, simple wooden toys and furniture, a “nature table,” open space, and natural lighting.

Key Features

Project-based learning. Kids work in groups and learn from each other. Teachers plan experiences for students using open-ended activities.

Focused free-play time. Use of puzzles and self-correcting materials. The child is free to choose their activity. Ample resources for students.

Encourages creative play, fosters imagination, and promotes communal interaction. Same teacher for several years

Teacher’s Role

The teacher acts as a guide, a co-learner, and a collaborator in child-led activities. 

The teacher’s role is to observe students and create an environment where they can learn on their own without direct teaching. 

The teacher has the role of a leader who leads students by example and guides their learning to unleash their full potential.

Parent Involvement




Emphasis on Academics

Academics are interwoven with play and exploration.

More emphasis on academics. Kids choose what to work on to accomplish self-directed and self-paced learning.

Academic subjects like writing and math are not introduced until kids are 7 years or older. 

Emphasis on Arts

Arts is an important component in Reggio Emilia classrooms. Kids are provided with different art mediums so they can create art using their creativity and imagination.

Comparatively less time is allotted for art-related activities.

Art, music, and movement activities are considered crucial elements to engage kids and are incorporated throughout the day.

Use of Technology

Teachers frequently use cameras to click pictures and record videos to document student activities.

Limited use

Not recommended


Teachers document student growth on paper and take photos and videos for visual proof.

Teachers observe and use pre-established measures to evaluate students.

No formal assessment is necessary. 


Early education like preschool and kindergarten

Early education up to high school

Mostly available for early education. But a few schools offer this educational methodology until high school.

Mixed-age classrooms




Teacher Certification

No formal teacher certification 

Desirable but not mandatory


Selecting the best educational approach for your child 

With so many options available, deciding which educational method will be best for your child is difficult. So, here are a few questions you can ask yourself – 

  • How does your child learn best? 
  • What are your child’s individual learning needs?
  • How much can you be involved in your child’s education?
  • Which curriculum meets your family’s values and educational goals?
  • Are there schools following your choice of curriculum available nearby?

Based on your answers to the above questions, you can evaluate which approach will suit your child. If your child flourishes in a structured environment and loves to exert independence, a Montessori school might benefit them. 

But if they are little curious learners who love to explore and do well in open-ended play and activities, they may enjoy a Reggio Emilia preschool. Here, your little one will also learn to cooperate with peers, solve problems, resolve conflicts, and develop analytical and high-order thinking. 

On the contrary, if your family doesn’t mind a delayed academic start and considers imagination, creativity, art, and outdoor activities a great way to foster learning, you would love a school following the Waldorf methodology.  

Summing up

Reggio Emilia, Montessori, and Waldorf are popular alternative early childhood education models. Schools based on one of these approaches are apt for those who do not want a traditional school and are looking for a different style of schooling for their child. By looking at the unique features of all three approaches, it is evident that each one is a well-established and well-thought philosophy that enables kids to learn at their own pace so they can naturally build the knowledge and skills required for becoming well-rounded individuals. 

We suggest you pay a visit to a few schools following the different educational philosophies, talk to the teachers, see the environment, and do your research before finalizing the right school for your child. Also, bear in mind that the theory of one-size-fits-all doesn’t fit here, since learning outcomes depend on a child’s unique needs and personality. So, take your time to find a school that cares for your child’s love for learning and helps them grow emotionally, socially, and academically.

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