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Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf . . . When It Comes to Preschool, What’s the Difference?

montessori vs waldorf vs reggio

If you have a young child who is approaching three or four years old, you may be thinking about preschool and finding one that’s a good fit for your child and family. Perhaps you’ve even visited a few schools and learned about their philosophy – their understanding of child development and education; approach—pedagogy or how they teach; and/or curriculum – the content of what is being taught. For parents, it may be surprising, and a bit confusing, to learn that there are numerous perspectives on early childhood educational philosophies, approaches, and curriculum, let alone what they all mean and how they affect the day-to-day life of a preschooler.

So, how do you make sense of it all? What are differences between Montessori and Reggio Emilia? It’s helpful to understand the key components that define the types of preschools.

Early Childhood Curriculum Methods

Most American preschools follow one (or a combination) of the following curriculum methods. The curriculum method describes the vehicle or medium in which the learning or content is delivered to the children. When it comes to preschool, a program falls somewhere along the spectrum of play-based vs. skill-based.

Play-based – Based on numerous research studies(1), these programs are widely considered to be higher-quality early childhood education. Their curriculum is based on play, which is developmentally appropriate and emphasizes the importance of play in a child’s intellectual, social, emotional, and physical development. The following are some key aspects of a play-based program:

  • Children learn through the process of their own efforts.

  • Teachers are involved and engaged in the play with the child.

  • Children learn at their own pace, gaining knowledge by building on what they already know. Teachers enrich learning within play.

  • Classrooms usually feature building blocks; items for dramatic and imaginative play; art materials; sensory play, such as water and sand tables; games and puzzles; a reading area, pretend play (cooking, dolls); writing tools and materials; and outdoor play.

Academic or Skill-Based – These programs are teacher-directed and managed. Teachers lead the children in a more structured way, often based on prescribed curriculum and then guiding the children through the curriculum. There is often an emphasis on teaching the academic skills that children will encounter in elementary school. Usually, classroom time is devoted to learning letters and sounds, shapes and colors, telling time, etc.

Preschool Approaches

Although there are numerous approaches to early childhood education, the following is a brief overview of the key characteristics of the most well-known approaches. The following descriptions offer a sense of what each approach offers. It’s important to note that some schools may incorporate a variation or combination of these approaches or philosophies.


montessori vs waldorf vs reggio

Created by Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, the Montessori approach is informed by the Constructivism philosophy that says that learners construct knowledge through their environment with didactic materials. The underlying idea inside a Montessori classroom is that children are independent, with teachers as observers or “directresses”; the teachers’ main role is to connect children to the materials. In a preschool classroom, children participate in and are free to choose among a variety of predetermined hands-on activities. Teachers demonstrate to the children on how to use the activities. The didactic materials are self-correcting, which means that children rely on the materials to teach them concepts. Fantasy and dramatic play are not a part of a traditional Montessori classroom. All cognitive learning activities are supported through the materials and teachers determine when children are ready to be introduced to new learning concepts.

Inside a Montessori Classroom: On any given day, you would see children choosing didactic materials from open shelving, working independently, and returning the materials to the correct location. You may also see teachers presenting these materials individually and in small groups. In a traditional Montessori classroom, you will not see imaginative or dramatic play.

Reggio Emilia

montessori vs waldorf vs reggio
Reggio Emilia

This approach, which was started in Italy after World War II, is informed by the Social Constructivism theory. A key principle is the concept of the “hundred languages” which refers to the importance of providing children many ways to share their thinking of the world around them. The approach often utilizes art to help children explore their senses – sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch – and is based on the belief that art is a fundamental bridge for communication. The teacher-child relationship is lateral vs. hierarchical, meaning that teachers observe the children’s interests, create projects that reflect those interests, and encourage children to follow their own educational pursuits. At many Reggio Emilia schools, the approach is usually applied to their art curriculum instead of to their entire program.

Inside a Reggio Emilia Classroom: On any given day, you would see children engaging in art and play. Teachers utilize art to better understand what children have learned and offer projects to encourage more learning on the topic.


montessori vs waldorf vs reggio

This approach began in 1919 and is based on the ideas of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Waldorf emphasizes a spiritual self-education, with a value on the natural world and environment. It provides a creative environment that offers abundant play opportunities like play-acting, storytelling, singing, and crafts, with a focus on developing a child’s imagination and creativity. Technology is not a part of early childhood teaching and is considered to interrupt a child’s creative development. Teachers are facilitators of and encourage play, but do not interrupt the creative process to incorporate cognitive concepts.

Inside a Waldorf Classroom: On any given day, you would see children utilizing natural materials like sticks, leaves, flowers, etc., that are found outside to create and enhance their imaginative play. For example, they may collect sticks to weave baskets or find a group of trees that will act as their fortress.

Smart Love

Types of Preschools
Types of Preschools

The Smart Love approach is based on the theory Intrapsychic Humanism developed by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. This theory provides an understanding of a child’s mind and emotions at every stage of development and an approach that is guided by this understanding. In a preschool setting, teachers use the child’s point-of-view to foster positive feelings towards school and learning – and in turn, these positive feelings towards school act as the engine that drives children’s desires to learn.

While Smart Love shares many characteristics of the approaches discussed above, some key aspects set it apart. In a Smart Love classroom, children’s social and emotional development is prioritized as the foundation upon which future academic success rests. To achieve this, Smart Love places the relationship that teachers cultivate with the children at the center of what they do. Smart Love teachers concentrate on knowing and understanding each child individually – their likes and dislikes, families, friends, as well as their emotional development. Because of this teacher-child relationship, children come to feel confident inside a classroom, allowing them to freely explore their ideas and inherent curiosity. When this is achieved during children’s first experiences at school, such as preschool, they come to understand and assume that school, in the generic sense, is positive. This optimistic outlook is then carried beyond preschool, into kindergarten and elementary school, setting them up for academic success.

High-quality play is the key ingredient to learning inside a Smart Love classroom. Teachers are trained to understand the meaning behind the play to foster children’s learning potential. This facilitates a greater capacity to identify and introduce cognitive concepts within children’s play. As a result, children don’t come to experience learning as laborious, but rather as joyful and something that they want to do more of.

Another unique aspect of the Smart Love approach is the use of “loving regulation” to guide children’s immature behavior. Instead of prescribing behavior management techniques, such as ultimatums, timeouts, consequences or withdrawal of privileges, Smart Love teachers help children understand all of their emotions to ensure they feel valued and understood despite their unhappy feelings. For example, if a child is upset, Smart Love teachers stay with the child and listen to his feelings until he begins to feel better and is ready to rejoin the group. Through loving regulation, children learn how to manage upset feelings, navigate complicated social situations, and gain resiliency.

Inside a Smart Love classroom: On any given day, you will see teachers playing on the floor with children and encouraging their curiosity with “I wonder . . .” statements (for example, “I wonder how many blocks it takes to build your store?”). A child may build a store and the teacher will ask the child if the store has a name. Together they write the name and tape it to the store. What and how much should be sold in the store? The teacher and children organize, create, and count all the merchandise. This type of play-learning can last days or even weeks, depending on the child’s interests.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when evaluating preschool programs. Though many of the approaches discussed above share characteristics, it’s often subtle differences that can set them apart. It’s helpful to think of any preschool as the basis for your child’s view and attitude toward school in the years ahead. The more this first experience can be positive, engaging, and enjoyable, the more ready, willing, and enthusiastically a child will step into a elementary school classroom.


(1)Let the Kids Learn Through Play, David Kohn, The New York Times, May 16, 2015.

(1)The New Preschool is Crushing Kids, Erika Christakis, The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2016.

Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.




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