Exploring Waldorf and Montessori Schools in NYC

Progressive Education Options for Families in New York City & Brooklyn

“One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child.” - Maria Montessori

At at time when many schools seem focused on high-stakes testing, saturating the classroom with technology, and data-driven learning outcomes, many parents wonder if there might not be a gentler and more human-scale educational approach?

If your family is exploring alternative or “progressive” styles education, it is quite likely that at some point you will be directed to the doorstep of a Montessori or Waldorf school. These schools will often be described with terms such as “child-centered,” “self-directed,” and “collaborative.” All this can sound very attractive for those who want kids to be happy and well-adjusted in the school environment.

But what is it that defines and Montessori and Waldorf school approaches? And how can you decide if one of these schools is the right fit for your family?

In order to understand what these schools offer, we need to examine the thinking of their founders, Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, respectively.  Both of these visionaries had very specific views of the purpose of education, and their philosophies continue to inform the learning process, classroom design, and core principles at Montessori and Waldorf schools today.

A Crisis in Education Drives Radical Reform

Both the Waldorf and Montessori approaches to education were created in response to a crisis of civilization, that was perceived to make contemporary approaches to education insufficient and counter-productive. These educators sought not just incremental improvements, but sought to spark a revolution in how children develop and reach their potential.

“Where is the book in which the teacher can read about what teaching is? The children themselves are this book.” - Rudolf Steiner

Taking a trip back to 19th Century Austria, we find Rudolf Steiner developing a unique philosophy that grew out of intensive study of Goethe’s writings on human perception. Steiner tried to reconcile scientific knowledge with development of intuition and the spiritual life, which he called anthroposophy.   In the aftermath of WWI, Steiner translated this unique philosophy into a new kind of school. After delivering a speech on peaceful conflict resolution in post-war Germany at a cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, the factory owner suggested he use the space to create a school that embodied these beliefs.

This school at the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company was initially established to serve the children for factory workers, but rapidly expanded to serve families drawn from the surrounding area in Stuttgart. Radical for its day, this initial Waldorf school was the first comprehensive school in Germany, meaning that it served children of all social classes, genders, abilities and interests — in contrast to the prevailing system that segregated children destined for university and the professions into a different category of schools from kids headed for a life in the factories or the fields. The Waldorf approach, with its emphasis on spiritual development, harmony with nature, and learning through direct experience, can be seen as a profound rejection of the technology of war and outmoded governance that had reduced Europe to rubble. Steiner’s ideas and methodology spread first to other Waldorf schools in Germany, and then to the UK and the United States. Today there are over 2,500 Waldorf independent schools, kindergartens, and special schools in 75 countries across the world.

“Early childhood education is the key to the betterment of society.” - Maria Montessori

Around the same time, Maria Montessori was creating an educational philosophy of her own. Montessori grew up in an Italy that while recently reunified, was subject to enormous disparities in wealth and opportunity, with much of Southern Italy in the throes of banditry and starvation. Having graduated as the first female doctor in Italy, her first residency was in a mental hospital that doubled as an orphanage.  She witnessed first hand how existing models of education failed children whose families were disadvantaged or who did not learn well with traditional academic instructional methods.

Through observation of these children, she developed innovative ideas about child development and education rooted in her scientific background. After being hired to create a solution to the damage created by unsupervised children in a poor housing building, she created the Casa di Bambini serving a low-income housing project in Rome, the very first Montessori school. Montessori continued to fight for progressive causes including women’s rights and the disadvantaged during a life elaborating and refining her educational approach.

The Montessori Method

In Montessori schools, the role of the teacher is three-fold: observation, environmental preparation, and modeling. The method was intended to be scientific, with materials that stimulate inherent auto-didacticism and allow the child to learn independently. Today, Montessori schools are one of the most popular forms of independent early childhood education, with over 4,000 schools in the U.S. alone that have been accredited by one of the two competing Montessori bodies — the Association Montessori Internationale, which is the “orthodox” version that has ties to Montessori’s family and hews closely to her precise specifications, and the American Montessori Society, which has made some adaptations to new trends in pedagogy and favors teachers with formal training and certifications.

“We must therefore create a favorable environment that will encourage the flowering of a child’s natural gifts. All that is needed is to remove the obstacles. And this should be the basis of, and point of departure for, all future education.” - Maria Montessori

Both the Montessori and Waldorf classroom are designed to address the whole child by building from tangible forms of play and work.  While Waldorf utilizes a spiritual form of dance, called eurythmy, Montessori has an entire curriculum on sensory development.  Both approaches seek to protect the child from the stress of modern life and foster a sort of agrarian romanticism, idealizing rural life. Use of technology is minimal in both of these classrooms, which incorporate a natural aesthetic.  

Waldorf classrooms are often described as “folksy”, while Montessori materials and furniture are made almost wholly from wood.  Montessori and Waldorf have the child remain with the same teacher for three years, and up to seven years respectively.  This technique, known as looping allows the teachers to build strong relationships with their students and their parents, so that instruction can be further individualized and behavior management routines do not need to be re-established each year.  Of course the flip side is that if the student-teacher relationship is less than ideal, the student is may be stuck with an uninspiring educator for years.

Similarities and Differences

While there is a common impetus behind the two philosophies, the practical implementation of Waldorf and Montessori school rooms are vastly different, as anyone who has visited the two can vouch for.  In the Waldorf classroom, children are encouraged to engage in play, utilizing imagination, and holding off from direct instruction until they reach the age of seven. Many schools ask families to sign contracts committing that children have zero exposure to screens, including movies, television, and computers. A willingness to fully embrace the pre-modern age is required to be a Waldorf family.

Montessori classrooms, on the other hand, have rules for how the child can utilize the materials and teachers do not shy from modeling the use of math or reading tools to children at a young age if the child shows interest. Rather than specifying the precise age that new modes of learning can begin, the Montessori methods takes cues from the child as to individual readiness and enthusiasm. Waldorf students are grouped with children their own age, while Montessori children are placed in classes that span three age groups.

When the Montessori method was first brought to the US, it was criticized by John Dewey as being too structured and individualistic to enable children to develop their creativity.  The central role of practical life in a Montessori curriculum area informs the critique. Maria Montessori brought activities into the classroom that a child may observe parents doing at home, such as sweeping or washing dishes.  This was based on her belief that the child wanted to practice these activities as a form of play, or as called in the Montessori classroom, “work”. The child is given complete freedom to choose their activities in the classroom, and some argue this freedom can be overwhelming for some children.  Many activities are intended for the child to do individually, which may not be the best fit if parents want children to learn and work collaboratively.

“One can ascend to a higher development only by bringing rhythm and repetition into one's life. Rhythm holds sway in all nature.” - Rudolf Steiner

Waldorf also has its share of concerns and critics.  The sharp restrictions on technology may not be the way some tech-savvy parents want their children prepared for the future.  The lack of testing may concern parents who want to know how their children are doing, and if there are areas they need support with.  Early childhood and kindergarten classes do not include academic instruction, and often children aren’t directly taught how to read until the second or third grade.  Teachers may be missing a critical period in catching and supporting learning disabilities.  Parents also may not resonate with the spiritualism that underlines this teaching method.

If you are worried about the stress that testing places on children, are looking for more individualized instruction, and like the idea of having a sustained relationship with one teacher, Montessori and Waldorf are very reputable alternatives that have been developed and tested over many decades.  Whether they fit your child depends on what you are looking for from an educational experience, your child’s learning needs, and the particular schools available in your area. There are a wealth of Montessori-style schools in New York and Brooklyn, but it’s important to carefully assess Montessori schools because the name is not trademarked and any school can technically use it.  If you are interested in a Waldorf education for your child, you can check out the Brooklyn Waldorf School or the Rudolf Steiner School in Manhattan.

MUSE Academy’s Approach

While Rudolph Steiner and Maria Montessori were educational visionaries for their time, MUSE Academy’s approach to education draws on some of these same principles, while adapting to the needs of the crisis in education of our own time. At a time when it is widely acknowledged that America’s educational system is failing many of our children, a fresh period of innovation and renewal is required.

Like a Waldorf school, MUSE places music instruction and musical expression at the core of the learning experience and the instructional methods and instruments used in early education are very similar to what might be found in a Waldorf classroom. However, as children move into grade school they are expected to choose a specific instrument or vocal performance focus area in which to achieve a higher level of mastery. And MUSE is committed to drawing on a wide range of musical traditions so as to connect with the full range of cultures that make up our community. At MUSE you will also find a strong emphasis on fairy tales, folk tales, myths and dramatic play to feed the imaginative vocabulary of young minds. But formal instruction in academic subjects begins in kindergarten and students engage in science and engineering experiments from a young age. While use of technology is restricted in the early years, computing devices are introduced later as important tools for research and quantitative analysis beginning in fourth grade.

While we do not “teach to the test,” MUSE’s educators employ a range of assessments so as to be able to customize the learning levels and individual support provided to each student. And beginning in third grade we use internationally accepted benchmark assessments to validate that our curriculum and pedagogy are preparing our students with a strong foundation in critical thinking, written expression, and quantitative reasoning to be successful in any field they may choose in their future lives — be it as artists, scientists, public servants, entrepreneurs, teachers, or anything else.

Like Montessori schools, we believe that engaging children’s innate desire for learning and providing the space to explore their passions is more important that rote recitation of facts. We embrace phenomenon-based learning that enables students to progress from tangible to abstract thinking and connect methods of inquiry to projects that are compelling and age appropriate.

To find out more about the MUSE approach, feel free to attend an open house or schedule an individual family visit.