Comparison Between Montessori STEM/STEAM and Waldorf for the Early Years
Comprehensive comparison between Montessori, STEM, and Waldorf. Comparing the philosophies, approaches to learning and their implications on child development.
Montessori, Waldorf and the STEM/STEAM method are among the most popular methods of raising children in our day and age. In this article I’ve written about each of their philosophies, approaches to learning and their implications on child development. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, you can refer to the table below, which gives a quick overview of its similarities and differences:
Goal of Montessoril: To create well-rounded individuals who are self-motivated, independent and have a desire to learn.
In Montessori, the first 6 years are by far the most important in the child’s life, even more than their university years. It is seen as a foundation that lays the ground for the rest of the child’s life.
Maria Montessori coined the term ‘The Absorbent Mind’ because it is in these years that the child absorbs information from their environment without effort. This is because of the child’s sensitivity to their environment, or in other words, the sensitive periods. The sensitive periods are:
- Sensitivity to order
- Small detail and language
- Refinement of the senses
- Sensitivity to social aspects.
The sensitive periods overlap as the child grows. If the opportunities to support the child’s sensitive periods are missed, it will be more difficult for the child to learn the same skills in the future, meaning that their chance for optimal development was missed.
Part of the Montessori philosophy is its emphasis on giving the child freedom with responsibility while maintaining a lot of respect towards the child. It gives the child freedom to move and choose what it is they want to work on. It is then the responsibility of the teacher/parent - who observes - to prepare the environment in a way that will help support the child’s learning and development.
Montessori Approach to Learning
Montessori believes the learning environment should be organised, accessible, predictable and consistent in order to help the child learn best. It allows children to learn at their own pace and is characterised by student-chosen work in long time blocks and no grading or testing. Instruction is given to the child individually and also in small groups.
Students are in multi-age classrooms to allow younger children to learn and be inspired by their older peers in their classroom. It also gives a leadership opportunity to the older kids to provide guidance to their younger peers.
Montessori prefers to minimise any use of technology due to its effect on brain development. It also interferes with the child’s ability to be creative.They have a large emphasis on learning skills through practical life, such as baking, pouring water into plants, chopping vegetables, wiping windows etc. Imagination is encouraged through practical life and prefers not to introduce fantasy until they understand life in a concrete way.
The role of the teacher in this process is to guide rather than teach. They consider themselves to be the gardeners and the children as the seeds. The seeds are planted, provided the right conditions with the right amount of sunlight and food in order to grow. The direction they grow into is in their own hands as opposed to being expected to conform to a certain mould.
Goal of Waldorf: Creating a child who is a self motivated and independent learner who has empathy, self esteem, creative thinking, thinking processes that are flexible and focused, and has stamina and perseverance.
The Waldorf system has a heavy play based approach compared to Montessori, especially for the first 7 years. It believes in nurturing the whole child by engaging the five senses through experimental, hands on and artistic learning. It focuses on the development of the individual child with a strong emphasis on the environment and playing outdoors.
Waldorf believes that each person is made up of a spirit, soul and body that naturally follows this pattern of development: early childhood(0-7 years), middle childhood (7-14 years) and adolescence(14-21 years). In each developmental category, certain processes and conditions need to be in place to allow each child to flourish.
Waldorf believes that each child is born with qualities such as empathy, creative thinking, efficient thinking process and wisdom. However, these qualities can only come to the surface through play. Once activated, their ability to succeed academically will also be much higher.
Waldorf has a spiritual component as well. It teaches that there is a higher being that is wiser and greater than we are, but it presents a polytheistic version of spirituality vs a monotheistic one. It holds an anthroposophical world view, meaning that through a prescribed method of self discipline, one can have cognitive experiences of the spiritual world. It is based on the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato. In the first 7 years, from the spiritual aspect, kids are taught the world is good. In the next 7 years, they are taught the world is beautiful and in the last 7 years they are taught the world is true.
Waldorf Approach to Learning
For the first 7 years, the focus is to build the child socially, physically and emotionally. This is all done through play, both structured and unstructured.
Formal academics are not introduced to the child during these years. Rather, emphasis is on creativity. This is done through fantasy, dancing, singing and the arts. There is a lot of free play with natural materials like wood, levels, shells and scarves. Collective group play is emphasised and storytelling is there in every part of its curriculum.
Students in the first 7 years become accustomed to a routine where on certain days of the week they do certain things ie baking, gardening, music, chores, ironing etc. There is no media, homework, tests, or handouts.
Similar to Montessori, the classes are multi-age groups. However, in Waldorf, the same teacher is with the student for 7 years.
Waldorf acknowledges that all children have their areas of strength, however all types of learning is encouraged. This is so that the child’s strength doesn’t end up becoming a weakness due to one sided development. For example, a child who is particularly gifted in math will also be encouraged to express themselves through art and painting. Someone who is inclined towards arts is encouraged to see how math can bring about clarity.
In this way, the strengths of the student are ‘rounded off’ to make their development more holistic and complete. It is for this reason that teachers play a more important role in Waldorf as kids won’t naturally put themselves in environments that encourage this type of growth.
Self discipline is taught through leading by example and consistent routines so that the child doesn’t feel fearful or embarrassed. The child is never confronted in Waldorf. For example if a child is being aggressive, they are shown how to physically comfort and console the hurt child by the teacher and are encouraged to do the same. Or if they are being too loud, they will be redirected by the teacher being quiet and gentle. All students are considered to be ‘gifted and talented’ and it is up to the teacher to help realise their strength and work with the parents to provide well rounded education.
Goal of STEM/STEAM - To create critical thinkers who are scientifically literate, producing the next generation of innovators.
STEM/STEAM is much newer than Montessori and Waldorf. It was founded in 2006 and it was designed to help boost the technological capabilities of the child in the future, helping them deal with the changes that are happening in the 21st century.
STEAM aims to create a functionally literate person because they know how to think across a spectrum of different topics and make connections between them. The focus is on critical thinking, innovation, creativity, problem solving, data analysis, collaborative and constructive learning.
It does this by having children undergo scientific exploration on an inquiry-based approach to activities. While there is an overlap of materials with Montessori, such as building blocks, children are invited to experiment with the different materials as well.
Its philosophy is more a way of thinking of how educators help students create links between concepts and encourages them to think in a more connected and holistic way. It works with the premise that children have a natural disposition towards science, due to their curiosity and wanting to know how things work and provides the environment for collaboration.
STEM/STEAM Approach to Learning
STEM/STEAM facilities inquiry based thinking and discovery vs giving facts and answers. For young children in particular, this means being taught through ‘inquiry instruction’. It encourages hands-on experiences to help build understanding, vocabulary, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and reflection.
STEM/STEAM works with the premise that young children have a natural sense to work with materials, try things out and problem solve. Hence it is a great age to build a foundation for scientific literacy. Children are encouraged to build on everyday moments and expand on the child’s natural interests.
For example, if a child wants to dig a hole, you will soon see him/her try to see how deep and wide the hole can be. You can use different digging tools (technology) and figure out how deep it's become (math). They can draw about the hole or different bugs they found inside. Questions are encouraged from kids, even if the question seems far fetched.
The teacher’s role is to ask kids questions to encourage critical thinking about what they are doing, which will naturally turn play into learning. They focus on both the content (what to learn) and processes (how to learn). Parents and teachers using this method are encouraged to ask high quality, open-ended questions, giving children the opportunity to approach problems with new and original ways.
Its approach is heavily focused on ‘doing’ and solving real world problems through building and creating, teaching a child how to critically think. It uses the primary years of a child’s life to build scientific literacy, and a strong foundation to open era-specific opportunities for the child later in life.
Each method is rooted in making the best of the child’s primary years to help them reach their potential. However the ways each one goes about achieving that is very different. Both Montessori and Waldorf focus on creating a well rounded child, whereas STEM/STEAM focus much more heavily on the science component. Waldorf is the only system which is solely based on play for the first 7 years, while Montessori and STEM/STEAM encourage academic learning through play.
Personally, I believe that the best parts of these methods can be used in combination, however that is another topic for another day :)
1. Isaacs, B. (2018). Understanding the Montessori approach. London, United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis Ltd.
2. Petrash, J. (2010). Understanding Waldorf education. Beltsville: Gryphone House Inc.
3. Yakman, G., & Lee, H. (2012). Exploring the Exemplary STEAM Education in the U.S. as a Practical Educational Framework for Korea. Journal Of The Korean Association For Science Education, 32(6), 1072-1086. doi: 10.14697/jkase.2012.32.6.1072