Montessori & Steiner: similarities and differences in practice



  1. Toys : open-ended and fixed
  2. Practical play and imaginative play
  3. Fairy tales and science lessons
  4. Social skills: the individual in a community and one among the whole
  5. Order and rhythm.
  6. Logical intelligence and imagination.


  1. Toys : open-ended and fixed

To emphasize reality, Montessori said that children need to distinguish what is real from what is not. The task of teachers is to provide the environment and materials associated with reality to help children learn in the most scientific way. Imagination needs to be postponed for the later stage, when the child has become completely logical, realistic and aware of the real world. Therefore, she designed each learning material with a specific function, the only right way to play, with the aim of teaching practical scientific knowledge, or a skill.

Toys in the Steiner class, on the other hand, do not have a single function or intended use. Children can use an imaginary tree to build boats, or pretend it were a baby or a book; a minimalist doll can be turned into a mother, a grandmother, a fairy, a witch; a cloth can be a dress, a house or a river. Steiner believed that kindergarten children have a pressing need to “express” the images in their extremely rich imagination, the need to “digest” their experiences and observations – through fantasy games.

  1. Practical play and imaginative play

Because of the belief that children do not need pure entertainment, children are always busy and able to become busy themselves, and such a lack of idle time does not lead to a need for entertainment like in adults, Montessori thought that children needed to do real work. Thus she created a breakthrough when scaling down household items so children could comfortably use them, do real work and develop their skills without being limited by the inconvenience of furniture. Therefore, in the Montessori class, sharp knives, scissors, saws, ceramic bowls, cooking stoves and many other practical objects are provided for children to satisfy their longing to imitate adults.

Steiner shared the same view: the Steiner class is full of tools for children to do the same things as their parents do every day: cooking, washing dishes, knitting, making chairs and tables,… Steiner emphasized even more the role of teachers: teachers need to do such things in class so that children can be inspired and have a model to learn from. Steiner teachers will do the work of mothers and fathers while the child plays; in addition to watching the child, they will also work attentively: fixing an item, sewing dolls, carving a wooden car,… instead of giving lessons or teaching through models instead of real objects.

However, Steiner and Montessori differed quite clearly in the concept of children’s play. While Montessori emphasized and focused only on reality – which is all that is connected and directly related to real life, Steiner emphasized certain real-world aspects and fantasy games.

Montessori’s children’s play is about completing a task with a hidden lesson in the material  of their choice. Because each learning material has a only one function, children will learn the hidden lesson by trial and error until they find the right answer by themselves. The role of the teacher is an observer who respects and does not disrupt the child’s play time to ensure that the child has enough time to complete the lesson without any teaching. Montessori emphasized that children’s play needed to be linked to real life so as to accumulate practical scientific knowledge and motor skills; she did not encourage and even used classroom designs to prevent fantasy games and role-playing.

Steiner, on the other hand, created all the conditions for children to maximize their rich imagination available in early childhood. He did not think that adults needed to make efforts to make children become aware of the real world. Somehow, he knew children looked at the world in their own way; he fully respected that view and didn’t see it as harmful or something to be corrected. He even asked teachers to learn to observe like a child to help children develop maximum imagination and great sensitivity at this early stage. Toys including cloths, wood, cotton, beeswax, furniture, and minimalist dolls are raw materials that allow children to be creative and imaginative. A successful Steiner class is one in which children play intently together or role-play alone, children know how to play and love to play and have the ability to connect with each other using toys to create vivid, brilliant plays.

  1. Fairy tales and science lessons

In the Montessori classroom, the lesson in each toy and lessons taught directly by teachers are linked to practical scientific knowledge, or necessary motor skills. For example: a set of letter boxes, a pyramid arranged with beads, a map puzzle… It can be said that all Montessori class materials are designed to help children discover rules, mathematical knowledge, letters, numbers, and scientific knowledge. And in particular, having studied and discovered the stages of when children were particularly curious about numbers and sensitive to words, Montessori designed many tactile sets of letters and numbers. This allows Montessori children to have obvious advantages when participating in the elementary program, because logical thinking has been maximized and rich scientific knowledge has accumulated in the early childhood stage. The spirit of science is very clear in classroom design and in interactions between teachers and students.

This is rarely found in Steiner kindergartens where there is a complete lack of letters, numbers, and scientific knowledge is not taught or at least explained directly and scientifically. Even a good Steiner teacher is supposed to be good at answering children’s questions (Does anyone live on the moon? How did the moon form?…) with a fairy tale or even better, the teacher will immediately improvise a fairy tale, a poem about fairies and dwarfs living on the moon who look at children every day and follow the blue moonlight to earth to play with them. Every day in Steiner classes, teachers and children together improvise many fantasy stories. When children do not eat, a teacher tells a myth about a rabbit that does not eat. When children hit each other, in addition to immediate interference, she will also tell the same story again and again so the children can live the story and live in love until they naturally change their behavior. Steiner thought that fairy tales were a source of healthy and nutritious “food” for the young soul and imagination. A definitely good Steiner teacher is someone who knows how to improvise and tell stories. Steiner class atmosphere is a fairy-tale atmosphere – beautiful, soaring, and in harmony with nature.

  1. Social skills: the individual in a community and one among the whole

Montessori wrote, “Teachers must be those who have prepared from within – those who have worked hard to become compassionate while rejecting dictatorship, arrogance.” The personality of a particular teacher is especially important to the early phase of childhood and even more important than all learning materials and methods. This is especially important in terms of helping children build social skills, develop habits and behaviors in their relationship with others – the foundation of future personality. She said that children from 3 years old should be with non-relatives, instead of those who are willing to accept their bad behavior and habits, so that children can learn the necessary social skills. The kindergarten environment is the most suitable for the development of children’s social skills.

Montessori trained children to adapt to society as an independent individual coexisting in a collective. Children learn to wait, not to disturb others, and respect the needs of others. During playtime, children play on a separate carpet, learn to wait if another child is playing with the item they want. Children learn to play intently and focus in silence in order not to disturb others. The social skills that Montessori desired to build for children are the skills of a strong individual who repels the personal ego to respect the rules of conduct in public environments and relationships so as to prioritize the harmony of the environment and relationships.

Steiner shared the same opinion with Montessori about the teacher. He provided very specific methods of practice while training teachers so that every day the teacher could strengthen himself or herself more to become more compassionate with absolutely no dictatorship or arrogance. Steiner teachers consider the child a noble entity, as the way Montessori called the child “the father of man”.

Steiner wished to build an environment with high community cohesion. Children conncect to each other and teachers in a unified whole, which is done through a variety of activities throughout the day at school. Circle time is the connection of individuals in a collective using tools such as art and music. Singing before eating, besides developing gratitude in children, also allows children to join the community with their whole being while holding hands with others and creating a circle. During self-directed play, children can completely play alone, but mostly children will invite others to play, build a team to play together and learn how to solve problems that arise.

  1. Order and rhythm

Montessori affirmed that teachers are designers of the educational environment so that children can be passionate and focus on their play activity long enough without being interrupted by adults. It is this concentration and passion that constitutes the element of discipline and order of the educational environment, not forms of punishment, reprimands or intimidation. Such focus on uninterrupted and active activities is absolutely not to serve the adult’s interest (which is to be “free” from children) like the way young parents give their children an iPhone, iPad or a remote control so they can sit silently for hours. Respecting your child’s choice of play (or learning) is to let your child bloom and sharpen their abilities and qualities. Allowing children to concentrate on their work is an important step for developing their thinking and exploring abilities. And the most important thing is, PASSION and ENJOYMENT of work (being the innate state in every child) will stay intact.

Both Montessori and Steiner emphasized the need for order for children. However, they implemented different practices to achieve this order.

In the Montessori classroom where toys are arranged in a specific order so that children always know where they are, Montessori observed and understood that spatial order gave children a sense of security. Steiner did not limit this order to spatial order; he extended it to the order of time to create the rhythm of Steiner’s educational environment. In addition to spatial order which is the essential condition of Steiner’s class, the rhythm of everyday activities is the basic characteristic of Steiner’s kindergarten curriculum. This rhythm is stable on a daily, weekly, seasonal, and yearly basis. Besides the stability of spatial order, rhythm brings to children not only the feeling of safety and familiarity, but also strengthens children’s will. This is also a unique feature of Steiner’s educational approach: emphasizing the formation and development of the will as a seed, like the first fire inside the child in preparation for sprouting and burning.

  1. Logical intelligence and imagination

Einstein said “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them to fairy tales. If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales ”. Steiner kindergartens practice this very well, transforming reading stories into telling stories. Reading requires books, and therefore one does not yet live with the story; telling the story means knowing how to live with the story. Steiner’s storytelling time is when children’s imagination soars. Classroom space is cozy with softened light and candles lit up next to the small “stage” of the puppet characters arranged with silk, cotton, flowers, and leaves by teachers. The teacher plays the lyre softly, the children immediately become silent, attentively anticipating and imagining along with each move the teacher makes in a rhythmic manner, each very leisurely. These precious storytelling hours will plant seeds and cultivate the imagination of children day by day. These germs will follow children every hour of play.

Playtime continues to be an environment that maximizes the development of imagination. The difference compared to other educational models is that the Steiner class has free play every day, in the sense that the child organizes their playing andar solve problems that arise when playing with others while the teacher’s role is only to set up the environment, ensure safety and minimize interference. Free play, also known as self-directed play, is children’s essential need to “re-play” what the child has absorbed in order to imagine and create countless stories. The child’s need to play freely is as essential as the need to eat and sleep, which can be compared to adults’ need to work in order to connect and to see ourselves as individuals in the community. Many studies show that adults who usually engaged in self-directed play in childhood are better problem solvers than others who did not.

Free play in Steiner and Montessori classes has similarities and differences. The similarity is children are self-directed and spend a long time focusing on playing. The difference lies in the environment that teachers create for children through the toys and atmosphere. While a Steiner class has a fairy-tale color, a Montessori class has a very modern and scientific atmosphere. Montessori class toys and materials focus on stimulating children’s logical thinking, giving them specific knowledge of reality.

Montessori thought that a child must complete and can only complete the “incarnation” process – the “spiritual embryo” process during which the child comes out and merges with the reality of the physical world – when he is active and is engaged in activities associated with reality. Adults around children are not allowed to let children immerse in chaos of symbols, illusions, imagination or acting; according to her, a lack of realistic activities can cause children to hide deep inside the shell of illusions. She even called this a form of “psychological repression”, which analytical psychoanalysis refers to as escaping unpleasant realities which can deflect certain natural abilities.

Steiner had a completely opposite view: He protected this “incarnation” process completely by letting it take place slowly according to the natural development stage of the child. He thought that imagining or acting with children is more real than the real world outside, and creating an environment for children to continue acting, imagining and living in a dreamy world created by children is to “preserve” these valuable capabilities during this “incarnation” period. Montessori called these precious natural abilities of the child a “spiritual embryo” while Steiner called it the connection between the low self of the material world and the super, spiritual self. The biggest difference between these two educators is probably here: Different perceptions of the child’s “incarnation” process lead to differences in classroom and toy designs.


With the same philosophy of education based on love, Steiner and Montessori both asserted the most important factor that teachers must be prepared from within – meaning they have practiced to become compassionate and reject dictatorship and arrogance – so that children can develop the most beautiful personalities in a natural environment filled with culture prepared by teachers for them to experience and bloom. Two great educators, like many psychologists and psychologists, have confirmed that in the period from birth to seven children learn through osmosis and imitation not only through actions but also through emotions and thoughts inside of adults around them. The difference between these two great educators probably lies in the conception of the “incarnation” of living beings, spiritual embryos and natural abilities that humans can acquire right from birth. Steiner and Montessori chose different paths for these natural powers to “incarnate” to the fullest, so that the child could maximize the capacity in reality.