Montessori, Reggio Emilia and Waldorf

Hamilton County is well-known for providing high quality educational opportunities for its students. What you might not know is that we also have something extra hiding in plain sight. Alternative approaches to a standard educational curriculum are becoming increasingly popular. Montessori schools are available locally, and the Reggio Emilia and Waldorf learning methods exist in either classroom settings or organized playgroups. For those considering one of these philosophies, it’s a good idea to understand the basic tenets behind each approach.


Dr. Maria Montessori developed the Montessori method in the early 1900’s with the idea of creating a child-centered educational model. Students learn in multi-age classrooms and engage in a “guided choice” environment, which means that each child can choose a learning activity while being guided by a teacher. For example, after a teacher provides a lesson to a student individually or in a small group, children then pick specific Montessori materials to work on the concept at their own pace. Montessori is often distinguished from other educational philosophies because of how students have the opportunity to choose when they progress to the next level of a lesson.

“We allow for choice and that allows children to really take off in their studies,” says Carrie Wisser, Elementary Guide and Head of School at Community Montessori School in Fishers. “Because our rooms are mixed ages, kids can get exposed to what is coming up and students are enticed by what the older kids are doing.”

Kristina Spence, Head of School and a teacher at Indiana Montessori Academy in Carmel, also notes a key element in the Montessori approach. “The beauty of the Montessori materials in the room is that they are self-correcting,” she says. “We don’t correct the kids; they figure things out on their own.”

Reggio Emilia

The Reggio Emilia approach was developed after World War II by a teacher and parents in the villages around Reggio Emilia, Italy who felt that children needed a new way of learning and that good citizenship was an important goal of education. Like Montessori and Waldorf, Reggio is a child-based learning method. However, students in a Reggio environment move forward with a concept all at the same time.

Recently Erin Duros and Danielle Thompson, kindergarten teachers at Fall Creek Elementary School in Fishers, changed their classrooms to reflect the Reggio approach. Because Reggio encourages movement and the presence of a natural environment, Duros and Thompson included an outdoor garden/learning space.

“We started learning the Reggio approach to provide an environment where students feel included,” said Thompson. She explains that while certain educational standards must be met, the lessons are built around student interest. Once a lesson is introduced, the students have the option to write about it, engage in artwork on the subject or look up more information in a book or on an iPad.

“We work alongside the students and we’re not always standing in front of them, dictating,” Duros says. “We also work to make sure every activity has a purpose.”


The Waldorf philosophy is based on principles developed by 20th century artist and scientist Rudolf Steiner. A Waldorf classroom has students of the same age and puts a major emphasis on learning through experiences with nature, art, music and craftsmanship. Plastic toys or materials and popular cultural references are not allowed in the educational experience.

Hamilton County does not have a Waldorf school or classroom, but there is an organized playgroup for area residents called IndyWaldorf that meets regularly at Holliday Park in Indianapolis. Danielle Brain is one of the organizers and leads the weekly lessons. “Kids are naturally drawn to things that have an element of life in it, and interacting with natural materials offers this,” says Brain. “We invite playing with natural toys and crafting with materials that are sourced from nature.”

Thinking about trying an alternative educational model for your child? As IndyWaldorf parent Natalie Lapish says, “There is not one way that is better than the other, just find what fits best for your family.” The short descriptions provided here only give a glimpse of what each philosophy entails. For additional information, visit these websites for a more comprehensive understanding of each approach and how they differ.

American Montessori Society

International Montessori Council

North American Reggio Emilia Alliance

Reggio Children

Association of Waldorf Schools in North America

Waldorf Answers

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