Just after our eldest turned two, we went to interviews at a few different preschools. Honeycomb Montessori in Cape Town stood out for many reasons, but the most glaring was the impression that its target market was children, not parents. We hunched on tiny chairs while our daughter – sitting comfortably in her chair – got to grips with an activity that involved pouring water from one glass to another; later we marvelled at the knee-high toilets and basins that everyone at the school uses.
time to grow
“Starting preschool is a giant step forward in a young child’s life,” explains Hilary Dunn, the principal at Honeycomb “The strength to take this step is driven by an innate will to grow, but children do need the right conditions to really flourish. Time is the greatest gift a Montessori education gives a child,” she continues. “Time to develop at your own pace, free from the timeframes of others.”
The best thing about it all is that the theory really does translate into practice. Sometimes I drive past the school in the middle of the day (we’ve all done it, let’s be honest), but instead of unearthing draconian disciplinary measures or a throng of children crowded around a TV screen, my espionage only reveals happy children going about myriad diverse and incredibly important activities like raking leaves, preparing a flowerbed for planting, or cutting with real scissors.
“Montessori is for all children, because it is developmentally appropriate,” says Kym van Straaten, the President of the South African Montessori Association and Principal of Randburg Montessori, “but it’s not necessarily for all adults. Some adults battle with the idea of giving a child agency. Respecting the choices a child makes can be very difficult for some adults,” she laughs, “But making mistakes is essential to growth.”
a creative being
Another system that puts the needs of the child first is Waldorf. Someone who knows this better than most is Michaël Merle, a Waldorf teacher, teacher trainer and parent based at Roseway Waldorf School near Durban. “Waldorf meets a child on every level. It cares about who they are, not what they might be one day,” he pauses… “We’re concerned about the process, not the product and we teach children to think and analyse and be creative.”
“In the early phases our curriculum is quite oral, and filled with stories. Our children make art based on the stories and they retell the stories in their own words. This develops into a life skill, which comes in handy at university or the workplace. Waldorf children aren’t afraid to think for themselves.”
“Waldorf suits every child. We offer a holistic curriculum that caters for myriad different learning styles. Many children who have struggled in the mainstream come to Waldorf and thrive… it’s as if a spark has been ignited.”
Montessori was initially developed for pre-primary children and after the overwhelming success of the preschool it evolved to cater for children up to 18 years old. In South Africa there are definitely far more Montessori pre-primary schools than there are primary or high schools. Waldorf has always been a full 12-year educational programme and, although there are fewer Waldorf schools in total, they mostly contain kindergarten, primary and high school components.
Once a child is in the Waldorf system, he or she usually remains there. But Montessori students can transition to another system at any time during their educational journey. “Montessori children adapt really well to mainstream schools. They’re confident, mature and well-equipped academically,” says Van Straaten, “but there’s always a nagging feeling that they could have achieved more if they’d stuck with a system that values individuality and creativity.”
Many children who start their schooling in the Montessori system end up flourishing at a Waldorf school. This, van Straaten insists, is because the two systems have far more similarities than they have differences. “Regular schools are bound by the curriculum,” she laments, “but Montessori and Waldorf are bound only by the child’s imagination.”
same same, but different
- Both have great respect for the child as an individual, spiritual, creative being and both emphasize the education of the whole child over any particular academic curriculum.
- Both believe in protecting the child from the stresses of modern life; embracing nature and using natural materials.
- Both avoid technology at younger ages. Later on technology is introduced appropriately and thoughtfully.
- Both Waldorf and Montessori schools were closed by the Nazis as they refused to teach the ideology of the state.
- Both schools provide a rich variety of academic subjects as well as art, music, dance and theatre at all ages.
- Formal academic study is kept from children in Waldorf schools until they’re six or seven – before then one uses music, imaginative play and the arts to build social, emotional and cognitive skills and lay the foundation for formal academic study. In Montessori the real world is seen as a wonderful creation and “real work” is introduced immediately. The sensorial foundations for reading and maths are first touched on when children are about three.
- In Waldorf activities are usually taught and carried out in groups with the teacher leading while in Montessori the choice of what to study or work on at any time is left to the child and lessons are given to one child at a time – sometimes by another student.
- In Waldorf children are kept in a group of children their own age with the teacher ideally moving up each year with the children (apart from in kindergarten which is a mixed age class.) In Montessori children are grouped in three- to six-year age spans.