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Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio Emilia

Nature and Nurture. The planet-friendly educational approaches at Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio Emilia schools
By Lora Shinn

Deciding where to send a child to school is one of the most overwhelming decisions parents can face, especially with the plethora of options out there today. To narrow the playing field, eco-conscious moms and dads may want to look for educational philosophies that teach young children environmental responsibility. The Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia educational methods all take a hands-on approach to nature, but with different tacks. Waldorf fosters a fantasy-rich connection with the earth, Montessori offers useful and important facts about the natural world, and Reggio encourages open-ended questions about the environment. Here, we give a rundown of each method’s environmental techniques.

The Waldorf Way. In the early 20th century, Rudolf Steiner created the first Waldorf school. Today, this method is known for its gentle guidance and emphasis on all-natural materials.

Waldorf-schooled children play with wool, wax, wood and cotton, and no plastics whatsoever. Young kids bake bread, play outside and sing songs about the seasons, while older children receive instruction through oral stories, fables and poems.

"Reverence for the earth is intimately woven into everything we do," says Patrice Maynard, of the Associate of Waldof Schools of North America. Waldorf teachers often share stories behind classroom items to engender a sense of appreciation and responsibility. For example, at the Charlottesville Waldorf School (CWS) in Virginia, students receive paper along with a simple story about a grandfather chopping down a tree, after which the wood is turned into paper. This way, the children understand the tree’s sacrifice and remember not to waste sheets.

"Steiner taught that our earth is a gift to us," says Vivian Jones-Schmidt of CWS. "We want to help nurture the child’s sense of gratitude."

The Montessori Model. In Montessori schools, preschool-aged children learn the names of the five oceans and seven continents, match technical terms for leaf shapes (such as "ovate" and "cordate") with the corresponding leaf, and study biology by assembling detailed wooden flower puzzles. According to Montessori philosophy, children have "absorbent minds" that soak up information like a sponge.

"We emphasize bonding to the earth," says Angie Nielsen, a lower-elementary teacher at White Rock Montessori School (WRMS) in Texas. "By [focusing on] the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things, we make the world wondrous."

At WRMS, teachers present lessons on how the air, soil, water and living things depend upon each other in theory and practice. Children have access to the school’s environmental-education teacher and the five-and-a-half-acre wooded lot as an outdoor classroom, plus they work in the school’s organic garden weekly.

Reggio Emilia Research. "It’s a culture of inquiry," says Judy Graves of the educational philosophy at the Opal School in Oregon. Graves is director at the Reggio Emilia-inspired public charter school. "Children give and receive interesting questions, intriguing puzzles and paradoxical concepts—then they play with these ideas," she says. "The results can be profound."

The Opal School prepares children to pay attention to nature and become stewards of the planet, while encouraging them to ask questions and find their own answers. As in the original Reggio preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, there is no standard curriculum. Children seek solutions to questions through science and art, using book research along with materials such as clay, watercolors and wire.

Teachers foster child-led "investigations," another term for the oh-so-common why’s echoing in every parent’s ears. Graves remembers one student asking, "What would happen if we keep stepping on bugs?" The children debated, researched and imagined the world through an insect’s perspective. "[The kids decided] insects were integral to the natural world," Graves says. "They became articulate and passionate about the need to support a sustainable planet."