34 - 36 Months

RIE, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, & more—making sense of the methods, by Lovevery CEO Jessica Rolph

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I was chatting with another mom the other day, and she described her family as a “Waldorf Family.” I paused and started thinking: what does that actually mean?  I send my own kids to Montessori schools, and—full disclosure—I made the decision partly because it was the only program that would take my not-yet-potty trained two-year-old 🙃

I’ve read about and researched many of the early childhood philosophies. Though I’m not ready to completely accept or reject any of them, I found a lot to inspire and encourage me. A lot of these methods can feel rigid; you’re either aligned or you’re not. I understand—and feel myself—the uncertainty I have heard from fellow parents: “is this toy/game/activity/method truly Montessori/RIE/Waldorf/etc?” To help me make informed decisions about childcare, and also to get some new ideas to guide my own parenting, I wanted a clear summary of each philosophy.

I couldn’t find one, so I made one 🤓:

The Montessori Method 

Montessori Activities and materials all build towards increasing independence through hands-on discovery and play, referred to as a child’s “work.” Children learn more from their experiences than they do from direct teaching, so adults are urged to get out of the way. 

How it works: 

  • A hallmark of Montessori is allowing long stretches of time for children to be immersed in a self-driven task. In a Montessori environment, children select their “work” from a carefully selected set of “materials” placed on a low shelf. They do their work –usually on their own– on small mats to contain the space. The teacher demonstrates how to engage with the materials in a specific way, then steps back and allows the child to try it on their own. 
  • Materials are deliberate, thoughtful, no electronics. 
  • Kids are given lots of choice throughout the day. They can self-select their own work at different stations, and move freely throughout the room to explore pre-designated stations.
  • The entire environment is carefully curated. Montessori classrooms are often beautiful, well-lit, visually pleasing spaces with what always feels like just the right amount of “stuff.” Montessori teachers believe that children can get deeper into play when they’re given minimal, carefully-chosen materials on shelves that children can reach on their own. 
  • Toys, books, and other playthings are regularly rotated in and out of the room. Here is more on Montessori toy rotation.
  • Children are combined in mixed-age groups to minimize competition (every child learns at their own pace) and give older children the chance to teach younger ones. 

What I like:

  • The materials used for learning are simple, beautiful, and deliberately designed for hands-on learning 
  • The “practical life work”—washing windows, doing dishes, sweeping and mopping, lacing, pouring, watering plants—is my favorite part of the curriculum because it tunes into what a small child naturally wants to practice.  


What I question:

Imaginative play—costumes, make believe, fantasy—is de-emphasized in Montessori, yet children love dressing up and this kind of role play is important for their brain development. 

When my son was 4 years old he wanted to wear a cape (with no characters) to school. At our Montessori, he wasn’t allowed to dress up. He was so disappointed one morning that I proposed a pair of knee-high socks he had with little capes coming out of the back ❤️ I called the school to ask permission and as I listened to myself negotiating with the front desk, I really felt there was a disconnect between philosophy and practice. 

The RIE Method

The driving force behind RIE is respect—for the child, what they’re thinking and feeling, and what they can do with less instruction than you might think. RIE is about giving a baby or small child dignity through clear communication, independence, validation of feelings, and a recognition that they are already a person who deserves respect. 

How it works: 

  • Caregivers don’t talk to babies or children like, well—babies or children. With RIE, you describe in detail in your regular adult voice what you’re doing moment by moment. You can slow the pace of your speech a bit for babies and toddlers.
  • The respect you show your child is on a whole new level. For instance, if you RIE, you’ll be asking your baby permission to change their diaper. It might go like this: “baby, I am going to lay you down on the changing table. Is that okay with you?” The idea is to show them that their body belongs to them and that they deserve to be asked before something is done to them.
  • Swings, play pens, sippy cups, and pacifiers are discouraged. RIE believes that adults tend to give babies and small children crutches that actually end up undermining their natural skill development. 
  • Children should be given a “yes space,” where they have just the right amount of playthings, at just the right difficulty and interest for them, and where nothing is unsafe or forbidden. Children hear “no” a lot, so RIE encourages providing them with a yes space where they’re encouraged to explore without restrictions. 
  • Toys are tricky: RIE practitioners aren’t against them, but the quality and purpose of a toy is paramount. Caregivers offer simple, timeless toys, like balls and blocks, and stay away from anything gimmicky, flashy, noisy, or overstimulating. “Untoys” are also a favorite: everyday items like pots and pans and other simple containers invite children to explore and engage with objects and tools from the real world. 
  • Good manners are expected as a natural result of the parenting style, not taught directly. Under RIE you wouldn’t remind a child to say “please” or “thank you;” rather, you model it yourself.

What I like:

  • Teaching consent through respect and dignity is a meaningful intention that supports children’s developmental and emotional needs well beyond babyhood.
  • Focus on real world play: “untoys” teach babies and small children so much about what things really are and how they work, which is one of the most effective ways to build a healthy brain. 
  • Respect for emotions: RIE champions lots of empathy and full respect for a child’s feelings.

What I question:

  • Tummy time is not encouraged in RIE, which goes against expert advice on babies’ physical development. Interestingly, this position could actually have been the result of a misunderstanding: Dr. Emmi Pikler, a pediatrician who advised RIE founder Magda Gerber, included tummy time in her literature. 
  • “Yes” spaces, when they are static and overused, can start looking like a large play pen without much access to explore cupboards that open and close, different floor textures, and open areas for developing a richer understanding of the real world. 
  • Communication with babies can sometimes feel flat in RIE. Because parents are encouraged to speak to their children as they would to an adult, babies miss out on the animated, expressive tones of “parentese.” 

Reggio Emilia

This is probably the most child-directed of these educational philosophies, rooted in learning through open-ended play and free expression. Developed by educator Loris Malaguzzi and other parents in and around the Italian town of Reggio Emilia, the model is based on respect for the child, and for a concept known as the “hundred languages”—which refers to nurturing the many ways children express themselves. Every child has their own way of making sense of the world, and they need to have a lot of opportunities for free play to express themselves.

How it works

  • In Reggio Emilia, the center of the classroom is the child, rather than the teacher; children (in part) get to choose their own learning paths based on interest.
  • The “hundred languages” concept means that every child is encouraged to communicate their ideas and learning through a variety of ways beyond speaking and writing, including dance, art, music, and more.
  • Community is an integral part of Reggio Emilia. Parents and caregivers are respected as a child’s first teacher, and are included in every aspect of the child’s education, from volunteering to curriculum development.
  • The physical learning environment is critical; Malaguzzi viewed it as the “third teacher.” Elements of this environment include natural light, open space, wooden toys and furniture, and displays of student work.
  • Mistakes are not only respected, they are celebrated as an active, essential part of the learning process.

What I like

  • Reggio Emilia respects the fact that every child learns differently, and that everyone has their own interests and ways of expressing themselves. 
  • The community-based model of education means that parents, teachers, and children form a united support team.
  • Hands-on learning through play, discovery, art, and friendship is a wonderful way to learn.

What I question

  • Since there is no formalized teacher certification process, it may be difficult to trust that teachers are appropriately trained.
  • Similar to Waldorf, the lack of formalized education may scare off parents looking for a more traditional approach, or a hybrid.

Waldorf education is all about creativity, imagination, and disconnecting from technology. The use of simple tools and toys—often made of wood and other natural materials—activates a child’s innate sense of wonder and creativity. Singing, dancing, art, oral storytelling, imagination games, and the use of those tools are hallmarks of Waldorf, as they all take precedence over technology—screen time in particular.

How it works: 

  • Children create their own environments in concert with the teacher, with each child contributing what they can; curriculum shifts and changes as the group gets to know one another.
  • Screen time is a huge no-no. No movies, devices, or other screens are allowed, at school or at home. 
  • There is no formal reading or writing instruction until age 7, although elements of the two skills are still taught. Teachers tell stories with detailed language and complex vocabulary, and create language-rich environments that promote a lot of words and stories. Children work on fine-motor skills in other ways than holding a pencil, like sewing and knitting.
  • Teachers often “loop” with their students, meaning they’ll stay with the same cohort for years at a time. The idea is that they grow alongside one another, learning and teaching together, and enjoying a rich shared experience.

My takeaway: of all the parenting styles out there, Waldorf can sometimes feel like the most prescriptive—but it’s also a magical way to grow up. Schools highly encourage families to follow suit at home, which may end up being the deciding factor if you’re thinking about going the Waldorf route.

What I like:

  • Waldorf classrooms are full of imagination, color, creativity, and storytelling. 
  • It is safe to experiment in the classroom of a Waldorf school, and the topics that are covered follow a child’s natural curiosity. 
  • Traditional reading, writing and math learning is postponed until later in elementary school when a child’s brain is more ready for more formal learning. 

What I question:

  • The focus on spoken language means that stories are told orally, often with puppets. This means that books are not usually introduced until later. 
  • The parent community is often very strong in Waldorf, so if you don’t jibe with the parent culture it can feel isolating. 

Forest Schools

Forest Schools, like a number of other outdoor-based approaches, are founded on the belief that immersion in nature promotes well-regulated children who are empowered to take risks (both physical and emotional), grow relationships, make choices, and practice independence in a natural setting.

How it works: 

  • Kids are outside all day, no matter what, and are asked to come to school in weather-appropriate clothing. Except in cases of extreme weather, Forest Schools don’t close down when it rains, snows, or gets windy. Instead, the environmental conditions are incorporated into lessons and learning.  For example, mud play becomes a focus when it rains. 
  • The pace of learning is as fast or as slow as a particular group of children needs it to be: there are no strict timetables for learning and no formal assessments. Children are encouraged to learn at their own pace and explore what they love—the program is play-based and child-directed. 
  • Forest School teachers are seen as facilitators of learning rather than directors, and are specially trained in the outdoors—they know how to teach, learn, and survive outside.

What I like:

  • Neuroscience indicates that time in nature is inherently healthy; being outside encourages positivity and helps with emotional regulation, confidence, and resilience. 
  • Because they are outdoors all day, children get more exercise than those in a traditional school. They move, run, dance, and play for much of the day, though children who would rather sit and draw are free to do that.

What I question:

  • If you’re in the heart of a big city or in an extreme climate, getting close to nature might not be easy. A Forest School philosophy is adaptable to any environment in theory, but in practice, you really need green spaces and mostly mellow weather to get the most out of the experience. 
  • Adapting to a more traditional indoor classroom environment for grade school could be a challenge.

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Jessica Rolph

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Posted in: 34 - 36 Months, Social Emotional, Routine, Pretend Play, Montessori, Child Development

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