Montessori vs. Reggio Emilia: Differences in the Approaches

Montessori and Reggio Emilia are both alternative approaches to education that encourage self-guided learning in a carefully prepared environment. However, there are some differences as well as similarities in their approaches. From an emergent curriculum that follows the interests of the child completely with Reggio Emilia to a more structured Montessori approach with carefully designed materials by Maria Montessori to help concretely direct learning of abstract concepts. In this blog post, I will share an overview of both the Montessori and Reggio-inspired approaches as well as the similarities and differences.

What is the Montesssori Approach to Education?

There are some unique characteristics of Montessori education. A method of education that was developed by Dr. Maria Montessori in Italy during the early 1900s. She believed that children had a great capacity for work and with a prepared environment, a prepared adult, and freedoms the child would work to construct themselves through exploration following this inner guide.

Self-Guided Learning with Freedom and Responsibility 

In Montessori classrooms, children are self-guided in learning and have the freedom to indulge their minds in what they are interested in learning about. While their learning is self-directed it is still guided by a prepared adult. The adult has gone through the necessary training process to be equipped to guide a multi-aged group of children toward productive and developmentally appropriate work. Training centers accredited by the Association Montessori Internationale or the American Montessori Society are credible and reputable Montessori training programs. 

A Montessori teacher will offer lessons, or presentations to the children. The child will then have the opportunity to work freely with those materials as well. Montessori classrooms run on this balance of freedom and responsibility. For example, a child has the freedom to move about freely and choose where to work and what to work on. But with that freedom comes the responsibility of needing to move carefully so as not to break things or hurt others. As well as the responsibility to choose a workspace where you can work productively and not disturb other children at work. The adult will help foster this balance of freedom and responsibility by setting limits that are kind yet firm.


Montessori schools group their students into multi-age classrooms. There are many benefits to having multi-ages in a classroom environment. During my time teaching in a 6-9 year-old Montessori environment, it was most impactful the way that the children would provide support to each other’s learning. There was always someone who was able to offer their help or support when a child had a question or needed help reading something. 

Adult as the Guide

In a Montessori classroom, the adult is often referred to as a guide. The guide will offer lessons or presentations based on a pre-determined curriculum while also keeping in mind the interests of the child. Through scientific observation of children, the guide will gain an understanding of the interests of the child and how to best inspire them in their learning. 

Materials with Direct and Indirect Aims 

Dr. Maria Montessori developed a series of hands-on learning manipulatives referred to as materials. These materials can have a few different purposes. One is to show an abstract concept concretely with the opportunity to manipulate the materials to grow in understanding of a concept. The materials aid the child in self-directed learning by allowing for exploration. The materials are presented with a direct and indirect aim in mind. There is a specific skill or concept revealed in the material for the child to work with.

Presentations given by the Adult to small groups or individuals

Lessons or presentations in a Montessori learning environment are given to individual children or small groups of children. The role of the teacher is to present and inspire the child to then continue the learning on their own. In the presentations, the guide will leave something for the child to discover on their own and doesn’t give all of the answers to something. Especially at the elementary levels the presentations act as launching pads into more discovery and self-guided learning. Whereas in the early childhood Montessori classrooms, the young children will often repeat the presentation as it was presented.

Teacher looking at a Material with two students

Education as an Aid to Life

Montessori offers an education for the whole child. There are many opportunities for practical life skills such as preparing a snack, sweeping, sewing a button as well as group work that fosters collaboration. Children in Montessori schools are encouraged to follow their interests and there is a strong emphasis on independence. 

A Developmentally Appropriate Environment

The Montessori method was developed based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s deep understanding of child development. The materials, size of the furniture, and content that is presented are developmentally appropriate for the children in that environment. 

Further Montessori Reading

If you are looking for more Montessori resources check out this blog post for a suggested reading list.

What is the Reggio Emilia approach to Education? 

Loris Malaguzzi is the founder of the Reggio Emilia school which was started after World War II in Italy. The name comes from the city in Italy where his work began, Reggio Emilia. Loris Malaguzzi believed that a more holistic approach to education was necessary. There are some unique characteristics of Reggio schools which serve children from birth to 6 years old. In the Reggio Emilia philosphy, the educator is three things: the teacher, the child, and the environment. Each of these three aspects of the educational model has unique aspects to them.

The Hundred Languages

Loris Malaguzzi understood the uniqueness of each child and that they will express their interests in a multitude of ways. The Hundred Languages is an idea that exemplifies the concept that there are many different ways for a person to express themselves. 

The Child

A huge aspect of Reggio-inspired schools is that children are active participants in their learning. The child is viewed as having a strong potential for development. There is also a strong emphasis on the rights of the child. There is a unique reciprocal relationship between the child and the teacher. 100 languages of children means they have many different ways to express their learning. They are encouraged to express their understanding in many differnet ways.

The Teacher 

In Reggio Emilia schools the teacher is a co-learner with the child. The teacher has time set aside for observation and documentation. They are given time to plan what projects and things they will do with the child next. The curriculum is an emergent curriculum, meaning that it will evolve and change based on what the child’s interests are.

The Environment 

Reggio Emilia classrooms are prepared with natural materials, large open areas for projects and group work as well as many materials and supplies to complete their projects. There is commonly a space for “loose parts” which has a wide range of materials of varying sizes, colors and textures to be used in the children’s projects. You will see a lot of elements from the natural world in a Reggio-inspired environment. Schools are a place of encounter, connection, interaction, and dialogue among peers, community members, and the student and teacher. 


Another aspect of the Reggio environment, which the teacher prepares, is provocations. A provocation is something that invites the child to actively experience, investigate, explore, and reflect on part of the world around them. These provocations will give them something to see, listen to, touch, manipulate, or taste. They will be real-life experiences that can be extended and discussed further. Provocations are open-ended and there is no correct response. The Reggio Emilia approach is to listen to what the children think and what they are wondering about. Understanding what they are thinking will help the teacher to be able to plan more individual learning projects based on their interests. There is a lot of respect for the child’s ideas. Provocations are a good example of experiential learning in the Reggio approach. Provocation exemplifies Reggio Emilia’s philosophy of the environment as the third teacher. 

Similarities Between Montessori and Reggio Emilia

There are some similarities between the Montessori philosophy and the Reggio Emilia Philosophies. Both educational philosophies have an emphasis on child-led learning and a hands-on approach to learning. These education programs both recognize the power and incredible capacity of children and their ability to learn, create, and express themselves. 

In both approaches the teacher has the role of being an observer. These observations help the teacher be able to inspire the child in their learning. In the Reggio Emilia philosphy, a huge part of the learning process is the dialogue about the work that they have done.  

Another similarity between Reggio Emilia and the Montessori approaches is this idea of the Environment as a teacher. While Dr. Maria Montessori didn’t use those terms, she did speak about having a prepared environment. The purpose of the prepared environment is to help direct the child’s learning. The environment, while prepared differently in both of these types of schools, serves an important role in the child’s learning experience. 

Both of these educational methods are alternative approaches to the traditional school expereince. Both provide a nurturing environment aimed at collaborative learning, learning at your own pace, and being encouraged to follow your interests. How these directives are met varies between the approaches but there are some common themes shared between both Reggio and Montessori.

How are Montessori and Reggio Emilia Different?

There are some key differences when it comes to comparing Montessori and Reggio Emilia. One difference is the role of the adult. In a Montessori environment, the adult serves as a guide to the child. Whereas in a Reggio-inspired approach, the teacher is a co-learner with the child. 

Another one of the main differences is that in a Reggio-inspired school, there is an emergent curriculum that follows all of the interests of the child. Whereas a Montessori school presents a more set curriculum, still allowing for the child’s interests to lead them, but that is not the only driving force.

The way the environments are set up may look similar in some regards but there are quite a few differences. There seems to be more of an emphasis on the arts in Reggio-inspired environments. In contrast, a Montessori environment will have designated shelves or areas for each subject area. The workspaces can be used by any child for any type of content but the layout of the room is set based on the areas of study for the child. 

Montessori schools extend through the end of the elementary age and sometimes into adolescence and even high school. The Reggio-Emilia approach is to be used from birth to 6 years of age. 

Another different aspect is the training required for the adult to teach in the environment. There is an online training course for the Reggio approach whereas the Montessori training is a highly intensive training program. To receive my elementary training from an AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) accredited training center I went through three summers of intensive training. 

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