NOLA mom, who's always got a useful question (if this were a paying gig, she'd be hired!), asked what I think of Waldorf. In short, I like it, but not for me. I like it for people who like it. Let me explain.
Waldorf and Montessori meet philosophically at a point on the horizon that I agree is where we all want to go. It is a place where we have happy, well adjusted, engaged, creative independent little kids who love school and life. They differ substantially in how we get from here to there, largely because they don't quite agree about where "here" is. Caveat: I am a Montessori person, not a Waldorf person, so my point of view is skewed. If you are a Waldorf teacher (or Waldorf parent who knows the ins and outs of the method) I invite you to post, just so we can have an accurate picture.
Here's my understanding from touring my local Waldorf, and having a lovely and fascinating dinner with a very enthusiastic Waldorf proponent. Waldorf and Montessori have different takes on following the child, but they both maintain this as a core value. Both are disinclined to try to "teach" preschoolers anything, rather they set them up to "discover" things. Both approaches involve a degree of controlled freedom within the classroom. both involve ample engagement with a prepared immediate environment, and both are partial to simple wooden toys over noisy plastic ones. Both eschew screens (tv or computer) as learning tools, and both are typically taught by peaceable young-to-middling-aged women partial to dansko clogs and organic produce. However, Waldorf teachers seem to do more needle felting than Montessori teachers, and to use more batik and tye-dyed textiles to create a soft, diffuse comfort in their classroom decor. Montessori teachers seem more inclined to watercolors than needlecraft, and prefer sun-drenched rooms with glossy polished shelves and neat and spare interiors.
Rudolph Steiner (the Waldorf guy) created a very open early childhood curriculum based pretty rigorously on age readiness. Reading and math are introduced formally much later in Waldorf classrooms than in Montessori classrooms, with the reason that no lesson should be presented before the child's mind is fully ready to receive it. From this point of view, Montessori is essentially "hiding the vegetables" in math-and-reading driven activities that young children enjoy, even if they cannot yet synthesize them. From a Montessori perspective, the young child absorbs concrete information, to be abstracted and synthesized later. Waldorf argues that this is an unnecessary preparation of an immature brain, and that the child's energy is better spent in imaginative fantasy play and games of his own creation, and in largely unguided exploration, particularly in the very early years. Waldorf develops more structure as the child gets older and, like Montessori, becomes somewhat more teacher-driven as the mind develops readiness for greater abstraction.
The imagery that illustrates my understanding of the differences is this. Waldorf seems to endeavor to encircle and encourage free exploration, gathering the child's consciousness from the edges and spiraling it upward toward abstract thought. It begins with largely unbridled experience, and focuses it through the grades through manipulation at the edges of a mind that is left as free from intrusion as possible. Montessori, on the other hand, feels to me as if it prefers to infiltrate the developing mind, following the child's discovery of the pieces of intellect, and leaving markers in the places where it meets the child's free exploration. The child then draws those markers together through her unique experience and discovers the order inside and outside herself at once.
I think my preference for Montessori has something to do with my education, and a lot to do with how I'm wired. I'm a tinkerer and a dissector of things and ideas by nature. I like that the curriculum anticipates the interest of the child in a variety of directions, and waits to see how the child will discover it, and how she will bring it all together. The Waldorf method feels, to my Montessori sensibility, a little too timid. It feels as if it is always a step behind the child, rather than waiting for the child's arrival. Waldorf feels more like a gentle push, where as Montessori feels like a gentle pull.
Also, while both Montessori and Waldorf are very environment-focused, Waldorf seems to invite a more sweeping sense of wonder, an artists sense. Montessori feels like a more penetrating sort of wonder, a scientist's sense. It invites a more experimental kind of exploration, where Waldorf seems to invite reflection more than experimentation. I think I just have a rather analytical mind, and so the Montessori curriculum speaks to me, and Waldorf feels too passive. Where Montessori steps forward with curiosity, Waldorf steps back in awe.