Compare with Montessori and Waldorf

Share Button

How does Education for Life compare with Montessori and Waldorf?

education for life, holistic child developmentEducation for Life has key similarities to the Montessori and Waldorf educational systems. All three are based on respect for each child and seek to address the needs of the whole child in a more natural, organic way than is found in a typical classroom.  There are both similarities and differences in the philosophies and practices of Montessori, Waldorf, and Education for Life. These are explored under the headings listed below:


Montessori Schools are named after their founder Maria Montessori .  An Italian physician, Montessori first began to develop her unique approach to childhood education in 1897.   In 1907 she opened her first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) in a tenement in Rome.  By 1911 Montessori schools had opened in the U.S.   In 1929, Montessori founded the Association Montessori Internationale  (AMI) to help maintain the integrity of her system. AMI still trains Montessori teachers using the materials developed by Maria Montessori and her son Mario.

Waldorf Schools are based on the ideas of Rudolph Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy. Steiner’s ideas about education were first set forth in his 1907 book, The Education of the Child. In 1919, at the request of a factory owner, the first Waldorf school was opened in Stuttgart, Germany to serve the employees’ children.  Soon other schools opened, and spread worldwide.

elementary school acedemicsEducation for Life Schools are based on the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, who stressed the underlying unity of all religions and their common purpose of helping people to experience love, joy, and peace.   Yogananda’s direct disciple, J. Donald Walters, developed educational techniques for fostering these and other eternal values such as kindness and cooperation, as an integral part of childhood education.  The first Education for Life school, called by the name of Living Wisdom School, was founded in 1968 and now there are Living Wisdom Schools  on the West coast, in Italy and in India, as well as a teacher training institute for Education for Life, at Ananda College of Living Wisdom, located in Nevada City, California. Education for Life can be used in any school by a trained teacher, not just at the Living Wisdom Schools.

Philosophy and Priorities

Montessori Schools are based on the belief that humans share basic tendencies ; among them self-preservation, orientation to the environment, exploration, communication, purposeful activity, and self-perfection.  These universal tendencies are thought to drive learning at every stage of life, though different educational approaches are needed at different ages.

Montessori believed that education could foster world peace by allowing children to harmoniously develop according to their inner dictates.  She said, “Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the word of education.”    Montessori education promotes the values of independence , spontaneity and discovery, and freedom within limits, in accordance with Montessori’s conviction that freedom within a “prepared environment”  allows children to learn to peacefully and effectively develop according to their inner psychological dictates.  Most Montessori schools have no religious affiliation, but character development is considered to be very important: children learn to take care of themselves, their environment and each other.

Waldorf Schools are based on the ideas of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy , which holds that the human being is threefold, composed of spirit, soul and body, and that the human spirit reincarnates and develops over lifetimes.  Though these ideas are not an explicit part of most Waldorf curriculum, Waldorf teachers view their role as helping each child’s spirit to grow and fulfill its unique destiny, and seek to educate the whole child—heart and hands as well as head.  The importance of spirituality is happy child with teacheracknowledged in many Waldorf schools by the incorporation of curriculum involving traditions from a wide range of world religions.

Some Waldorf teachers use the classic concept of the four temperaments (sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic) to help them work with children’s personalities and behavior.  In addition to an implicitly spiritual approach to life, Waldorf Schools try to promote social engagement, tolerance, and openness.  They emphasize interdisciplinary learning and the role of imagination.

Education for Life Schools teach the  children not just academics, but how to live “wisely happily, and successfully” in accordance with deep inner needs which are spiritual even more than material.   As such, the schools teach not only academics, but the wisdom that is a common thread in the teachings of spiritual geniuses like Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and Moses: that happiness is the result of goodness –living in harmony with the divine. Other principles, laid out in J. Donald Walter’s  book, Education for Life, are that education should be experiential, not just theoretical,  that reason must be balanced by feeling, and that education should foster maturity—the ability to appropriately relate to realities other than one’s own.

Education for Life trains teachers to tune into each individual child’s energy and readiness and respond sensitively to the actual conditions in the classroom and in each child.  That means that while Living Wisdom curriculum does have routine and structure, it also employs a high degree of flow and intuitive awareness, based on the present, actual realities.


child studying in nature

Stages of Development

Montessori is based on the four developmental stages, or “planes,” identified by Maria Montessori:

Birth to 6:  In this plane, children are concrete, sense-based learners and explorers in the process of developing independence and constructing a self.

6 to 12:  In this plane, children learn to socialize in groups.  They develop their powers of reason and imagination, as well as their moral sense.

12 to 18  In this plane, young people cope with the psychological instability created by puberty, even as they find new creative tendencies, and a sense of justice and personal dignity.  They are driven to receive confirmation of their worth from outside because they are constructing their adult self.

18 to 24.  In this plane, young adults  are ready to deeply study culture and the sciences, assume leadership roles, and achieve economic independence.


Waldorf is based on the three main phases of development identified by Rudolph Steiner, each characterized by different educational needs.

In the first phase, ages 1-6, children engage in sense-based learning through practical activities.  They learn by experience and copying others.  This is the phase of Imitation.

In the second phase, ages 7-14, children learn by means of art and spiritual child developmentimaginative activities, guided by teachers.  The focus is on emotional life and on developing creative expression.  This is the phase of Imagination.

In the third phase, ages 15 and up, adolescents learn abstract thought and conceptual judgment.   They begin to care about such issues as ethics and social responsibility.  This is the phase of Discrimination.


Education for Life is based on the four distinct stages of psychological and spiritual development identified by J Donald Walters.  Each phase adds a new “tool of maturity” to the child’s store of wisdom.

The Physical Years, ages 0-6, involve developing mastery of motor skills, and discovering the world through the sensory awakening of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch.  Children in this phase are most easily taught through the body and bodily movement.

The Emotional Years, ages 6-12, involve the development of emotional sensitivity.  Though emotions are present and active during the Physical Years, it is during the emotional years that children can learn to direct and refine their emotions.  In this phase, children can be inspired to develop noble sentiments by looking to role models drawn from history, fantasy, legend, and current events.

The Willful Years, ages 12-18, are when the ego begins to assert itself more forcefully.  These years involve the development of will; teenage rebelliousness is viewed as a natural symptom of this phase of growth.  Teens in this phase need opportunities to test and strengthen the will, and to develop self-control.

The Thoughtful Years, ages 18-24, are the time that the intellect naturally begins to flower.  In this phase, young adults should learn to reason clearly—with discernment and discrimination—rather than just cleverly.


child studying in nature

Educational Practices

Montessori educators use a constructivist approach.  They work to foster children’s “psychological self-construction” by allowing them to spontaneously interact with a structured educational environment.   There are no grades or other forms of reward or punishment in Montessori schools.  Montessori classrooms strive to offer an environment of beauty, harmony, cleanliness, and order.  They are arranged to encourage movement and activity, and are constructed with the needs of children at each plane of development in mind.  Classrooms mix children of different ages (though not of different planes) to foster socialization and child-to-child teaching.

Plane 1:  There are several  subcategories of classrooms for children in the first plane.  “Nests” serve a small number of children from 2-14 months as they learn to walk; “Young Child Communities” involve more children and offer opportunities to develop movement, independence, and toileting skills.  Primary classrooms for children between ages 2-1/2 or 3 to age 6 may have 20 to 30 children.   The teacher, with her assistant(s), introduces activities, then children can continue to explore according to their individual interests.

Plane 2:  Elementary classrooms for children in the second plane, ages 6-12, generally have up to 30 children in a classroom with one teacher and one teacher’s assistant.  The teacher presents lessons to small groups of children who can then work independently as their interests dictate; however, group activities almost never take Nature, Alpacasprecedence over self-selected work.  At this phase, children are also encouraged to explore resources outside the classroom.

Plane 3:  Montessori worked less on developing curriculum and activities for the third plane, children ages 12-18.  However, she recommended that children at this plane would find it helpful to be in quiet surroundings, close to nature.

Waldorf educators take into account not just children’s academic development, but their emotional and physical development as well.   Waldorf teachers stress collaborative learning.

First-phase classrooms (birth to age 6 or 7) allow for imaginative free play in a homelike environment, and stress learning by example.  Activities incorporate daily, weekly, and seasonal rhythms. Outdoor learning is included to give children the experience of nature.  The use of songs, poems and stories promote language development.  TV, computers and other electronic media are discouraged, since they are thought to be harmful to early childhood development.

Second-phase classrooms (ages 6 or 7 to 14) use a multi-disciplinary curriculum that prioritizes arts and crafts, drama, movement, and music, but also includes languages, math, geography, and more.  Instead of using standardized textbooks, children often create their own illustrated summaries of what they have learned in a given unit.  A single teacher usually stays with the students through all of the second-phase years, with the understanding that a child can learn even more from contact with a trusted role model than from the curriculum itself.

Third-phase education (14 and older) focuses more strongly on academics, and allows students to gravitate toward teachers who specialize by subject.  There is a greater stress on independent, creative thinking, ethical development, and cultivation of a sense of purpose.

Living Wisdom educators work in classrooms with a high ratio of teachers to students—generally there are no more than 8 children per teacher for the preschool/prek years and no more than twelve students to each teacher for the elementary and secondary years.  While there is a broad curriculum overview, Living Wisdom teachers are given the freedom to create lessons that motivate their students using fun, investigative projects, nature, group activities, music, drama, field trips and more.  Teachers work with the child’s energy and the energy in the classroom to respond sensitively and spontaneously and to shift activities according to what is called for in the moment.

child doing yogoDuring the Physical Years (0-6), Education for Life provides many different ways for children to interact in a sensory way with the world.  Simple hatha yoga, tracing numbers and letters with the hands, and games of “Let’s Pretend,” where children can act out stories rather than simply hearing them, are examples of ways that body-based learning is engaged.  Experiences in nature are provided as a means of expanding childrens’ awareness and promoting their development.  Curriculum at this stage stresses color, music and movement, with special attention paid to their vibrations, since different colors, sounds, and movements have very different effects.  Education for Life  curriculum stresses harmony, expansiveness, purity, and tries to keep toddlers and young children’s energy moving upward toward spiritually “light” mental attitudes.

During the Emotional Years (6-12), children are encouraged to develop their finer feelings and to direct their emotions constructively, rather than being ruled by them.  In addition to academic subjects such as language arts, math, and social sciences, students may be asked to imagine events from another person’s perspective.  They study the lives of exceptional people who serve as role models.  Affirmations and visualizations are used to train the attention in uplifting ways, and hatha yoga is promotes the ability to remain centered (as opposed to being self-centered).   At no stage are children asked to suppress their emotions, but in this stage the focus is on learning to put negative emotions in perspective and to channel them in more positive directions using conscious discipline.

holistic music childrenDuring the Willful Years, (12-18), sexual awareness and the natural strengthening of the ego can tend to pull energy downward and contract it.   Education for Life students are given the opportunity to work with these new energies and to keep their energy upward-moving and expansive by turning their second-stage dreams and ideals into dynamic, real-world action.  Students are given the opportunity to develop self-reliance by participating in adventures such as camping trips, field trips, and service projects, sometimes in other countries.

During the Thoughtful Years (18-24), Education for Life capitalizes on the young adult’s natural tendency to care about abstract issues like politics, philosophy, religion, and the meaning of life by teaching them to reason clearly, listen to others, and keep their minds flexible.