Maria Montessori

How did Montessori Begin?

Montessori education was founded in 1907 by Dr. Maria Montessori, the first women in Italy to become a physician. She based her educational methods on scientific observation of children’s learning processes. Guided by her discovery that children teach themselves, Dr. Montessori designed a ‘prepared environment’ in which children could freely choose from a number of developmentally appropriate activities. Now, nearly a century after Maria Montessori’s first ‘Casa dei Bambini’ (Children’s House) in Rome, Montessori education is found all over the world, spanning ages from birth to adolescence.

The Woman and her Method

Maria Montessori, born in 1870, was the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree. She worked in the fields of psychiatry, education and anthropology. She believed that each child is born with a unique potential to be revealed, rather than as a “blank slate” waiting to be written upon. Her main contributions to the work, for those of us raising and educating children are in these areas:

  • Preparing the most natural and life supporting environment for the child
  • Observing the child living freely in this environment
  • Continually adapting the environment so that the child may fulfill their greatest potential — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
  • The Early Years

Maria Montessori was always a little ahead of her time. At age thirteen, against the wishes of her father but with the support of her mother, she began to attend a boys’ technical school. After seven years of engineering she began premed and, in 1896 became a physician. In her work at the University of Rome psychiatric clinic Dr. Montessori developed an interest in the treatment of special needs children and, for several years, she worked, wrote, and spoke on their behalf.

In 1907 she was given the opportunity to study “normal” children, taking charge of fifty poor children of the dirty, desolate streets of the San Lorenzo slum on the outskirts of Rome. The news of the unprecedented success of her work in this Casa dei Bambini “Children’s House” soon spread around the world, with people coming from far and wide to see the children for themselves. Dr. Montessori was as astonished as anyone at the realized potential of these children:

Supposing I said there was a planet without schools or teachers, study was unknown, and yet the inhabitants – doing nothing but living and walking about – came to know all things, to carry in their minds the whole of learning: would you not think I was romancing? Well, just this, which seems so fanciful as to be nothing but the invention of a fertile imagination, is a reality. It is the child’s way of learning. This is the path he follows. He learns everything without knowing he is learning it, and in doing so passes little from the unconscious to the conscious, treading always in the paths of joy and love.

– Maria Montessori

From Europe to the United States

Invited to the USA by Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and others, Dr. Montessori spoke at Carnegie Hall in 1915. She was invited to set up a classroom at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, where spectators watched twenty-one children, all new to this Montessori Method, behind a glass wall for four months. The only two gold medals awarded for education went to this class and the education of young children was altered forever.

India and the Nobel Peace Prize

During World War II Dr. Montessori was forced into exile from Italy because of her antifascist views and lived and worked in India. It was here that she developed her work Education for Peace, and developed many of the ideas taught in her training courses today. She was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Her Death

She died at Noordwijk, Netherlands, on 6 May 1952 at the age of 81. Following her death, the movement continued to grow steadily. By the early sixties the growth had accelerated and there was a worldwide revival of interest in her ideas that has continued to the present day.