Who Is Maria Montessori?

Dr. Maria Montessori (August 31, 1870-May 6, 1952) was an Italian physician, educator, scientist, philosopher, and humanitarian. She was born in Chiaravale, in the Ancona province of Italy. Instead of growing to fulfill the traditional role expected of Italian women of her time, she decided to attend the University of Rome, and in 1896 became the first female physician in Italy. 

Her first assignment was to the University's psychiatric clinic, working with children who were mentally retarded. In 1901 she joined the medical staff of the Orthophrenic School of Rome, which served as an asylum for mentally retarded children. During this time, she became interested in the work of French educators Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin. She employed many of their methods and recieved recognition for her successes with the children previously perceived as "unteachable".

Dr. Montessori began to feel that the methods she had developed to that point would be even more effective with children of "normal" intelligence. In 1907, the opportunity to test this belief became available, with her assignment to work with a group of children in San Lorenzo, a slum district of Rome. On January 6 of that year, she opened the first "Casa de Bambini", or Children's House.


Though she was given no materials or equipment, she was expected to educate approximately 50 children of preschool age. She quickly designed and built lessons, most of which are still in use today. Her almost immediate success with the children, and the profound progress they made within the first year drew international interest and acclaim. They were referred to as "miracle children" and people from all over the world came to see this little school for themselves.

Later, Dr. Montessori developed methods and materials for older children, and her success continued. Children of elementary school age were mastering subjects and concepts not usually presented until the middle or high school level. Eventually, educational methods and lessons were developed for children all the way through the high school years. She also developed an Assistance to Infancy Program, which allows children to begin achieving their highest potential even from birth. 

From her humble beginning, her methods have spread around the world, and have become recognized as effective, efficient, and highly successful. However, resistance to her theories still exists today, driven by misunderstandings, misconceptions, and the fear of change, causing many educators to turn away from the Montessori method, which is unfortunate. Montessorians are hopeful that eventually, through education, patience, and advocacy, attitudes will change, and Montessori methods will become standard practice.


The Montessori Environment

Scientific observation has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment.

                                               ~Dr. Maria Montessori, Education For a New World 

The primary goal of a Montessori program is to help each child reach his full potential in ALL areas of life. Activities promote the development of social skills, emotional maturation, physical coordination, academic progression, and independence. Under the direction of a specially trained and prepared Montessori Teacher, and using specially designed materials and lessons, this holistic curriculum allows the child to experience the joy of learning, as well as reach his goal of "functional independence"

The Montessori classroom operates on the principle of "Freedom Within Limits". The program has a set of basic age-appropriate rules that are always based on respect for living things and for the environment. The children are free to choose materials that interest them and work at their own pace. They may choose to work with others, or on their own. The teacher carefully observes the children as they work to determine what skills the child has mastered, what additional practice may be necessary, and when the child is ready for the next challenge. These presentations may be given by a teacher or an older child, and may be given individually, or in small or large groups.

The three-year age span in the classroom provides a family-like grouping where learning can take place naturally. More experienced children share what they have learned by assisting younger children. This offers the older child the opportunity to reinforce his skills, while helping his self-esteem. The younger child benefits from "Peer Encouragement" by witnessing another child's mastery of a desired skill. There is a connection between two children working for a common goal that is seldom found between an adult and a child. The age combination also allows children to progress at their own rate, providing for a much less stressful experience for everyone.

Our aim is not merely to make the child understand, and still less to force him to memorize, but to touch his imagination as to enthuse him to his inmost core.

                                                                                                   ~Dr. Maria Montessori