The History of Montessori

Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.
-Dr. Maria Montessori

Dr. Maria Montessori was Italian, a physician, educator, innovator, and one of Italy’s first female doctors.

Her early practice and studies centred on psychiatry, educational theory and special educational needs. Her approach was always research-led and scientific. Then, in 1906, she was asked to open a school for ‘slum children’ of an inner-city district of Rome. Her first ‘Casa die Bambini’ (Children’s House) opened. She had strict rules – they had to arrive clean and ready to learn!

After a predicatably unruly start, the children showed considerable interest in the puzzles she had created, in preparing meals, and in using the mathematic materials she’d prepared. Absorbed in their work, Montessori observed with great interest, watching how they taught themselves. She added to their learning materials and created a classroom that suited them, with chairs and tables, shelves and cupboards all at their height.

This was revolutionary. Typical approaches at that time were around children needing discipline, where teaching was didactical and authoritative, needing control and intervention by adults. Some would say that exists even now.

The success of these children and their education became a phenomenon. When assessed, they had reached the level of their contemporaries who lived in comfortable households!

Further studies and work with children cemented her ideas. Montessori identified critical periods of early childhood development through her observations, and developed a methodology to support these periods with age-appropriate learning resources and activities. She divided childhood into four planes: Birth to 3 years; 3 – 6 years; 6 – 12 years; and 12 – 18 years.

So became the foundation of the Montessori Method and Dr. Maria Montessori was wanted everywhere. In Mussolini’s war-torn Italy, she went to India, and pursued her passion for child-centered education for the rest of her life. She had example after example that each and every child, whatever their social background, culture or character, was capable of achieving a high level spontaneous and independent learning.

And so became the two key principles of the Montessori Method: Spontaneous activity and independent learning.
She believed that she had discovered not only the solution for a child’s education, but how, therefore, to transform society. Her work was always wrapped up with fighting for the rights of the child, harmony in a sustainable world.

This was accompanied by a teaching for parents to recognise how special and worthy their children were. As her lectures continued worldwide, so did a teaching of Montessori teachers.

As a public figure, Maria also campaigned vigorously on behalf of women’s rights. She wrote and spoke frequently on the need for greater opportunities for women, and was recognized in Italy and beyond as a leading feminist voice.

Dr. Maria Montessori died in 1952, but she had lectured throughout the world, written and produced many successful books, had been received by The US President at The White House, and counted Alexander Bell amongst her friends and associates. Indeed, her movement has continued and gone on at a pace, with a serious revival in the 1960s.

The history of Montessori image

The first phase of the child’s development goes from birth to, let us say, six years of age. At this stage the child is partly at home, partly in school. The plane of education should take both the situations into consideration.” (“Four Planes of Education”, p. 2)

Education, therefore, of little ones is important, especially from three to six years of age, because this is the embryonic period for the formation of character and of society, (just as the period from birth to three is that for forming the mind, and the prenatal period that for forming the body. (The Absorbent Mind, p. 221/2)

“There is in the child a special kind of sensitivity which leads him to absorb everything about him, and it is this work of observing and absorbing that alone enables him to adapt himself to life. He does it in virtue of an unconscious power that exists in childhood….The first period of the child’s life is one of adaptation. It is the child’s special adaptability that makes the land into which he is born the only one in which he will ever want to live.” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 57)

“Plainly, the environment must be a living one, directed by a higher intelligence, arranged by an adult who is prepared for his mission… How does he {the child} achieve this independence?  He does it by means of a continuous activity. How does he become free?  By means of constant effort. …we know that development results from activity.  The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 84)