Dr. Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. She grew up under the influence of a traditional father and an ambitious strong-minded mother. She wanted to be an engineer but found being a woman was an obstacle. However she entered university and qualified as one of the first woman medical doctors in Italy. Her years of study taught her to survive under difficult circumstances. The ethics of the time did not allow for male and female students to work on human bodies at the same time so Maria had to return to the morgue alone at night to do her research. When she qualified she worked for some time caring for the poor in Rome. She was always interested in children, their health and the living conditions which affected health. Around this time she was also involved in the emerging movement for women’s rights. Dr. Montessori had a son but the social structure at the time did not allow her to keep him with her as she was unmarried.
He was fostered by a family in the countryside and visited by his mother regularly. Dr. Montessori got a job working with children who were mentally deficient. With her keen observational powers and her ever curious mind, she became interested in their education as well as their health. She studied the works of Itard and Seguin, who in turn were influenced by Rousseau and Froebel. In order to understand these works fully she spent many long nights translating them from French into Italian. She was inspired to research further. She adapted and devised several educational materials which she used with great success with the children under her care. When they passed examinations Dr. Montessori asked herself why the children in the regular schools could not reach much higher levels with good educational stimulation.
On 6th January 1907 Dr. Montessori opened her first Casa de Bambini (Children’s House) in Rome. The owners of a large building were concerned about the small children running wild so they invited Dr. Montessori to carry out an experiment with a day nursery for children in pre-school years. She set up a simple room and into this she placed the educational materials which she had devised or adapted from other educators. She employed the caretaker’s daughter to take care of the children and instructed her not to teach them anything, but rather to allow them to use the materials. She observed the children for long periods and added or took away materials according to how the children were attracted to them. The children were shown how to use the materials and, as long as they did not abuse them, were free to use them as they wished.
Within months wonderful things were happening. Children were writing their names, talking about mathematical shapes, behaving very politely and Montessori realised she was making exciting discoveries. People heard about Casa de Bambini and came to see the children. In a world where children were considered noisy and troublesome, these productive well-behaved little people were seen as a miracle. A second nursery was opened by Dr. Montessori the following year. Within a short time she was well known throughout most countries in Europe. In 1911 she published her first of many books, “The Montessori Method”. In 1913 she travelled to the USA where she travelled widely, taking her now fifteen year old son, Mario, with her. There she was welcomed enthusiastically and she set up many ‘Montessori’ classrooms.
In the meantime she started the training of teachers to carry out her methods but at all times she was reluctant to allow this training to pass out of her personal control. She believed that her method was not easy to use correctly because it involved a basic shift in attitude towards children. Her observations were continually leading her to adapt and develop new materials. She started to work on the method for older children (6-12 years) as far back as 1912 but believed that it was too big a task for one person. With the help of various interested people, the ‘Advanced Montessori Method’ was developed over a period of many years. Dr. Montessori was also interested in the next level (12-18 years) but she did not have the time in her busy life to explore it fully, writing only two chapters to explain her ideas. However it has been developed since her death, and in the early years of the twenty-first century the Montessori method for adolescents is beginning to grow into a thriving movement. In the latter part of her life, Dr. Montessori’s focus went back to the infant and she further developed her ideas on the first years of life. She published “The Absorbent Mind”, the book many consider to be her best, in 1949, just a few years before her death in 1952. Montessori started in Italy, worked for some years in Spain and spent all of World War II in India. She finally settled in Holland and there, with the help of her son Mario, his wife and many devoted friends, set up the centre for developing the Montessori Method.
“Her [Maria Montessori’s] ideas were formulated after she had laboriously observed the needs of the individual child. Her goal was to develop the whole personality of the child, and her system is based on her strong belief in the spontaneous working of the human intellect. Her three primary principles are observation, individual liberty, and preparation of the environment” (Hainstock, E., 1986)