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“The teacher, when she begins work in our schools, must have a kind of faith that the child will reveal himself through work.”

-Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori

Visionary, Educator & Pioneer

Maria Montessori with childMaria Montessori, born in 1870, was the first female physician in Italy, an amazing accomplishment at the turn of the twentieth century. However, becoming a medical doctor was only the first step in her long successful career. She began her professional research involving children with observations of mentally retarded children, and was greatly influenced by the work of Itard and Seguin. In 1901 she seemed to be at the high point of her medical career, yet she felt a need for further study and re-enrolled in the University of Rome to study philosophy, psychology, and anthropology.

In 1906 she was 36 years of age, and already an educator, writer, lecturer and medical doctor. She started a school for underprivileged children in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. Since funding allowed only office style furnishings, she contracted a carpenter to make smaller, child-sized furniture and equipment of her own design. She began this trial school with 60 deprived children under the age of six. As she worked, she observed and modified, modified and observed. Within six months, her results were phenomenal.  The children displayed self-discipline, preferred learning materials to toys, and worked with a profound concentration and joy. They had a love for order, respected their environment, and enjoyed working in silence beside their friends. The children would carry on “business as usual” with or without the teacher’s presence.

Maria Montessori with child and microphoneGradually, her work became known and practiced world-wide. She refused to patent her name or work because she wanted to see it grow freely, and it has, for better or for worse. Sometimes the name “Montessori” has been used in schools where the method is practiced incorrectly. Regardless, the books she wrote, the materials she developed, and the discoveries she made have greatly influenced the early childhood programs of today. There was wisdom in her decision to allow the method to evolve.

Maria Montessori believed the child’s mind from birth to six years is quite different from the adult’s and labeled it “an absorbent mind.” The child effortlessly soaks in everything in his culture and environment. Modern scientists are now, almost a century later, finding scientific data to support her discoveries. She saw a tremendous need for the child to have respectful and intelligent help during this absorbent mind stage. She saw the child as constantly unfolding and developing himself, and saw the adults that were trying to train him as obstacles to his progress. Her life’s work could be summed up as defining the nature of the child and the role of the adult in helping him, thus easing the tug-of-war that exists when two completely different natures meet:

  • The child loves concentration - the adult entertains, distracts or interrupts him. The teacher in this prepared environment respects his concentration and allows him to complete an inquiry or exploration. This involves everything from watching a bug on the window sill to drops of water on a table.
  • The child loves repetition - the adult becomes bored with it. Montessori allows this freedom, with respect, as the child perfects his movements.
  • The child loves order but the adult provides a toy box that can afford nothing but disorder. (Try keeping your kitchen organized within one large box.) The prepared environment offers shelves with neatly arranged activities always in the same place.
  • Children prefer work (learning) to play (toys) - adults do not. A child’s “work” is his preparation for life: hopefully when he matures he will enjoy his work, for he has perfected what he likes to do best.
  • Children do not need rewards - adults like to think they do. Accomplishment and creativity are reward enough. A child is self-motivated at this age and with the right environment will remain so as he grows.
  • Children love silence - adults demand it. The Montessori environment creates an awareness of silence. “Let me see if you can tip toe away so quietly I can still hear the birds chirping.”

On and on her discoveries move toward providing a practical way to a peaceful coexistence with children.

Maria Montessori developed materials for refining the senses. The materials help the child to discriminate sound, color, size, shape, smell, and touch. While the manufactured materials are expensive, many can be home-made and get the same results. The materials in the classroom area called “practical life” address the child’s love of movement, concentration and repetition. The activities involve pouring, sweeping, dressing, stacking, folding, wiping, polishing, and washing that include care of the environment, care of self, grace and courtesy. Conversational manners, table manners, and courtesy to others are all part of the activities in a Montessori classroom.

Her math equipment is regarded by many as the most complete available. Four year olds can have a thorough understanding of the decimal system effortlessly. Many of the reading exercises are hand-made and can be supplemented at home. There are also geography, music, art, science and history materials. The method is adaptable to all subjects. All Montessori exercises employ movement, manipulatives, free choice (within limits) and a point of completion.

The materials are usually self-correcting, allowing a child to discover their own mistakes and truly internalize a concept. The Directress prepares the environment and is trained to know when to intervene in the child’s self-learning. This knowledge comes through her practice of the art of observation. The child is given what is termed as “freedom within limits.” What are the limits?

  • He may freely choose to work only from materials he has been shown how to use.
  • He must use the materials properly and return them properly.
  • He may not infringe upon the rights of others.

Maria Montessori with childrenWithin this framework, the child develops freely in individuality and self-confidence. The child is given the opportunity to become independent and care for himself in a responsible way. He flowers and becomes an inner directed member of his school and family. All of this will happen to the extent the child is exposed to these ideas. The more cooperation between the family and directors, the more benefit the child will receive from his Montessori experience.

Maria Montessori was a wonderfully gifted individual who was ahead of her time. She unfolded many of the mysteries, not only of childhood, but of human nature. Her books are read all over the world in many languages. The significance of her discoveries is yet to be fully understood, as much of her work is still being translated and compiled. She died in 1952 in Holland, after training directors all over the world.

Volumes have been written on Montessori philosophy. An understanding of the thinking behind these educational methods could not be completely conveyed without much further explanation. In short, Montessori emphasizes that children are not merely little people to be trained as adults, they are the other pole to humanity. They add the balance. Adults and children, all over this planet walk hand-in-hand, learning from each other, accepting each other, and providing balance for each other. The Montessori Method is a universal method that, when practiced correctly, has the potential to guide humanity towards peace. The practice and the pursuit begins within each individual.