Dr. Maria Montessori was an innovative, revolutionary woman who was not only the first female physician in Italy, specializing in psychiatry, but also the founder of today’s world-renowned Montessori philosophy of child development and education.
Her story is a remarkable lesson in the pursuit of freedom to explore, discover and share knowledge for the benefit of each individual child and all mankind. She was the first to focus on a child-centered, hands-on, self-paced approach to learning that inspires creativity and imaginative, independent thinking. In fact, some of the greatest innovators of our time were Montessori-educated students, including Larry Page and Sergei Brin, the founders of Google and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, as well as entertainers Beyonce Knowles and Taylor Swift.
Maria’s Early Years
Maria was born on August 31, 1870, in Ancona, located in central Italy about 170 miles northwest of Rome. She was the daughter of Alessandro Montessori, a successful Italian government official, and his wife Renilde Stoppani, a well-educated woman who believed in disciplining children firmly. According to Maria Montessori biographer Rita Kramer, Renilde supported and encouraged her daughter’s independence and ambitions throughout her lifetime.
Maria was one of the first few females to attend public school when she was seven years old. She proved to be a very good student, acknowledged for her kindness and needlework. When she was 12 years old, Maria decided she wanted to go to technical school, which was a very unconventional choice for a young lady.
After graduating from technical schools with high marks, Maria enrolled in the University of Rome in the fall of 1890, studying physics, mathematics, and natural sciences. She graduated in 1892 with a final grade of 8 out of 10 possible points. Maria wanted to be a doctor. To pursue a medical degree was absolutely unheard of for a woman at that time. But she did it.
During her internships in medical school, she worked at mental institutions and asylums for the insane, observing and helping children who were handicapped and developmentally challenged. From this experience, she was inspired to find a better method for educating these “lost” children.
In her last two years of medical school, she studied pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital and served as an assistant doctor at two hospitals. At the end of her final year as a medical student in the spring of 1896, she presented her psychiatric thesis on the study of “delusions of persecution (paranoia)” and graduated with a final grade of 105; anything over 100 was considered a brilliant score. Maria was employed as an assistant at the San Giovanni Hospital and also started a private practice.
After two years since graduating as a doctor, her work in medicine and anthropology, her experience with children in the asylums of Rome, and study of other physicians’ works on the treatment of children, she believed in the need for special schools for the education and training of mentally challenged and emotionally disturbed children.
In the fall of 1899, as a specialist and authority on the nervous diseases of children, she was appointed as a lecturer in hygiene and anthropology at one of the two teacher training colleges for women in Italy. By 1900, Montessori was appointed director of a new medical-pedagogical institute to train teachers in the care and education of disadvantaged children. She used her special “method” of observation and hands-on, practical exercises to teach children how to read and write. These handicapped children were able to pass state examinations, scoring as well or better than non-handicapped children.
In 1901, Maria left the institute, proclaiming years later that she wanted to educate herself in the education of non-handicapped children. She lectured at universities, taught, practiced medicine in hospitals, and prepared papers about health, education, and social problems and reforms, including child health, education, and women’s rights for equality.
Using her previous experience in child education and taking on this new challenge, she developed and practiced her “Montessori” educational methods and materials. Maria opened her first classroom “Casa dei Bambini” (Children’s House) in the ghetto of San Lorenzo, Rome in 1907.
In the coming year, a second Children’s House was opened and visited by educators, journalists, religious leaders, and royalty who were impressed by these children who showed genuine interest in their work and play, displayed good manners, and participated enthusiastically in the care and maintenance of their environment.
In these classrooms, Maria experimented successfully in teaching children to write and read before the age of six, prior to when instruction was provided to first-graders in public schools.
Creating her own letters made of paper cut-outs and sandpaper, she taught the children to trace the letters with their fingers, and then with chalk or pencil, in order to learn the phonetics of each letter and then to write.
Later, Maria cut paper into little cards and wrote the names of classroom objects on the cards. She placed the cards in front of each object. By deciphering the sound of each letter, the children were able to string the sounds together until they comprehended the word and read. It was remarkable to all how quickly the children could learn to write and read.
At the heart of Maria Montessori’s child-centered method are these beliefs:
1. Observe and respect each individual child—”help them to help themselves.”
2. Develop the “whole” child—focus on advancing the physical, cognitive, social and emotional well-being of each child during sensitive periods of development, especially the critical stages from birth to age six.
3. Nurture and develop a child’s natural, innate interests and abilities at their own pace.
4. Encourage hands-on practical engagement and direct interaction with their environment for uninterrupted periods of time.
5. Create a classroom that is orderly and right-sized to the child—small tables and chairs; accessible shelves, purposeful activities, and practical materials; plants and other articles of nature.
6. Provide children the freedom to move about and select activities of their own choice.
7. Engage children in activities and “exercises of practical life,” such as washing dishes, sweeping, preparing food, cleaning up, and watering plants
8. Foster independence, self-reliance, creativity, and a love for learning where teachers are guiding observers to help the child do for themselves.
Maria believed that through exploration and discovery, children inherently love to learn by doing rather than by traditional instruction.
“A man is not what he is because of the teachers he has had, but because of what he has done…the teacher teaches little and observes much; it is her function to direct the psychic activity of the children and their physiological development.”
Maria dedicated her life to impact and improve the lives of children as a doctor, researcher, scientist, lecturer, teacher, mother, grandmother, philosopher, philanthropist, spiritualist, and humanitarian.
From the educational philosophy, curriculum, and materials she developed, along with more than five decades of teaching, writing, and lecturing, sprang a new and better way to educate children that flourishes today with more than 20,000 Montessori schools worldwide.
Maria died May 6, 1952, shortly before her eighty-second birthday. Her legacy lives on.
“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… Let us treat them with all the kindness which we would wish to help to develop in them.”—Maria Montessori
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Dr. Montessori’s legacy continues at Apple Montessori Schools, founded by Rex and Jane Bailey in 1972.
Jane, a Montessori teacher who emigrated from Scotland, opened one of the first Montessori schools in Northern New Jersey, inspired to give her own young children an education that was beyond what was available in traditional schools. Her husband Rex, also at the forefront of education as a two-term public School Board President, understood the importance of critical periods for learning in early childhood.
Together, along later with their four daughters and two sons-in-law, they now successfully operate 15 award-winning Apple Montessori Schools throughout New Jersey.
For more than 45 years, they have taught tens of thousands of children in their infant care, toddler, preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school programs.
Like Maria Montessori, the Bailey family believes in the development and education of the “whole child” to achieve his or her full potential and exercise a life-long love of learning. To learn more, please visit https://www.applemontessorischools.com/about-us-overview/
Book: Kramer, Rita. 1976, Maria Montessori, A Biography, Delacorte Press. http://www.ritakramer.com/maria_montessori__a_biography_31080.htm