Maria Montessori was born August 31, 1870, in the town of Chiaravalle, in the province of Ancona, Italy. Although she was raised to fulfill the traditional role of the Italian woman, she instead pursued an advanced degree at the University of Rome and became the first female physician in Italy upon her graduation from medical school in 1896. Shortly afterwards, she was chosen to represent Italy at two different women’s conferences: in Berlin in 1896 and in London in 1900.
Her interests drew her to work with children in her medical practice. Her clinical observations led her to analyze how children learned, and she concluded that they build themselves from what they find in their environment. Shifting her focus from the body to the mind, she returned to the University of Rome in 1901 to study psychology and philosophy, and in 1904 became a professor of anthropology there. Her desire to help children was so strong, however, that in 1906 she gave up both her university chair and her medical practice to work with a group of sixty young children of working parents in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. It was here that Montessori observed children’s almost effortless ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings, as well as their tireless interest in manipulating materials. These observations ultimately provided the foundation of what developed as the Montessori Method of Education. Every piece of equipment, every exercise, and every method Montessori developed was based on what she observed children to do “naturally,” by themselves, unassisted by adults. Montessori called this classroom Casa dei Bambini, or “Children’s House.”
Maria Montessori made her first visit to the United States in 1913, the same year that Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel founded the Montessori Educational Association at their Washington, DC, home. Among her other strong American supporters were Thomas Edison and Helen Keller. In 1915, she attracted world attention with her “glass house” schoolroom exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. On this second U.S. visit, she also conducted a teacher training course and addressed the annual conventions of both the National Education Association and the International Kindergarten Union. The committee that brought her to San Francisco included Margaret Wilson, the daughter of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
Montessori’s assertion that children thrive in an environment of “self-teaching” and “self-creation” guided her pursuit and development of the “self-creating child” philosophy and her accomplishments continued. The Spanish government invited her to open a research institute in 1917 and in 1919, she began a series of teacher training courses in London. In 1922, she was appointed to the position of a government inspector of schools in her native Italy. Her opposition to Mussolini’s Fascism led to her forced departure from Italy in 1934. She traveled to Barcelona, Spain, and was rescued there by a British cruiser in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. She opened the Montessori Training Centre in Laren, Netherlands, in 1938, and founded a series of teacher training courses in India in 1939.
In 1940, when India entered World War II, she and her son, Mario Montessori, were interned as enemy aliens, but she was still permitted to conduct training courses. Later, she founded the Montessori centre in London (1947). She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, 1950, and 1951. Montessori continued throughout her life to work for the betterment of the lives of children, founding training centres for teachers and dispensing this method of education throughout the world. During her later years, her focus included educating children to promote the principles of peace. Maria Montessori died in Noordwijk, Holland, in 1952, but her work lives on through the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI).
Montessori founded AMI in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 1929 to carry on her work. In light of modern brain development research and educational approaches that help boost learning, many of the principles that Maria Montessori advocated are now promoted as new methods of education. Indeed, today there is a growing consensus among psychologists and developmental educators that many of her ideas were decades ahead of their time. Multi-age classes, hands-on learning using manual manipulation of objects, and peer-learning are all integral components of the Montessori Method established at the turn of the century in Rome within the first Casa dei Bambini, or, “Children’s House”. Within this setting, Montessori used the child’s natural drive to learn, grow, and develop and, following the lead of the child, presented new concepts when the child was ready for them (Sensitive Periods). Today this concept is called “Developmentally Appropriate Learning”. As the movement continues to gain support throughout the world, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Montessori Method of Education, begun almost a century ago, is a remarkably modern and successful approach to learning.