Maria Montessori, born in 1870, was the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree. She worked in the fields of psychiatry, education and anthropology. She believed that each child is born with a unique potential to be revealed, rather than as a “blank slate” waiting to be written upon.
Her main contributions to the work of those of us raising and educating children are in these areas:
- Preparing the most natural and life supporting environment for the child
- Observing the child living freely in this environment
- Continually adapting the environment in order that the child may fulfill his greatest potential – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually
At age thirteen, against the wishes of her father but with the support of her mother, she began to attend a boys’ technical school. After seven years of engineering she began pre-med and, in 1896 became a physician. In her work at the University of Rome psychiatric clinic Dr. Montessori developed an interest in the treatment of special needs children and, for several years she worked, wrote, and spoke on their behalf.
In 1907 she was given the opportunity to study “normal” children, taking charge of fifty less-privileged children of the dirty, desolate streets of the San Lorenzo slum on the outskirts of Rome. The news of the unprecedented success of her work in this Casa dei Bambini “House of Children” soon spread around the world; people coming from far and wide to see the children for themselves. Dr. Montessori was as astonished as anyone at the realized potential of these children.
Invited to the USA by Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and others, Dr. Montessori spoke at Carnegie Hall in 1915. She was invited to set up a classroom at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, where spectators watched twenty-one children all new to this Montessori Method behind a glass wall for four months. The only two gold medals awarded for education went to this class, and the education of young children was altered forever.
Since her death an interest in Dr. Montessori’s methods have continue to spread throughout the world. Her message to those who emulated her was always to turn one’s attention to the child, to “follow the child”. It is because of this basic tenet, and the observation guidelines left by her, that Dr. Montessori’s ideas will never become obsolete.
The potential of the child is not just mental, but is revealed only when the complete “Montessori Method” is understood and followed. The child’s choice, practical work, care of others and the environment, and above all the high levels of concentration reached when work is respected and not interrupted, reveal a human being that is superior not only academically, but emotionally and spiritually, a child who cares deeply about other people and the world, and who works to discover a unique and individual way to contribute. This is the essence of real “Montessori” work today.
(Adapted from an article written by NAMTA@2005, and is reprinted with consent. All rights reserved.)