Maria Montessori was born on August 31,1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy, in the seaport province of Ancona. Her father was an accountant with the government, a conservative man who came from a military background. Maria’s mother was well educated - unusual for women at that time - and a voracious reader.
Maria Montessori was an inquisitive and determined child. These character traits would bode well for her in life and in her career. When most young girls did not go on to secondary school, Maria graduated from technical school and went on to enroll in the University of Rome.
She studied children’s medicine at the university, and became particularly interested in psychiatry, and performed research at the clinic of the university. On July 10, 1896, Maria Montessori received her medical degree earning the title of dottoressa, the first female doctor in Italy.
Maria Montessori immersed herself in her work. She was an assistant at two hospitals, opened up her own clinic and continued to do research at the University of Rome’s clinic. In 1897, she was asked to be an assistant doctor at the University. Maria worked in the asylums at the University of Rome. The asylums were homes for people with mental illnesses. She was particularly drawn to the children there who were locked up in darkened asylums to eat and sleep in, and with nothing to play with.
In those blank, barren rooms, Maria became convinced these children shouldn’t be locked up, but should be in a special school - a school with experiences and materials they could explore with all their senses. She lectured through Italy and talked to others in her profession about her observations and research.
In the fall of 1899, a new school was opening up in Rome to train teachers to work with children who had mental and emotional problems. The teachers would work with 22 children who would attend school there. Maria was asked to be one of two directors needed to run the school. This is where she would begin to work directly with the children, and begin to develop her Montessori method of teaching children.
Maria Montessori would observe the children during the day, take notes, and then make models of teaching materials at night, which she eventually had manufactured. The children worked with the materials in deep concentration, and flourished under her care. Word spread of the school’s success, and Maria became a well known authority on teaching children with special needs.
She left the training school in 1901, and returned to the University of Rome. She wanted to understand more about how children learn from an anthropological, philosophical, and psychological perspective. Maria Montessori began to believe even more strongly in her scientific method of education. She lectured extensively, wanting the schools in Italy to change their educational model of “teaching” children.
Toward the end of 1906, Maria Montessori was asked by the “Director General of the Roman Association of Good Buildings” to take on the responsibility of schooling the young children of the working poor located in tenements in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. The Director spoke of a “home school”, working with the children from three to six years old who were too young to attend traditional school, and would be left home alone while their parents worked. Maria Montessori was delighted with this concept, and agreed to this responsibility. The school was named Casa dei Bambini - Children’s House - and opened its doors on January 6, 1907.
Working with children deemed “normal”, Maria could observe if her scientific method of education that worked with the mentally challenged at the asylum would also be effective with all children. Her methodology focused on observation of the child, preparing the environment to meet the child’s needs, and changing the environment and materials to help a child reach his or her full physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual potential. She believed that each child was unique, to be respected, and was to be accepted unconditionally as a true marvel of life.
The children from Casa dei Bambini flourished in this setting, and word spread. Teachers, doctors, and journalists were coming to see the school less than a year after opening its doors. The Director opened up more Children’s Houses in other tenements and they also were successful. Soon, Children’s Houses were opening up all over the world.
Maria Montessori continued to travel and lecture extensively, and wrote many books on her method of education. Maria spoke often of her vision for peace, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize in 1949, 1950, and 1951.
On May 6, 1952, she died in Holland, however, her revolutionary method of education lives on today. Maria Montessori believed in an education for life and in “awakening the soul of the child.” As she eloquently stated in her book, The Absorbent Mind, “.. the child is not an inert being who owes everything he can do to us, as if he were an empty vessel that we have to fill. No it is the child who makes the man, and no man exists who was not made by the child who once he was.”
Sources: The Discovery of the Child by Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori, and Maria Montessori, A Biography by Rita Kramer