The Montessori method of education is named after Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952), one of Italy’s first female physicians. In 1907, she helped open a small school for 3- to 6-year-olds in the slums of San Lorenzo in Rome, using educational materials she had adapted and developed in her earlier work with mentally handicapped children. She called this first classroom “Casa dei Bambini,” or Children’s House. These children, the poorest of the poor, came every day to the simple, beautiful classroom with white walls, tables and chairs sized for them, green grass in the courtyard outside, and a teacher who would show them the materials Dr. Montessori had developed.
Montessori began to observe a change within the children: “…little by little, the children began to work with concentration and the transformation they underwent was noticeable. From timid and wild as they were before, the children became sociable and communicative…their personalities grew and, strange though it may seem, they showed extraordinary understanding, activity, vivacity and confidence. They were happy and joyous.”
News of the remarkable children began to spread. People from Italy and Europe and around the world began to visit the classroom. No one could believe the children’s transformation until they saw it in person. Even Queen Margherita of Italy’s royal family made her way through the slums of San Lorenzo to see the children; she ended up being a strong supporter and spent many hours observing the children.
In 1909, Montessori published a book describing her work at the Casa dei Bambini that had wide circulation around the world. People came from all over to be trained by her. Montessori schools and societies began to spring up in Italy and in other parts of Europe. Montessori began to lecture and give training courses around the world. Before long, Montessori schools flourished, from China to Canada, from South America to Russia.
Expanding her work beyond her original group of 3- to 6-year olds, Montessori soon began to apply her principles to both younger and older children—birth to three-year-old and ages six and up. The first Montessori elementary schools began in 1916. She developed and refined her methods over the years by observing children and seeing what they most needed and were interested in. Her method reflected a profound respect for the children’s natural development—seeing what they naturally chose to do, and making sure the environment allowed for those tendencies.
The Montessori method in America did not really take off until the 1960s, and has been growing strong since then. The North American Montessori Teachers’ Association estimates there are about 4,500 Montessori schools in the U.S. and about 20,000 worldwide.
The Montessori method is more than an educational method—it is a philosophy of human development and of helping children reach their full potentials. Montessori observed this profound truth: The child, through her own constructive powers, builds the adult she will become. Montessori considered education an “aid to life.”
Perhaps Montessori’s greatest legacy is her reverence and respect for children’s developmental processes, and her methods that help us aid—rather than hinder—the children in their creation of themselves.