Born on August 31, 1870, in Chiaravalle, Italy, Dr. Maria Montessori established herself at an early age as a thinker, scientist and trailblazer. At 14 she attended classes at a boys’ technical institute, where she honed her aptitude and interest in the sciences. In 1896, she graduated with high honors from the medical school at the University of Rome, becoming the first female physician in Italy. Her chosen specialty was pediatrics and psychiatry.
Dr. Montessori began her professional research of children by observing developmentally disabled children, and she was highly influenced by the French physicians Gaspard and Seguin. Through her observations she began to develop her own theories of children’s learning and development, forming her philosophy based on scientific observation, pedagogical experimentation and a deep respect for the child. She “declared two principles as the foundation of the Montessori pedagogy: the universal characteristics of the human child, and the child as a unique, unrepeatable, respectable and admirable individual that was to be unconditionally accepted as one of life’s most marvelous expressions” (Association Montessori Internationale).
Dr. Montessori’s first school, Casa de Bambini, opened in 1907 and served underprivileged children living in the tenements of Rome. The school was furnished with child-sized furniture and materials of her own design. As she worked with the children she observed their interactions with the environment and materials, modifying both where necessary. Soon the children were displaying self-discipline, preferring authentic materials to toys, and working with profound concentration and joy. Children demonstrated a natural affinity for order, took care of their environment and were intrinsically motivated to learn. Based upon her observations, she concluded that the children almost effortlessly absorbed knowledge from their surroundings and were tireless in their interactions with the materials. Word of Casa de Bambini spread, drawing international interest. Gradually Dr. Montessori’s work and pedagogy spread throughout Europe and made its way to America.
By 1925 more than 1,000 Montessori schools had opened in America. Gradually, however, interest in the Montessori approach diminished, and by 1940 only a few Montessori schools remained. During World War II Dr. Montessori and her son, Mario, were forced to flee from Italy to India; it was there that she developed the Education for Peace program. She was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize and is noted for her efforts to foster a more peaceful and harmonious world.
Since the 1960s there has been a resurgence of interest in Montessori education. Today there are Montessori classrooms throughout the United States and the world, teaching generations of children to be independent, motivated, curious and joyful learners.