Early Childhood Education

Montessori, Maria (1878-1952)

 

The lifetime efforts of Maria Montessori influenced the worldwide shift from rigid authoritarian methods of parenting and education toward those that considered the needs and interests of each individual child.

Maria Montessori was born in the Italian province of Ancona on August 32, 1870. Her father was a government official who moved the family to Rome when she was five. Her lifetime can be viewed through historical periods. She was born the year that Italy became a united country with a strong feminist movement. In 1896, she became the first woman graduate of the University of Rome medical school. A month later, she was featured in many newspapers as Italian representative at the Women’s International Congress in Berlin. Upon her return to Rome, she opened a private practice as a physician, taught in women’s colleges, and became involved with other endeavors. When she began to work with institutions for “deficient” children, she developed a program based upon the writings of Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, and others. It was designed to satisfy children’s inner needs for learning as integral to the development of individual personality and their accomplishments soon gained widespread attention. (Stevens, 1913, p. 7).

After the worldwide depression of the 1890s, some apartment complexes for low-income workers in Rome were rehabilitated. A “children’s house” for daytime supervision was included in one of them. When Montessori became its director when it opened in 1907, she continued experimenting with ways to facilitate children’s learning through self-activity. Within months, articles describing the unique “Casa dei Bambini” appeared in popular magazines and newspapers. This began a lifetime of publications and worldwide lectures, as detailed in biographies by Lillard (1996), Kramer (1976) and others.

Although she spoke only in Italian, Montessori gave ten well-attended public lectures in American cities in 1913, organized a demonstration class, and presented papers at the San Francisco World’s Fair and the National Educational Association conference in 1915, and returned for more lectures in 1917. During these visits, she made friends with such notables as Alexander Graham Bell and the daughter of President Woodrow Wilson.

Despite this initial welcome, interest in her system was temporary in the United States. University faculty and other professionals either ignored her work or wrote negative criticism, with a book by William Kilpatrick (1914) having a devastating effect. Classroom teachers adopted some materials and techniques, but saw her method as simply another version of their Froebelian kindergarten. Her complex beliefs were couched in flowery Italian, not the scientific terminology that was becoming popular with psychologists, and translations were often inaccurate. Another problem was that she spoke only of her own new concepts, which meant that her inclusion of active outdoor play, art, and music were not recognized. Although the first Montessori schools in the United States were opened by women who had studied with her in Italy, the focus was often upon the didactic materials rather than her entire philosophy.

Montessori also fell from public favor because, like many feminists, she wanted to be a mother without marital restrictions. With the collaboration of Dr. Montesano, a colleague at the Orthophrenic School, son Mario was born in 1898. He spent his childhood with a foster family and in a boarding school. She had no siblings, but she introduced him as her adopted nephew when he accompanied her to California in 1915. Despite this, acceptance of Montessori’s methods can be attributed to her son. By the 1920s, when Mario recognized her inability to manage financial affairs, he became her business manager. He scheduled their activities and developed commercial production of her didactic apparatus. In 1929, he organized the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) and he coordinated global activities from its Amsterdam office until his death in 1982. His son and other family members continue that mission.

Preoccupation with World War I was an additional reason that Montessori was ignored in the United States. However, in 1917 she opened a research institute in Spain and in 1919 began a series of training courses in London. Mussolini persuaded her to coordinate an Italian educational program in 1922, but increased emphasis upon Fascism caused her to move back to Spain in 1934. When the Spanish Civil War erupted two years later, the Montessori family was evacuated on a British naval vessel. She opened a training center in the Netherlands in 1938, then conducted courses in India during the World War II years of 1938 to 1940. Her book on The Absorbent Mind was written after observing the contrast between the impersonally rigid infant care in Europe and the close physical contact maintained by Asian mothers. She returned to India in 1947 to open the Montessori University in Madras. Her last public address was in 1951, when she attended the International Montessori Congress in London. After decades of moving from place to place, she acquired an apartment in Amsterdam, which is now the AMI headquarters. It was about this time that someone asked her where she considered her home to be. Her often-quoted response was “My country is a star which turns around the sun and is called Earth.”

After Montessori returned to Amsterdam, her previous efforts toward peace education were intensified. There was a standing ovation when she spoke at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1949, expressing again her belief that civilization depends upon children being given their rightful place in society while learning to fit into it. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, 1950, and 1951. At the time of her sudden death in 1952, she was scheduling further travel to promote peace.

From 1913 onward, many concepts promoted by Montessori were integrated into parental practices and early childhood programs in America. These include active involvement by the child, self-selection of materials, self-pacing within a structured environment, and the role of facilitative adults instead of authoritarians. The resurgence of interest in Montessori schools began in 1958, with the first one in Greenwich, Connecticut. Nancy Rambush (1962/1998) was a leader in the effort to adapt the original European version of Montessori education to one more appropriate in America. It emphasized the role of parents and introduced other materials to supplement those of traditional Montessori schools. Her goal was to advance the system, and she correctly described the result as phenomenal. Nienhuis Montessori publications and materials continue to serve public and private schools worldwide. In addition to accredited and self-designated Montessori schools and teacher training programs functioning around the globe, her ideas about peace education, sensitive periods, and play as the child’s work have been verified by countless research studies.

Further Readings: Association of Montessori International (AMI) (1970). Maria Montessori, A centenary anthology. Amsterdam: AMI. Available online at www.montessori-ami.org; Kilpatrick, William Heard (1914). The Montessori system examined. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press; Kramer, Rita (1976). Maria Montessori. New York: G.P. Putnam s Sons; Lillard, Paula P. (1996). Montessori today. New York: Random House; Montessori, Maria (1949). The absorbent mind. Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House; Rambusch, Nancy (1962/1998). Learning to learn: An American approach to Montessori. Baltimore: Helicon/New York: American Montessori Society; Stevens, Ellen Yale (1913). A guide to the Montessori method. New York: Frederick Stokes.

Web Site: For reprints of early publications, see the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association Web site, www.montessori-namta.org.

Dorothy W. Hewes