Dr. Maria Montessori was the first female physician in Italy at the turn of the century. At that time this was an amazing accomplishment. However, becoming a medical doctor was only the first step in her long, successful career. She began her professional research, involving children, with observations of mentally retarded children, and was greatly influenced by the work of Itard and Seguin.
In 1901 she seemed to be at the high point of her career, when actually, she was still preparing for an unknown future. She felt a need for further study and re-enrolled in the University of Rome to study philosophy, psychology, and anthropology.
In 1906, she was 36 years of age, an educator, writer, lecturer, and medical doctor. The stage was set. She started a school for underprivileged children in the San Lorenzo district of Rome.
Since funding allowed only office style furnishings, she contracted a carpenter to make smaller, child-sized furniture and equipment of her own design. She began this trial school with 60 unruly children, under the age of six. As she worked, she observed and modified, modified and observed. Within six months, her results were phenomenal. She began attracting countrywide attention.
These children displayed self-discipline, preferred learning materials to toys, worked with a profound concentration and joy. They had a love for order, respected their environment, and enjoyed working in silence beside their friends. The children would carry on "business as usual" with or without the teacher's presence.
Gradually, her work became known and practiced worldwide. She refused to patent her name or work because she wanted to see it grow freely, and it has, for better or for worse. Sometimes the name "Montessori" has been used in schools where the method is practiced incorrectly.
Regardless, the books she wrote, the materials she developed, and the discoveries she made, have greatly influenced the early childhood programs of today. There was wisdom in her decision to allow the method to evolve.
Maria Montessori was a genius before her time. She believed the child's mind from birth to six years is different from the adult's and labeled it "an absorbent mind".
The child effortlessly soaks in everything in his culture and environment. Modern scientists are almost a century later, now finding scientific data to support her discoveries. She saw a tremendous need for the child to have respectful and intelligent help during this absorbent mind stage.
She saw the child as constantly unfolding and developing himself, and saw the adults that were trying to train him as obstacles to his process. Her life work could be summed up as defining the nature of the child and the role of the adult in helping him, thus easing the tug-of-war, which exists when two completely different natures meet:
The child loves concentration the adult entertains, distracts or interrupts him.
The teacher in this prepared environment respects his concentration and allows him to complete it. This involves everything from watching a bug on the windowsill to drops of water on a table.
The child loves repetition the adult becomes bored with it.
Montessori allows this freedom, with respect, as the child perfects his movements.
The child loves order the adult provides a toy box,
which can afford nothing but disorder. Try keeping your kitchen organized within a toy box. Again the prepared environment offers shelves with neatly arranged activities always in the same place.
The child thrives on the freedom to choose his activities the adult likes everyone to do the same thing at the same time.
The prepared environment offers the solution. "This is my work - yours is on the shelf." With this freedom to choose comes the responsibility to return it to the shelf correctly.
Children prefer work (learning) to play (toys) adults don't.
A child's "work" is his preparation for life: hopefully when he matures he will enjoy his work for he has perfected what he likes to do best.
Children don't need rewards adults like to think they do.
Accomplishment and creativity are reward enough. A child is self-motivated at his age and, with the right environment, will remain so as he grows.
Children love silence adults demand it.
The Montessori environment creates an awareness of silence. "Let me see if you can tip-toe away so quietly I can still hear the birds chirping."
On and on her discoveries go toward providing a practical way to a peaceful coexistence with children.
Maria Montessori developed materials for refining the senses. The materials help the child to discriminate sound, color, shape, smell, and touch. While the manufactured materials are expensive, some can be home - made and get the same results.
The materials, in the classroom area, called "practical life", deal with using the child's love of movement, concentration and repetition. The activities involve pouring, sweeping, dressing, stacking, folding, wiping, polishing, and washing that include care of the environment, care of the self, and grace and courtesy. Conversational manners, table manners, and courtesy to others are all part of the activities in a Montessori classroom.
Her math equipment is regarded by many as the most complete available. Four-year-olds can have a thorough understanding of the decimal system effortlessly. Some of the reading exercises are handmade and can be supplemented at home.
There are also geography, music, art, science and history materials. The method is adaptable to all subjects. All Montessori exercises employ movement, manipulation, free choice (with limits) and a point of completion. They are usually self-correcting.
Maria Montessori was a wonderfully gifted individual who was ahead of her time. She unfolded many of the mysteries, not only of childhood, but also of human nature. Her books are read all over the world, in many different languages.