Dr. Maria Montessori is a name that bears familiarity but little knowledge. While her last name is ascribed to the term universally associated with early education, we know little to nothing about the woman who holds it.

Born in 1870, Dr. Maria Montessori graduated from the University of Rome with a degree in medicine. She first attracted attention for her lectures on the societal responsibility for mentally disabled children, urging the state for special classes and institutions for these children and their teachers. Her case, scientific argument and lectures won her the appointment of councilor to the newly formed National League for the Protection of Retarded Children.

From there, she co-directed the newly formed “medico-pedagogical institute” for training teachers in educating mentally disabled children with an attached laboratory classroom. 64 teachers enrolled in the first class, studying psychology, anatomy and physiology of the nervous system, anthropological measurements, causes and characteristics of mental disability, and special methods of instruction. During her two years at the school, Montessori developed methods and materials which she would later adapt to use with mainstream children.

Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.

Her first school opened in 1906 at the request for her to oversee the care of a poor, inner-city district of Rome. The children’s parents lived in a new apartment building for low-income families. Montessori was interested in applying her work and methods to mentally normal children, and she accepted.

In this first classroom, Montessori observed behaviors in these young children which formed the foundation of her educational method. She noted episodes of deep attention and concentration, multiple repetitions of activity, and a sensitivity to order in the environment.

Given free choice of activity, the children showed more interest in practical activities and Montessori’s materials than in toys provided for them, and were surprisingly unmotivated by sweets and other rewards. Over time, she saw a spontaneous self-discipline emerge.

Based on her observations, Montessori implemented a number of practices that became hallmarks of her educational philosophy and method. She replaced the heavy furniture with child-sized tables and chairs light enough for the children to move, and placed child-sized materials on low, accessible shelves. She expanded the range of practical activities such as sweeping and personal care to include a wide variety of exercises for care of the environment and the self, including flower arranging, hand washing, gymnastics, care of pets, and cooking.

She also included large open air sections in the classroom encouraging children to come and go as they please in the room’s different areas and lessons.

She felt by working independently children could reach new levels of autonomy and become self-motivated to reach new levels of understanding. Montessori also came to believe that acknowledging all children as individuals and treating them as such would yield better learning and fulfilled potential in each particular child. She began to see independence as the aim of education, and the role of the teacher as an observer and director of children’s innate psychological development.

The child has a different relation to his environment from ours… the child absorbs it. The things he sees are not just remembered; they form part of his soul. He incarnates in himself all in the world about him that his eyes see and his ears hear.

The first Casa dei Bambini was a success, and a second was opened on April 7, 1907. The children in her programs continued to exhibit concentration, attention, and spontaneous self-discipline, and the classrooms began to attract the attention of prominent educators, journalists, and public figures

As early as 1909, Montessori’s work began to attract the attention of international observers and visitors. Her work was widely published internationally, and spread rapidly. By the end of 1911, Montessori education had been officially adopted in public schools in Italy and Switzerland, and was planned for the United Kingdom.

In 1911 and 1912, Montessori’s work was popular and widely publicized in the United States, especially in a series of articles in McClure’s Magazine, and the first North American Montessori school was opened in October 1911, in Tarrytown, New York. The inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his wife became proponents of the method and a second school was opened in their Canadian home.

While the history of Dr. Montessori is not only impressive but fascinating, what I’m most intersted in, however, are the lessons she can teach us about children and ourselves. For she believed, “A child is mysterious and powerful and contains within himself the secret of human nature.” And I believe that if we can understand children better, we can understand ourselves better. Below are some of her most profound insights into the education and formation of children.

Lesson 1: Do not tell them how to do it. Show them how to do it and do not say a word. If you tell them, they will watch your lips move. If you show them, they will want to do it themselves.

Lesson 2: Children have an anxious concern for living beings, and the satisfaction of this instinct fills them with delight. It is therefore easy to interest them in taking care of plants and especially of animals. Nothing awakens foresight in a small child such as this. When he knows that animals have need of him, that little plants will dry up if he does not water them, he binds together with a new thread of love today’s passing moments with those of the morrow.

Lesson 3: Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.

Lesson 4: Children become like the things they love.

Lesson 5: The adult works to improve his environment while the child works to improve himself.

Lesson 6: Let the children be free; encourage them; let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and when the grass of the meadows is wet with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet; let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade; let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning.

Lesson 7: The adult ought never to mold the child after himself, but should leave him alone and work always from the deepest comprehension of the child himself.

Lesson 8: Respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and try to understand them.

Lesson 9: The child will reveal himself through work.

Lesson 10: Growth comes from activity, not from intellectual understanding.

Lesson 11: There must be provision for the child to have contact with nature; to understand and appreciate the order, the harmony and the beauty in nature.

Lesson 12: As soon as children find something that interests them they lose their instability and learn to concentrate.

Lesson 13: A child’s work is to create the person she/he will become.

Lesson 14: It is not in human nature for all men to tread the same path of development, as animals do of a single species.

Lesson 15: Order is one of the needs of life which, when it is satisfied, produces a real happiness.

Lesson 16: The child is much more spiritually elevated than is usually supposed. He often suffers, not from too much work, but from work that is unworthy of him.

Lesson 17: The child, in fact, once he feels sure of himself, will no longer seek the approval of authority after every step.

Lesson 18: The more the capacity to concentrate is developed, the more often the profound tranquility in work is achieved, then the clearer will be the manifestation of discipline within the child.

Lesson 19: The child’s parents are not his makers but his guardians.

Founder of Words of Women

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