Who Was Maria Montessori?

From educational toys to teaching pedagogy.

Color portrait of Maria Montessori in 1913 sitting at desk reading book.

Maria Montessori is a household name in education. Everyone’s heard of her, but what is she really about? And how did Montessori become someone associated with everything from educational toys to teaching pedagogy? Here’s everything you need to know about Maria Montessori.

Portrait of Maria Montessori in 1897

Source: Zur guten Stunde 1897 via Getty

Trailblazing Teacher

Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy. She moved to Rome when she was young and attended local schools, which were standardized and regimented. When she graduated, she studied engineering, which was a trailblazing move for a woman at the time.

Her parents wanted her to teach, but Montessori wanted to go to medical school. At the time, it was an all-male profession and Maria was refused admission. Instead, in 1890, she enrolled at the University of Rome to study physics, math, and natural sciences. After that, she became one of the first women in Italy to study medicine at the University of Rome.

In 1896, Montessori worked as a voluntary assistant in a psychiatric clinic at the University of Rome. She worked with children with learning disabilities. She noticed that, even in rooms that were sparsely furnished, children were playing with breadcrumbs. This made her wonder if some intellectual disabilities might be connected to poverty, and that with the right materials, all children’s minds could develop successfully.

Dr. Montessori

Black and white portrait of Dr. Maria Montessori

Source: Nationaal Archief 119-0489, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Montessori’s practice involved the poor, particularly children. As part of her work, she visited Rome’s institutions for children with mental disabilities. She noticed how the children were desperate for sensory stimulation and hands-on activities and became interested in working with children who had disabilities.

During this time, Montessori worked with and learned from education pioneer Édouard Séguin, a French doctor who worked with children who had cognitive impairments. He pioneered sensorial education for children with disabilities. Sensorial education involves lessons that develop the five senses. He also emphasized the importance of respecting and understanding the individual child, and he created practical tools and equipment to develop the skills of children with intellectual disabilities.

Montessori also worked at the Orthophrenic School, a school connected with the University of Rome. There, she applied scientific analysis to her work with children. Rather than directing all the time, she observed and took notes on what she saw. In 1904, Montessori started sharing what she was learning through lectures at the Pedagogic School of the University of Rome.

Casa dei Bambini

Maria Montessori qutoe that says: The subject of our study is humanity; our purpose is to become teachers. Now, what really makes a teacher is love for the human child; for it is love that transforms the social duty of the educator into the higher consciousness of a mission.

In 1906, Montessori was invited to create a childcare center in San Lorenzo, a poor, inner-city district in Rome. The goal was simply to keep the kids, who were poor and mostly unschooled, off the street. None of the benefactors had high hopes that the students would actually learn.

The Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) opened on January 6, 1907. The Casa incorporated all the materials and ideas Montessori had learned working with Séguin and the Orthophrenic School. Montessori set up the classroom environment and adjusted it to what the children were interested in. She focused on hands-on learning experiences and materials that children could play with independently.

She found that the students were initially rowdy, but soon settled down and were interested in working with puzzles, learning practical skills like preparing meals, and working with hands-on materials. Montessori wanted the classroom to be a place where kids wanted to learn. Creating in the Casa dei Bambini, Montessori realized that classroom environment made a difference. She noticed that with the right environment, students were calm, deeply focused, and able to teach themselves.

Through her work with Casa dei Bambini, Montessori developed many of the ideas about how children engage with the world, what classrooms should look and feel like, and the characteristic Montessori materials.

The First Casas

At the time, Montessori’s approach to education was dramatically different than what people were used to. The children at her Casa dei Bambini made great progress.

Montessori’s quick successes made Casa dei Bambini intriguing to other education pioneers. Montessori’s approach quickly spread around Italy and to the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. Within five years, there were Montessori schools on five continents. She wrote The Montessori Method in 1909, a book that had a major influence in education. By 1910, there were Montessori schools located in western Europe and around the world. The first U.S. Montessori school opened in 1911.

Refining Montessori

Color portrait of Maria Montessori in 1913 sitting at desk reading book.

Source: Public Domain, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1910s and ’20s, Montessori continued to think about her model and how it could be applied to elementary-age children and middle schoolers. In particular, she thought middle schoolers should live in residential schools where they could engage in real-world activities like farming and marketing their own goods.

Montessori wanted to create a center for research into her approach to early-years education, but by 1933, she was having a hard time finding a place for this as fascism increased in Europe. By 1933, all the Montessori schools in Germany closed and an effigy of her was burned in Berlin. Dr. Montessori refused to have Montessori schools incorporated into the fascist youth movement. In 1936, when the fascist government took over Spain, where she was living, she had to flee to Britain.

In 1939, Montessori went to India to train teachers but was put under house arrest by the Italian government. While in India, she further developed her theory of Cosmic Education, an approach to educating children ages 6 to 12.

Dr. Montessori’s life experiences influenced her curriculum. She lived through two world wars and incorporated peace education and social justice into the curriculum. In 1949, she received the first of three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. She died in 1952 at home with friends in the Netherlands and her son Mario.

Montessori Today

Children exploring in a Montessori classroom.

Source: KJJS, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Today there are thousands of Montessori schools in the United States and around the world. In the United States, there has also been growth in the types of schools that offer Montessori, including public and charter schools.

Montessori’s influence has spread beyond Montessori schools. We see her theories and ideas across education today:

  • Education as a science: Montessori treated education as a science. Observation, experimentation, and the scientific process have become a regular part of education.
  • Incorporating psychology into education: Montessori was focused on the needs, interests, motivation, and potential of each child.
  • Individualization: Fostering an individual connection with each child was important to Montessori.
  • Freedom for the child: Montessori was the first teacher to focus on student freedom in the classroom.
  • Positive discipline: Montessori’s ideas around moving away from prizes and punishments and toward self-discipline and self-control was revolutionary at the time.
  • Democracy and cooperation: Montessori created schools that involved cooperation and having children engage in everything from serving meals to cleaning rooms.
  • Learning by doing: In Montessori schools, children learn by doing, a concept that is incorporated into many other schools as well.

Additional Maria Montessori Resources

Best Montessori Toys for Kids

Montessori Furniture Guide

What Is a Montessori School?

American Montessori Society

Maria Montessori Biography

Do you teach in a Montessori school? Connect  with other teachers on the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

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Maria Montessori is the educator everyone knows. Here's everything you need to know about this accomplished woman.