Montessori Basics: What Is Montessori?

Everywhere I go, I find that people are interested in Montessori education. But most of them aren’t exactly sure what it is. I get these kinds of questions: Is it exclusively for smart children? Is it for developmentally disabled children? The classes are always taught in foreign languages, right?

Oh, that’s the one where children run around and do what they want, isn’t it? So, here’s the Montessori method in a nutshell.

Maria’s early life

Maria Montessori was born in Italy in the late 1800’s. She was an only child, extremely intelligent, and very ambitious. She was determined to go to medical school, even though no other woman had ever done so in Italy. Facing enormous discrimination, she persevered to graduate and become the first woman doctor in Italy.

At one point during her medical training, she was required to observe some children that the government had classified as mentally retarded. These children were kept in the ward of a mental institution, and had no toys or other outside stimulation.

She noticed that they were so desperate for activities, they would pick crumbs up off the floor and roll them around in their fingers. She began to use some basic materials with them, and after a few months they were able to pass a state test – and even score higher than many normal children!

The first casa

The Italian authorities were quite impressed, and asked Maria to open a casa (or preschool, which was a new concept) in one of Italy’s poorest neighborhoods. At that time, children didn’t go to school until the age of six or seven, where they sat on hard benches and copied information of a chalkboard. Maria decided to throw out all existing ideas of how children learned and simply observe the children, letting them teach her about themselves.

What she discovered was astonishing. Children as young as two or three were interested in phonetic sounds – especially when they were presented with hands-on materials, like sandpaper letters for them to trace with their fingers. They loved cleaning – not playing house, but actually sweeping, scrubbing, and cooking. They loved order and neatness, and when given the right environment, could concentrate on materials that taught counting, sorting, sounds, geometric shapes, texture, and many other concepts.

The Montessori method begins to grow

Her ideas spread through her lectures and the books she authored, and people around the world began visiting her schools in Italy to see how they were run. In 1912 she visited the United States for the first time, and as a result of her visit, an American Montessori Association was formed with Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell as president and Miss Margaret Wilson, President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, as secretary.

In 1915 she returned to the US, this time to give a training course in California. During this visit a Montessori classroom was set up at the San Francisco World’s Fair; the children worked behind a wall of glass so visitors could observe their work. It became an extremely popular attraction, as people marveled at the concentration and abilities of the students.

Picture of Maria Montessori

Montessori today

If one word could sum up her method, it would be respect. Respect for the mind of the child, combined with a thoughtfully prepared environment and a Montessori trained-teacher, produces children who are confident, curious, and independent.

In today’s Montessori classroom, children use all of the same materials Maria developed, and the results are similar across countries and cultures. Children develop traits like a love of reading, an interest in every kind of topic, the ability to find information independently, and a deep sense of community and responsibility.

A well-run Montessori classroom is an amazing sight: children going to each other for help, looking up answers in reference books on their own, completing work and putting it back on the shelf, then choosing another – all without ever glancing at the teacher.

One of my favorite quotes from Maria Montessori’s writings is this: “A child’s work is to create the man he will become. An adult works to perfect the environment, but a child works to perfect himself”.

For more information, check out my other Montessori Basics blog posts.