“The child is both a hope and a promise for mankind.”
So said Dr. Maria Montessori, the famed Italian physicist, scientist, and educator. It was this belief that became for her a profound philosophy, and led her to establish her remarkable Montessori Method.
But what is the real history of Montessori education? How did this extraordinary educational program come to be?
Let’s go back a hundred years or more to the beginning of the twentieth century, and examine the history of the Montessori Method of early childhood education.
The Montessori Method Is Born
The answer to the question of who Maria Montessori was has much to do with her lifelong interest in education and child development.
Maria Montessori was a remarkable figure in the early history of the twentieth century. In 1896, she graduated with honors from the Sapienza University of Rome as a doctor of medicine—a testament to her intelligence and ambition.
Dr. Montessori’s early career, in the late 1890s and early years of the twentieth century, involved what were known as “phrenasthenic” children.
Her life during the early 1900s continued in the fields of pedagogy and working with mentally disabled children. In a way, this interest paralleled the interests of Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was the founder of the famed Waldorf Schools, and a fellow member of The Theosophical Society.
Maria Montessori’s enthusiasm for early childhood education grew. At last, she decided to return to the University of Rome. Here, she studied anthropology and educational philosophy. She evolved her own educational method—”scientific pedagogy.”
Then, in 1906, she was invited to look after the care and education of a group of children. This was in San Lorenzo in Rome, a poor, inner-city district.
It was the beginning of the Montessori Method.
The Casa dei Bambini
On January 6, 1907, Dr. Montessori opened the Casa dei Bambini—”Children’s House.”
It was a unique pedagogical experiment. It also furnished Dr. Montessori with all the materials she would need to further refine her educational program. The truth was, the children in the Casa dei Bambini were deemed uneducable. At the least, they were not thought to be the “smart kids.”
Nothing could have been further from the truth. As a result of their prior upbringing, the children were unruly to begin with. But they soon became keen learners and adapted well to the learned doctor’s pedagogical techniques.
The curriculum included the use of puzzles, hands-on experiences, and practical activities. These included preparing meals and keeping their classroom and environments clean. Some of these exercises were quite wide ranging. The could include gymnastics, care for pets, basic hygiene techniques, and cooking.
And emphasis was also placed on the children’s autonomy. The children wandered throughout the schoolroom’s various areas. They were also encouraged to become self motivated.
To the surprise of all, the children became disciplined and motivated to learn and achieve—and largely through their own efforts. Dr. Montessori determined that children should be treated as individuals. When allowed a degree of independence, discipline and academic success followed naturally.
The Montessori Program Gains Worldwide Notice
The Casa dei Bambini was a spectacular success.
News of the program soon spread throughout the length and breadth of Italy, and attracted attention from around the world. The children of Dr. Montessori’s first Casa were described as “miracle children.” People were astonished that such young children demonstrated unusual concentration and discipline.
By the end of 1907, two more schools employing the Montessori Method were opened: another in San Lorenzo, and a third in Milan. Meanwhile, within a few years, educators from around the world had flocked to learn from the miracle-worker herself. This included teachers from as far away as Chile and Australia.
In 1909, Dr. Montessori published her first book on the method. It was entitled Il Metodo della Pedagogia Scientifica applicato all’educazione infantile nelle Case dei Bambini. The book laid out all the principles whereby the Montessori Method was to be implemented.
Within just a few years, it had been translated into ten languages—including English, under the title The Montessori Method. In 1911, the first Montessori school was established in the United States, in Tarrytown, New York.
Montessori in America
The development of the Montessori Method in the United States took a rather different course than the first Casa dei Bambini in San Lorenzo.
For one thing, the schools in Italy were intended for the underprivileged children in the inner-city districts of Rome. But it was very different in America. The Montessori schools in the US, however, were aimed toward the children of very wealthy parents.
In 1915, the now-famous educator returned to attend the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Among the exhibits of this showcase of the human future was the so-called “Glass House.” This was a Montessori classroom with glass walls so that visitors could see the Method at work.
The Mission Continues
Thanks in large part to the efforts of a New York teacher named Nancy McCormick Rambusch, the Montessori Method is alive in well in the United States today.
Montessori schools are expanding around the world, including in China, where demand has outpaced supply for many years now. There are numerous bilingual and faith-based Montessori classrooms. And the program works diligently to cater to the needs of local communities.
We hope you enjoyed this article on the history and development of Maria Montessori’s remarkable educational theories and programs. And while you’re here, please check out the rest of our site for more education news and info.