Maria Montessori was the first woman to become a medical doctor in Italy. Born in 1870 she lived through two world wars and passed on in 1952 at the age of 82. During World War II she saw all her life’s work in Italy destroyed by the Fascists. Twice she had to escape for her life and spent the remainder of the war training teachers in India under the British. As part of her mission she traveled all over the world speaking on behalf of the developmental needs of children. She was convinced that if children could get what they needed developmentally, we could be much closer to a truly peaceful world. Today Montessori schools are established on every continent except Antarctica.
In her twenties and thirties Dr. Montessori had a regular medical practice serving women and children. She was also an educator. With other doctors she developed the first facility and school in Italy for children with physical or emotional disabilities. In 1896, when she received her medical degree, all children in Italy with developmental or emotional problems were traditionally housed in large rooms with adults. Clearly seeing the need for a separate facility for children, she petitioned the queen. The facility was built. During this period she studied how developmentally disabled and other handicapped children could learn. She had great success bringing their physical, mental and emotional development up to the level of normal preschool children of that time. While continuing her medical practice, she then completed a Ph.D. in anthropology and became the first head of the anthropology department at theUniversityofRome.
Montessori’s calling was to work with children among the poorest little ones on the streets of Rome. One focus of her teaching was a slum that was an embarrassment to the city. A development project went bankrupt and the partially-constructed apartments had been taken over by the poorest in the city. Besides the homeless, many poor parents in the slum worked long hours in factories and their babies and little ones wandered the streets. The Queen asked Montessori to help create a program for these children. She was given a large room on the ground floor with a roof terrace where the children could safely play. It became the first Montessori school which she called Casa Dei Bambini or Children’s House. It is still a Montessori school today.
Montessori was exceptionally well-trained as a scientist to observe and respond to the developmental needs of children. Over the next two to three years Montessori observed these children, worked with them and created materials to further their development at many levels. These same materials are in Montessori schools today.
But even more important than her scientific abilities, Montessori had a heart that could attune to the small child. She witnessed and understood the basic drive for self-development that underlies each child’s behavior. To encourage this individual love of learning, she created an environment where these natural drives are not only allowed but also encouraged to function unimpeded to promote the child’s happiness, self confidence and natural fulfillment. She also created a tiny community where children naturally and gently, day by day, developed patience, manners, the ability to focus, concentrate and share, and an awareness of others. This process took a minimum of three years. Montessori then found that about the age of six, the children displayed new characteristics and developmental needs. Thus, over the years she developed a new environment, lessons and materials to meet the needs of these growing young people.