An idea fundamental to Montessori philosophy is that the child has an innate desire to develop her human potential in all its dimensions. Equally intrinsic to Montessori philosophy is the belief that the young child has an “absorbent” mind. Maria Montessori believed that just as a baby learns to walk and talk spontaneously and without the direction of an adult, so is the child able to absorb and process all sorts of information from her environment, and in effect, to teach herself. Thus, Maria Montessori believed that the primary job of childhood is for the child to “create” herself.
Maria Montessori was the first woman accepted by the University of Rome Medical school and was graduated with honor in 1896. She did a great deal of her early work in children’s wards of the local hospitals and went on to work with retarded children under the supervision of Itard and Seguin, innovative scientists of the time. Using their methods and didactic materials, she worked extensively with the education of these children. At the end of her work with them, many of them passed the state tests on a level with the normal children. Montessori then concluded that there was something wrong with the regular education program and devoted the remainder of her life to studying and improving that education. Many of her recommendations such as movable tables and chairs, the need for special nutrition, and time out of doors came from her background as a physician.
In 1903, Montessori was asked to start a special program which she named “Casa de Bambini” or “Classroom” for the children of working parents in a new public housing area in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. The developers hoped that with organized activities, the children would not mark the walls and be otherwise destructive to the new buildings. By observing these children and their teachers (whom she called Directress) Montessori further developed her philosophy of education.
Through these undertakings, Montessori became aware of the value of a prepared environment, which meets the child’s needs, and of a child’s need for joy in learning. This philosophical framework leads to the Montessori environment: an environment that is carefully planned to include materials that meet the cognitive and developmental needs of the child, and which enable the child to learn through her personal interactions with the environment. Because the child has been prepared for each new material she is able to proceed at her own rate. The self-correcting characteristics of each exercise, combined with the fact that the child has been prepared for each new step, leads to successful experiences which lead to further successful experiences.
Maria Montessori was a true pioneer. Maria lived from 1870 to 1952 (see – Montessori History for more information). Montessori had a particular view of learning. The Montessori philosophy therefore depends on three proponents, each having equal value – the child, the aware adult and the prepared environment.
A) The child is the base. Montessori felt that each child was unique and the child’s mind and process of learning varied throughout the stages of the child’s development.
Birth to age 6 – The child constructs themselves and absorbs their environment The child’s personality is laid down.
Ages 6 to 12 – The child constructs his/her social self. The child begins to socialize with the world, to absorb their culture through interacting, observing and through the use of imagination, and begins to develop a sense of morality.
Ages 12 to 18 – The child continues to construct the moral self. They begin to participate in society and to search for and establish their place in it. The teenager requires protection during this time of great changes and therefore, intellectual pursuits often take second seat to social development.
Ages 18 to 24 – The young adult is preparing themselves for his/her place on earth. They are sustaining and expanding their culture, developing leadership abilities with the goal of becoming responsible, contributing members of society.
B) The aware adult, whether a parent or teacher, acts as an observer, protects the child’s right to learn, models desired behavior, prepares the environment, and also accommodates the needs of the child. In the classroom setting, the adult is neither simply the central authority nor “imparter of knowledge”. When presenting a lesson, the adult’s role is to model the learning activity. This is done in a slow, concise way, modeling care and respect. Different modalities of learning are considered when a lesson is given. That is, when the adult speaks, they are not demonstrating, and when they are modeling, there is little language. In this way the child’s attention can be focused more on what is said or on what is done. The child is then invited to do the task. Most of the Montessori materials are self correcting so that the child can “learn as they go.”
C) The prepared environment is one that encourages exploration and movement (especially for the young child) and will allow “freedom within limits.” The child is shown how to respect the environment, how to make choices and is allowed to develop the abilities of concentration, coordination, and a sense of order and independence. Montessori realized that children first needed concrete objects to hold and manipulate. Subsequent materials would then gradually lead the child to abstraction. The furniture in Montessori classrooms fit the child’s size. An example — tiny, light tables and chairs are available for even the youngest Montessori toddler students. Materials for the child’s use are complete, attractive and available for the child’s choosing. Teacher materials, storage areas and even teachers’ desks are ideally out of sight and inaccessible to the child.
Maria Montessori wrote many books during her time. Some that come recommended are:
- “The Discovery of the Child,” By Maria Montessori
- “The Absorbent Mind,” By Maria Montessori
- “The Secret of Childhood.”, By Maria Montessori.
Many of these can be found in local libraries.
There are also many books written by other authors about Montessori and her philosophy.
Recommendations, in no particular order, include the following:
- Lynne Lawrence, “Montessori Read and Write; A Parents’ Guide to Literacy for Children”
- Aline D. Wolf, “Peaceful Children. Peaceful World : The Challenge of Maria Montessori“
- J.G. Bennett, Mario Montessori, “The Spiritual Hunger of the Modern Child“
- Elizabeth Hainstock, “Teaching Montessori in the Home – The Preschool Years“
- Elizabeth Hainstock, “Teaching Montessori in the Home – The School Years“
- Heidi Spietz, “Modern Montessori at Home: A Teaching Guide for Parents of Children 6 through 9 Years of Age“
- Heidi Spietz, “Modern Montessori at Home II: A Teaching Guide for Parents of Children 10 through 12 Years of Age“
- Susan Stephenson, “Michael Olaf’s Essential Montessori: A Guide and Catalogue for Montessori Education from Birth, at Home and at School“
- Helen Yankee, “Montessori Math – the Basics”
- Timothy Seldin and Donna Raymond, “Geography and History for the Young Child“