Maria Montessori is probably the best known of the thinkers.  She was the first Italian female physician, and, years ahead of her time, was a feminist and a children's advocate. She became intrigued with the education of young children for various reasons. She did not like the rigidity of Italian public education and was concerned about the education of children who were mentally retarded or delayed. Montessori abandoned her role in medicine at a time when Italy's economy was precarious, when many families lived in poverty and in facilities without regard to health and safety. As she pondered her concerns about the situation, a reform movement brought about programs of employment for parents. That was the good news. The bad news was that children were left alone for long days.

Montessori's Thinking

The situation of children without care attracted Montessori's attention. Influenced by what she knew as a physician and by her efforts to educate "deficient children," she developed Children's Houses (Casas dei Bambini)—schools for children living in the tenement apartments of Rome. Montessori's ideas were reshaped over the years as she worked with both poor and wealthy children, as society changed, and as her ideas were transported to other countries, specifically the United States. To begin to understand her ideas, it's important to look at Montessori's five dominant beliefs:

  1. Her method represents a scientific approach to education.
  2. The secret of childhood resides in the fact that through their spontaneous activity, children labor to "make themselves into men" [Montessori, 1964].
  3. Mental development, similar to physical growth, is the result of a natural, internally regulated force.
  4. Liberty is the imperative ingredient that enables education to assist the "unfolding of a child's life" [Montessori, 1964].
  5. Order, most especially within the child, but also in the child's environment, is prerequisite to the child becoming an independent, autonomous, and rational individual. (Goffin, 1994, p. 49)

What do these statements mean? Basically, Montessori believed that children could grow and develop very well if left to do so without too many restrictions but with an orderly environment that promoted their efforts at being independent and critical thinkers. Her approach was scientific in that it evolved from studying children and what they could do and in that she prescribed both teaching techniques and materials for her schools.

Montessori's Advice in Action

Montessori urged teachers to conduct naturalistic observations of children in carefully prepared environments. This refers to the orderly environments we talked about in Montessori's beliefs—environments planned to promote the children's freedom to take care of their own needs and freedom from dependency on others (the goals described in her beliefs). Teachers in a Montessori program are to observe and direct children's learning, so they are called directresses rather than teachers.

If you walked into a Montessori program, you would likely see several rooms for different purposes, child-sized furniture and equipment, real dishes and other items, flowers and plants, and well-organized materials with careful storage and labeling. Materials, which are a very important aspect of the curriculum, are generally carefully crafted. They are displayed in open shelves for children's independent use. Many materials are graded in difficulty; that is, they range from simple to use to very difficult or complex to use. Montessori's materials are often autotelic, or self-correcting, so that the child has immediate feedback.

In a Montessori Classroom

Looking back at Montessori's goals for children, it's easy to understand the environment and ultimately the curriculum. As children develop the ability to take care of their own needs, they learn best from firsthand experience. In a Montessori classroom, they have practical life experiences such as gardening, polishing silver, buttoning and zipping, and flower arranging. Directresses make sure that each activity builds a foundation for a more complex and difficult activity or task, because Montessori believed that learning is cumulative. Most of the day is spent in individual tasks or activities, rather than in group activities. Children move freely about the classroom and make their own choices.

If you are comfortable with Montessori's ideas and want to see them in action, we encourage you to visit a program in your area. There are many Montessori schools and classes in the United States; there are even some Montessori classrooms in public schools. Be aware of the authenticity of the program you observe. Some programs use the Montessori name but are not faithful to her ideas. You can check with the professional associations concerned with implementing Montessori programs. One of them is the American Montessori Society (AMS) founded in 1956. That organization oversees the training of directresses and accreditation of schools in the United States.