Montessori was an Italian physician, educator, and innovator, acclaimed for her
educational method that builds on the way children naturally learn.
She opened the first Montessori school—the Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s
House—in Rome on January 6, 1907. Subsequently, she traveled the world and
wrote extensively about her approach to education, attracting many devotees.
There are now more than 22,000 Montessori schools in at least 110 countries worldwide.
Maria Montessori was born on August 31, 1870, in the provincial town of
Chiaravalle, Italy. Her father was a financial manager for a state-run
industry. Her mother was raised in a family that prized education. She was
well-schooled and an avid reader—unusual for Italian women of that time. The
same thirst for knowledge took root in young Maria, and she immersed herself in
many fields of study before creating the educational method that bears her
Beginning in her early childhood years, Maria grew up in Rome, a paradise of
libraries, museums, and fine schools.
was a sterling student, confident, ambitious, and unwilling to be limited by
traditional expectations for women. At age 13 she entered an all-boys technical
institute to prepare for a career in engineering.
In time, however, she changed her mind, deciding to become a doctor instead.
She applied to the University of Rome’s medical program, but was rejected.
Maria took additional courses to better prepare her for entrance to the medical
school and persevered. With great effort she gained admittance, opening the
door a bit wider for future women in the field.
When she graduated from medical school in 1896, she was among Italy’s first
Birth of a Movement
early medical practice focused on psychiatry. She also developed an interest in
education, attending classes on pedagogy and immersing herself in educational
theory. Her studies led her to observe, and call into question, the prevailing methods
of teaching children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The opportunity to improve on these methods came in 1900, when she was
co-director of a new training institute for special education teachers. Maria
approached the task scientifically, carefully observing and experimenting to
learn which teaching methods worked best. Many of the children made unexpected
gains, and the program was proclaimed a success.
In 1907 Maria accepted a new challenge to open a childcare center in a poor
inner-city district. This became the first Casa dei Bambini, a quality learning
environment for young children. The youngsters were unruly at first, but soon
showed great interest in working with puzzles, learning to prepare meals, and
manipulating materials that held lessons in math. She observed how they
absorbed knowledge from their surroundings, essentially teaching themselves.
Utilizing scientific observation and experience gained from her earlier work
with young children, Maria designed learning materials and a classroom
environment that fostered the children’s natural desire to learn. News of the
school’s success soon spread through Italy and by 1910 Montessori schools were
the years following, and for the rest of her life, Maria dedicated herself to
advancing her child-centered approach to education. She lectured widely, wrote
articles and books, and developed a program to prepare teachers in the
Montessori Method. Through her efforts and the work of her followers,
Montessori education was adopted worldwide.
As a public figure, Maria also campaigned vigorously on behalf of women’s
rights. She wrote and spoke frequently on the need for greater opportunities
for women, and was recognized in Italy and beyond as a leading feminist voice.
Maria Montessori pursued her ideals in turbulent times. Living through war and
political upheaval inspired her to add peace education to the Montessori
curriculum. But she could do little to avoid being ensnared in world events.
Traveling in India in 1940 when hostilities between Italy and Great Britain
broke out, she was forced to live in exile for the remainder of the war. There
she took the opportunity to train teachers in her method.
At war’s end she returned to Europe, spending her final years in Amsterdam. She
died peacefully, in a friend’s garden, on May 6, 1952.