Maria Montessori (1870-1952)
Maria Montessori was the first woman physician to graduate from the University of Rome. She first became involved with education as a doctor treating underprivileged children. After studying the work of Itard and Sequin and after much compassionate observation of young children, she designed special materials and a scientifically prepared environment. These succeeded brilliantly and won world acclaim. She devoted her energies and further studies to the field of education for the remainder of her life. The first “Casa Dei Bambini” or the “Children’s House” was opened in 1907 and since then Montessori schools have been established in over fifty countries. Her work has made a significant contribution to improving the standards of education for young children, and her methods and materials have been adopted in public and private schools around the world.
The foundation of Maria Montessori’s approach is respect for the child as a worthy individual, occupied with the task of developing himself into a mature human adult. She observed children’s need for independence, for self-confidence as adequate people, for control over their own impulses and emotions and a natural curiosity and desire to learn.
She observed in young children a phenomenon she called the “absorbent mind”. Children can absorb information from their surroundings without any conscious, tedious effort. Learning does not have to be forced upon them. If the environment is orderly and readily accessible and if the children are free to work through their own cycles of activity at their own pace, they can learn to read, write and calculate in the same natural way that they learned to walk and talk.
Dr. Montessori wrote, ‘’The most important period of life is not the age of university studies but the period from birth to age six.” It is now commonly accepted that from conception to age 4 the individual develops 50% of his/her mature intelligence; from ages 4 to 8 another 30%. This indicates the rapid growth of intelligence in the early years and the importance of the early environment on this development. It is also true that children mature at very different rates and their periods of readiness for academic subjects vary greatly. Montessori observed that a young child has periods of intense fascination for developing various skills such as climbing stairs or counting. During these sensitive periods it is easier for the child to acquire particular skills than at any other time in his/her life. The Montessori classroom allows each child freedom to select activities which correspond to his or her own periods of interest and readiness.
By answering a child’s needs as they arise, some children in a Montessori class begin to read and calculate at a very early age. However, early learning was not Maria Montessori’s objective. Her ideal was that the learning experience should occur naturally and joyfully at the proper moment for each individual child. “It is true we cannot make a genius,” she wrote. “We can only give each individual the chance to fulfill his/her potential to become an independent, secure and balanced human being”.