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Dr. Maria Montessori

Maria Tecla Artemesia Montessori (August 31, 1870 – May 6, 1952) was an Italian physician and educator best known for the philosophy of education that bears her name, and her books on the theory and practice of education.

Her educational method is in use today in some public and numerous private schools throughout the world.  She was also an extremely active campaigner for peace, and spoke on Peace and Education on numerous occasions holding peace conferences from 1932 to 1939.  In 1949, and again in 1950 and in 1951, Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, receiving a total of six nominations.

Montessori was also awarded the French Legion of Honor, Officer of the Dutch Order of Orange Nassau, and received an Honorary Doctorate of the University of Amsterdam.

Maria Montessori
Maria Montessori



Maria was born into a Roman Catholic family, but seems to have developed an interest in spiritual subjects from an early age.  She is said to have become interested in the Theosophical Society as early as 1899. Theosophical records seem to show that she knew TS leader Annie Besant and met her around 1907. She was even invited to come and speak as their guest. During WWII she was also invited in 1938, by Dr. George Arundale one time President of the Theosophical Society, to come to India, to give a training course. 


With the onset of the War in 1939, she left the Netherlands with her son and collaborator Mario for India.  According to an article by Carolie Wilson of the University of  Sydney, however, records kept at the Theosophical Society's (TS) centre shows that when asked during her stay whether she had in fact become a Theosophist, she replied, "I am a Montessorian". 

Thus like most truly spiritual people, she was guided by her beliefs, but had no wish to be part of a group.  It is noteworthy that her ‘fourth plane of personal development’ includes ‘Spiritual and Moral independence’.  She did not reject the company of those with similar beliefs – which is why she was happy to be with Theosophists - but did not want to be called one.  The following comment from one admirer sums up her approach well:

"I have been meditating on the spiritual aspect of Montessori. The appeal to the spirit is present in her writings and she brings what we might call integrity to her work...she integrates all parts of man, the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual into one... She knows we dare not ignore any part of man if we want him to truly thrive.  The respect for all religions, the spiritual nature of humans and a method based on observation are all intertwined in her approach.  To be spiritual is to utilize those inherent qualities that are within all of us.  My perception is that Montessori saw this and wanted to foster it.  I even read that Montessori referred to the child as the little messiah.  Montessori obviously had a strong faith and she seemed to use that faith and her relationship with Catholicism to find inherent universal qualities in all of us which could remind us of or make our relationship to God stronger."

Maria Montessori

Life and work


Montessori was born on August 31, 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy. Her mother was well educated for the times and was the great-niece of Italian geologist and paleontologist Antonio Stoppani. Maria was very close to her mother who encouraged her. She also had a loving relationship with her father, Alessandro, although he disagreed with her choice to continue her education.

Maria battled throughout her life against those who sought to limit her education and ambitions.  In her early school life her education was limited to "lavori donneschi", or "women's work".  In secondary school she fared a little better and studied Italian, mathematics, algebra, geometry, accounting, history, geography, sciences - physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, and two foreign languages. She graduated with good grades and examination results.  In 1890 at the age of 20, she decided to study medicine, an unlikely subject for a woman, given cultural norms at the time.


Maria Montessori on a 1000 thousand lire note.

Despite disapproval from the professor of clinical medicine at the University of Rome, she enrolled in the University of Rome in a degree course earning her diploma di licenza in 1892. This degree, along with additional studies in Italian and Latin, qualified her for entrance into the medical program at the University in 1893.

She was met with hostility and harassment from medical students and professors because of her sex. Because her attendance of classes with men in the presence of a naked body was deemed ‘inappropriate’, she was even required to perform her dissections of cadavers alone, after hours. In her last two years she studied paediatrics and psychiatry, and graduated in 1896 as a doctor of medicine.


From 1896 to 1901, Montessori worked with and researched children experiencing some form of mental illness or disability. She also began to travel, study, speak, and publish nationally and internationally, coming to prominence as an advocate for women's rights and education for mentally disabled children.


On 31 March 1898, her only child – a son named Mario Montessori (March 31, 1898 – 1982) was born. Mario was the result of a love affair with Giuseppe Montesano, a fellow doctor who was co-director of the Orthophrenic School of Rome. If Montessori had married, she would have been expected to cease working professionally; so instead Montessori decided to continue her work and studies. Montessori wanted the relationship with her child's father to continue secretly with the understanding that neither of them would marry anyone else. But the father of her child subsequently married, and Montessori was left feeling shocked and betrayed.  She decided to leave the university hospital and place her son into foster care with a family living in the countryside. She would later be reunited with her son in his teenage years, where he proved to be a great assistant in her research.


In 1899 Montessori was appointed a councillor to the newly formed National League for the Protection of Retarded Children.  In 1900 the National League opened the Orthophrenic School, an institute for training teachers in educating mentally disabled children, with an attached laboratory classroom. Montessori was appointed co-director.  The school was an immediate success.  The children in the model classroom were drawn from ordinary schools but considered "uneducable" due to their deficiencies. Some of these children later passed public examinations given to so-called "normal" children.  During her two years at the school, Montessori developed methods and materials which she would later adapt to use with mainstream children.

Maria Montessori and Mario Montessori.

Casa dei Bambini

Maria and Mario Montessori in a casa del bambini

In 1906 Montessori was invited to oversee the care and education of a group of children of working parents in a new apartment building for low-income families in the San Lorenzo district in Rome. Montessori was interested in applying her work and methods to mentally normal children, and she accepted. The name Casa dei Bambini, or Children's House, was suggested to Montessori, and the first Casa opened on January 6, 1907, enrolling 50 or 60 children between the ages of two or three and six or seven.

At first, the classroom was equipped with a teacher's table and blackboard, a stove, small chairs, armchairs, and group tables for the children. Activities for the children included personal care such as dressing and undressing, care of the environment such as dusting and sweeping, and caring for the garden. The children were also shown the use of the materials Montessori had developed. Montessori herself, occupied with teaching, research, and other professional activities, oversaw and observed the classroom work, but did not teach the children directly. Day-to-day teaching and care were provided, under Montessori's guidance, by the building porter's daughter.

In this first classroom, Montessori observed behaviors in these young children which formed the foundation of her educational method. She noted episodes of deep attention and concentration, multiple repetitions of activity, and a sensitivity to order in the environment. Given free choice of activity, the children showed more interest in practical activities and Montessori's materials than in toys provided for them, and were surprisingly unmotivated by sweets and other rewards. Over time, she saw a spontaneous self-discipline emerge.


Based on her observations, Montessori implemented a number of practices that became hallmarks of her educational philosophy and method. She replaced the heavy furniture with child-sized tables and chairs light enough for the children to move, and placed child-sized materials on low, accessible shelves. She expanded the range of practical activities such as sweeping and personal care to include a wide variety of exercises for care of the environment and the self, including flower arranging, hand washing, gymnastics, care of pets, and cooking. She also included large open air sections in the classroom encouraging children to come and go as they please in the room's different areas and lessons.

Montessori also came to believe that acknowledging all children as individuals and treating them as such would yield better learning and fulfilled potential in each particular child. She continued to adapt and refine the materials she had developed earlier, altering or removing exercises which were chosen less frequently by the children. Also based on her observations, Montessori experimented with allowing children free choice of the materials, uninterrupted work, and freedom of movement and activity within the limits set by the environment. She began to see independence as the aim of education, and the role of the teacher as an observer and director of children's innate psychological development.


The first Casa dei Bambini was a success, and a second was opened on April 7, 1907. In the autumn of 1907, Montessori began to experiment with teaching materials for writing and reading—letters cut from sandpaper and mounted on boards, moveable cutout letters, and picture cards with labels. Four- and five-year-old children engaged spontaneously with the materials and quickly gained a proficiency in writing and reading far beyond what was expected for their age. This attracted further public attention to Montessori's work. Three more Case dei Bambini opened in 1908, and in 1909 Italian Switzerland began to replace Froebellian methods with Montessori in orphanages and kindergartens.

The growth of the schools

Montessori's reputation and work began to spread internationally.  By the end of 1911, Montessori education had been officially adopted in public schools in Italy and Switzerland.  By 1912, Montessori schools had opened in the UK, Paris and many other Western European cities, and were planned for Argentina, Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Syria, the United States, and New Zealand. Public programs in London, Johannesburg, Rome, and Stockholm had adopted the method in their school systems. Montessori societies were founded in the United States (the Montessori American Committee) and the United Kingdom (the Montessori Society for the United Kingdom).


Montessori's work was widely translated and published during this period. The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in the Children's Houses became a best seller. American, British and Swiss editions, a revised Italian edition, Russian and Polish editions, German, Japanese, and Romanian editions were printed followed by Spanish, Dutch, and Danish editions.

Maria Montessori

In 1915, Montessori took up residence in Barcelona, Spain. Over the next 20 years she travelled and lectured widely in Europe and gave numerous teacher training courses. Montessori education experienced significant growth in Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Italy.  Montessori programs flourished in the Netherlands, and by the mid-1930s there were more than 200 Montessori schools in the country


However, with the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, political and social conditions drove Montessori to leave Spain permanently.   In 1936 Montessori and her family left Barcelona for England, and soon moved to Laren, near Amsterdam.  And then came the War.

In India


An interest in Montessori had existed in India since 1913, when an Indian student attended the first international course in Rome, and students throughout the 1920s and 1930s had come back to India to start schools and promote Montessori education. Montessori gave a training course at the Theosophical Society in Madras in 1939, and had intended to give a tour of lectures at various universities, and then return to Europe. However, when Italy entered World War II on the side of the Germans in 1940, Britain interned all Italians in the United Kingdom and its colonies. In fact only Mario Montessori was interned, while Montessori herself was confined to the Theosophical Society compound, Mario was reunited with his mother after two months. The Montessoris remained in Madras and Kodaikanal until 1946, although they were allowed to travel in connection with lectures and courses.

Maria Montessori in an Indian postage stamp.

Her internment and time in India, gave Montessori the opportunity to develop her educational method incorporating eastern ideas into the curriculum – one key one of which is respect for the environment. She introduced an approach for children aged from six to twelve years that emphasized the interdependence of all the elements of the natural world. Children worked directly with plants and animals in their natural environments. Material for botany, zoology, and geography was created. This work also led to two books: Education for a New World and To Educate the Human Potential.

In 1946, with the war over, she and Mario  returned to Europe.

Final years  

In 1946, at the age of 76, Montessori returned to Amsterdam, but she spent the next six years travelling in Europe and India. The Absorbent Mind, in which Montessori described the development of the child from birth onwards and presented the concept of the Four Planes of Development was released.


Montessori died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 6, 1952 at the age of 81 in Noordwijk aan Zee, the Netherlands.  A lot of people owe a great deal to Maria Montessori, may she rest in peace.

Maria Montessori




  • Haines, Annette M. (2000). Montessori in early childhood: Positive outcomes among social, moral, cognitive, and emotional dimensions. NAMTA Journal, 25(2), 27-59.

  • Humphryes, Janet. (1998). The developmental appropriateness of high-quality Montessori programs. Young Children, 53(43), 4-16.

  • Montessori, Maria, with Chattin-McNichols, John. (1995). The absorbent mind. New York: Holt.

  • Ruenzel, David. (1997). The Montessori method. Teacher Magazine [Online], 8(7). Available: [2002, February 20].

  • Scientific American - Students Prosper with Montessori Method  September 29, 2006 - David Biello. 

    “On a variety of tests, ranging from letter-word identification to math, the Montessori kids outscored their public school counterparts. When confronted with social issues, such as another child hoarding a swing, they more commonly resorted to reasoning--43 percent to 18 percent. And on tests of so-called executive function--the ability to adapt to changing rules that increase in complexity--Montessori children again outperformed their peers”.


  • Association Montessori Internationale (AMI)  promotes the study, application, and propagation of Montessori's (original) ideas and principles for education and human development. The Web site provides information about program history, philosophy, accreditation, teacher training, and published resources.   The AMI Web site provides a map that gives a good picture of the Montessori movement worldwide.  Montessori designed famous materials still in use; photos of some of these can be found on the website.

  • The American Montessori Society (AMS)  supports Montessori education in the context of contemporary American culture (Loeffler, 1992).  The AMS Web site provides information about their teacher research network and a set of position papers on such topics as learning and assessment, inclusion, infant programs, math and music education, multiage grouping, and holistic peace education.

  • The Web site of the North American Montessori Teachers' Association.  Note that there are probably 5,000 or more schools calling themselves "Montessori" in the United States (Ruenzel, 1997). Of these, only about 20% are affiliated with the two major accrediting organizations.

This biography is re-posted with kind permission from Allaboutheaven

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