Maria Montessori

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Maria Montessori

Dr. Maria Montessori (August 31, 1870 - May 6, 1952) was an Italian physician who developed ground-breaking methods for teaching children. Her acclaimed success beginning with the House of Children in Rome led to the rapid expansion of the Montessori Method throughout the world. For ten years she was a guest at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society based in Adyar, India, along with her son Mario. During that period she conducted courses for teachers all over South Asia, which has had a lasting impact on education there.

Early life and education

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. With the support of her well-educated mother, Maria grew up with a love of learning.[1] In 1883, when she was just thirteen, Maria was admitted to the Regia Scuola Tecnica Michelangelo Buonarroti. Few girls entered such technical schools, with more opting to study classics instead.

The technical system provided seven years of a modern curriculum. These schools offered a three-year course including French, arithmetic and bookkeeping, algebra and geometry, history, geography, and smattering of science. This was followed by the four-year course at the technical institute which offered modern languages - French, German, English - and mathematics, in addition to commercial subjects. Physics and chemistry were included but occupied a less important place in the curriculum.[2]

After completing this technical education with high scores, Montessori considered becoming an engineer, but decided instead to study medicine, which no Italian woman had done before. She enrolled in the University of Rome in the fall of 1890, and studied mathematics and sciences, Latin and Italian. In the spring of 1892 she passed her examinations and received the "Diploma di licenza" that indicated she was qualified to study medicine. After many obstacles, and with her mother's support, she was permitted to begin the program consisting of six years of study and clinical work.[3] Despite many obstacles, including her father's disapproval, she succeeded in becoming a physician in 1896.[4]

Her only child, Mario Montessori, was born on March 31, 1898, as the product of a secret love affair with another doctor. He was placed with a foster family for a few years, but was reunited with his mother in his teenage years and worked with her throughout most of her career.

Medical career

After becoming a physician, Dr. Montessori continued research in the University's psychiatric clinic, visiting asylums in Rome. She observed children with mental disabilities, leading her to read the works of educational theorists Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin and other major pedagogical works from the previous 200 years.

In 1900 she became director of the Scuola Magistrale Ortofrenica, or Orthophrenic School, for developmentally disabled children. It was an institute for training teachers to deal with mentally disabled children, and included a laboratory classroom. Teachers studied psychology, anatomy, and physiology of the nervous system; physical anthropology; and instructional methods best suited for disabled children. Methods and manipulative materials developed there were later put to use in classrooms of "normal" children.

Montessori began to conceptualize her own method of applying their educational theories, which she tested through hands-on scientific observation of students at the Orthophrenic School. Montessori found the resulting improvement in students' development remarkable. She spread her research findings in speeches throughout Europe, also using her platform to advocate for women's and children's rights.[5]

Casa dei Bambini in San Lorenzo, 1907

First House of Children

The first Casa dei Bambini (House of Children) was opened in Rome on January 6, 1907, after a group of bankers asked Dr. Montessori to find a way to occupy the children of poor families in a San Lorenzo tenement. During a chronic housing shortage in Rome, thousands of people crowded into abandoned buildings in the San Lorenzo district. Bankers attempting to renovate the buildings wanted to find a way to handle about 50 wild, uneducated children who were being left unsupervised while their parents worked.

One room was set aside for this purpose, resembling in every way a children's prison. It was hoped that a person would be found with enough social courage to tackle the problem.

I in my capacity of medical officer of hygiene was approached to take an interest in the work. Having considered the situation I demanded that at least the commonest aids in hygiene, food and sanitation be made available.[6]

While a room and some large, rough tables had been provided, no one had thought of toys or teachers. Dr. Montessori found a woman to take charge, and enlisted the interest of some society ladies to collect funds. About 50 children, 2-6 years of age, were present on the opening day. They were frightened and crying at the strange surroundings and people.

I brought them some of the materials which had been used for our work in experimental psychology, the items which we use today as sensorial material and materials for the exercises of practical life. I merely wanted to study the children's reactions. I asked the woman in charge not to interfere with them in any way as otherwise I would not be able to observe them, Some one brought them paper and coloured pencils but in itself this was not the explanation of the further events...

The children were quiet, they had no interference either from the teacher or from the parents, but their environment contrasted vividly from that which they had been used to; compared to that of their previous life; it seemed fantastically beautiful. The walls were white, there was a green plot of grass outside, though no one had yet thought to plant flowers in it, but most beautiful of all was the fact that they had interesting occupations in which no one, no one at all, interfered. They were left alone and little by little the children began to work with concentration and the transformation they underwent, was noticeable. From timid and wild as they were before, the children became sociable and communicative. They showed a different relationship with each other, of which I have written in my books. Their personalities grew and, strange though it may seem, they showed extraordinary understanding, activity, vivacity and confidence. They were happy and joyous.

But the most outstanding thing about these strange children of the St. Lawrence Quarter was their obvious gratitude. I was as much surprised by this as everyone else. When I entered the room all the children sprang to greet me and cried their welcome. Nobody had taught them any manner of good behaviour. And the strangest thing of all was that although nobody had cared for them physically, they flourished in health as if they had been secretly fed on some nourishing food, And so they had, but in their spirit. These children began to notice things in their homes, a spot of dirt on their mother's dress, untidiness in the room. They told their mothers not to hang the washing in the windows but to put flowers there instead. Their influence spread into the homes, so that after a while also these became transformed.[7]

After a few months, the mothers asked Dr. Montessori to teach their children to read and write. She was a physician, scientist, and experimental psychologist, rather than a teacher, and at first was reluctant to tackle the issue of illiteracy. She felt that the children were too young. However, she presented the alphabet: "As then it was something new for me also, I analysed the words for them and showed that each sound of the words had a symbol by which it could be materialised. It was then that the explosion into writing occurred."[8]

The Montessori Method evolved from these beginnings. Dr. Montessori found that children loved repetition, loved order and silence, and exhibited amazing powers of concentration. They thrived in a system with free choice of activities, preferring work to play. Rewards and punishments were unnecessary, as the children exhibited self-discipline. They developed skills in reading and writing at a much younger age than educational theory of the time would expect.[9]

Expansion of influence

In 1909, Montessori began conducting teacher training programs in Città di Castello, Italy, then Rome and Milan. By 1911 she had resigned her university positions to dedicate herself to education. The great success in San Lorenzo led to interest around the world.

Maria Montessori made her first visit to the United States in 1913, the same year that Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel founded the Montessori Educational Association at their Washington, DC, home. Among her other strong American supporters were Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.

In 1915, she attracted world attention with her "glass house" schoolroom exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. On this second U.S. visit, she also conducted a teacher training course and addressed the annual conventions of both the National Education Association and the International Kindergarten Union. The committee that brought her to San Francisco included Margaret Wilson, daughter of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

The Spanish government invited her to open a research institute in 1917. In 1919, she began a series of teacher training courses in London. In 1922, she was appointed a government inspector of schools in her native Italy, but because of her opposition to Mussolini's fascism, she was forced to leave Italy in 1934. She traveled to Barcelona, Spain, and was rescued there by a British cruiser in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. She opened the Montessori Training Centre in Laren, Netherlands, in 1938, and founded a series of teacher training courses in India in 1939.[10]

Montessori class at National Hindu Girls' School, Madras, 1918

By 1925 more than one thousand Montessori schools had opened in the United States.[11]

Involvement with Theosophists

Dr. Montessori "went to hear Annie Besant speak in London in 1907 after Montessori had established her first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House). Annie Besant spoke in praise of Montessori’s work in education which pleased Montessori, and thus sealed their friendship."[12] They "formed a friendly relationship that was renewed whenever Dr. Besant came to Rome in the years before World War I ."[13] Theosophists paid attention to the Montessori educational system, and were writing articles about her methods in 1913. Society members established many schools in India and Sri Lanka, and experimented with various methods to find what would work best under local conditions. Examples are night schools and elementary classes taught by college students. National Hindu Girls’ School in Madras, had a Montessori class operating by 1918, as shown in the photograph at right. At that point the school was under the supervision of the Society for the Promotion of National Education.

Teaching in India, 1939-1949

Maria Montessori teaching her method at TS headquarters in Adyar

The international President of the Theosophical Society based in Adyar, India, Dr. George S. Arundale, and his wife, the famous Indian dancer Rukmini Devi Arundale, spent time in The Netherlands, visiting the International Theosophical Centre at Naarden. Both Arundales were intensely interested in children and in education. They met Dr. Montessori and invited her to come to Society headquarters in Adyar, Chennai (then called Madras) to conduct a teaching course. She flew to India in 1939 and was warmly received.

Under the sponsorship of Dr. and Mrs. Arundale, Madame Montessori and her son have successfully carried through at Adyar a three months student-teacher training course, attended by 207 students from all parts of India, Burma and Ceylon, the group of students speaking eighteen different languages.

Dr. Montessori has since made a brief lecture tour in Northern India, where she was the guest of several of the governments. She has now established an Indian Section of the Association Montessori International.

Maria and Mario Montessori at Adyar

Of the students training course at Adyar it is said that Dr. Montessori worked a miracle. Political, religious and social differences were cancelled as people of all types fraternized for three months in a closely related life to study the educational principles which Dr. Montessori propounds.[14]

Due to her Italian citizenship, in the early days of World War II Dr. Montessori was interned by the British authorities, restricted by house arrest to the Adyar headquarters estate. She and her son Mario were released from detention, and conducted teachers' courses in Ahmedamad, Kodaikanal, Adyar, and Kashmir in India, and also in Ceylon. Adyar remained her base of operation until 1946. Then she traveled to England and Scotland, and to Italy, but returned to India late in 1947 to teach in Poona, Gwalior, and Adyar. "With Mrs. Arundale, she established a Montessori training center at Kalakshetra as a memorial to Dr. Arundale, who had died in 1945.[15] In 1949, she also taught in Pakistan at the invitation of the new government. After that she re-established her base of operation in The Netherlands. [16]

Later years

Montessori continued working daily even into her eighties. In August 1949, she spoke at the Eighth International Montessori Congress at San Remo, and was honored in Paris later that year. Early in 1950, she toured Sweden and Norway, then spoke at a large conference in Amsterdam, speaking in French. Many awards and honors came her way in these final years. On May 6, 1952, while sitting in the garden of friends in Noordwijk aan Zee near The Hague, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage.[17]

Indian stamp, 1970
Italian banknotes honoring Dr. Montessori


Dr. Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times—in 1949, 1950, and 1951.[18]

The University of Amsterdam awarded an honorary doctorate. She was also awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1949, and made an Officer of the Dutch Order of Orange Nassau.[19]

Italy issued banknotes depicting Dr. Montessori, and India issued commemorative stamps in 1970. Time magazine featured her on its cover on February 3, 1930. The August 31, 2012 Google Doodle honored her. Several cities made her an honorary citizen, including Milan, Ancona, and Perugia.

Theories about childhood development

The Montessori theories on childhood development were elucidated in The Absorbent Mind and other works. In brief, she identified four periods or "planes" of human development, each of which requires difference educational approaches:

  • Birth to 6 years - child explores senses, develops self psychologically, and builds independence. Important concepts for the teacher include the absorbent mind, sensitive periods, and normalization.
  • 6 to 12 years - child grows physically and loses baby teeth; develops "herd instinct" of group socializing. Teacher should foster growth of reason and imagination, intellectual independence, moral sense, and social organization.
  • 12 to 18 years - adolescent experiences puberty, psychological instability, and difficulties in concentration. "Valorization" is a key concept - the adolescents' drive for externally derived evaluation of their worth. Teacher encourages creativity, sense of justice, and personal dignity.
  • 18 to 24 years - young adults embrace the study of culture and sciences. They need to experience financial independence by working for pay.

Teaching method

These are features of her educational approach:

  • Fantasy is postponed until the child is grounded in reality.
  • Tasks and activities are reality oriented.
  • Manipulative materials are designed to be aesthetically pleasing, and to support very specific educational goals.
  • The intellect or "absorbent mind" is engaged early, and is challenged more over time.
  • Children are free to choose their own activities in the classroom, and individual choices are respected.
  • The atmosphere is calm and productive.
  • Teacher is a facilitator of independent learning.
  • Multi-age groups in classrooms simulate the reality of families.
  • Socialization begins with respecting the independence and space of other children.
  • Older children voluntarily assist each other in learning.
  • Children are grounded in the realities of the formed world before delving into the spiritual realm.


Childhood development and education

  • The Absorbent Mind. Oxford, England: Clio, 1996. Originally published in 1949.
  • The Advanced Montessori Method, Volume I. Oxford, England: Clio, 1997. Formerly Spontaneous Activity in Education, published in 1918.
  • The Advanced Montessori Method, Volume II. Los Angeles: Education Systems, 1987. Also known as The Montessori Elementary Materials, originally published in 1916.
  • The Child in the Family. Oxford, England: Clio, 1995. Originally published in 1936.
  • Discovery of the Child. New York: Ballantine, 1972. Originally published in 1948.
  • To Educate the Human Potential. Oxford, England: Clio, 1994. Originally published in 1948.
  • Education and Peace. Oxford, England: Clio, 1995. Originally published in 1949.
  • Education for a New World. Oxford, England: Clio, 1994. Originally published in 1946.
  • From Childhood to Adolescence. Oxford, England: Clio, 1994. Originally published in 1948.
  • The Montessori Method. New York: Random House, 1988. Originally published in 1909.
  • Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook. New York: Random House, 1988. Originally published in 1914.
  • The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine, 1972. Originally published in 1936.

Theosophical publications

Both Dr. Montessori and her son Mario wrote articles for The Theosophist, the Society’s journal. For a list of articles by and about Dr. Montessori in Theosophical periodicals, see this list.

Additional resources



  • Montessori, Maria in Theosophy World.
  • Jinarajadasa, C. "The Montessori Gospel of the Child." The Theosophist 67 (May, 1946), 91.
  • Jinarajadasa, C. "The Montessori Method." Theosophy in Australasia 22.2 (May, 1916), 43.
  • Jinarajadasa, C. "The Montessori System." The Theosophist 62 (April, 1941), 35.
  • Jinarajadasa, C. "The Montessori System." Theosophy in Australia 2 (February, 1942), 5.
  • Ransom, Josephine. "Schools of Tomorrow in England: The Montessori Ideal.' 'The Herald of the Star 7 (August, 1918), 439.
  • Wylie, Winifred. "Montessori and the Theosophical Society." Quest 96.2 (March-April, 2008), 53-55.


  • Association Montessori Internationale. Maria Montessori, 1870-1952: An Anthology.
  • Hainstock, Elizabeth. The Essential Montessori. New York: Plume, 1997. Revised edition. Originally published in 1997.
  • Kramer, Rita. Maria Montessori: A Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
  • Standing, E. M. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New York: Penguin Group, 1998. Originally published in 1957.
  • Pendleton, D. Renee. "Maria Montessori: A Brief Biography". Available at North American Montessori Teachers' Association.
  • Povell, Phyllis. Montessori Comes to America: The Leadership of Maria Montessori and Nancy McCormick Rambusch.
  • Rambusch, Nancy McCormick. Learning How to Learn: An American Approach to Montessori.
  • Shephard, Marie Tennent. Maria Montessori: Teacher of Teachers. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1996.
  • Whitescarver, Keith. "Montessori in America: the First 100 years." Montessori International, July - September 2010. Included here with permission of Montessori International.
  • Whitescarver, Keith. "Montessori in America: the Most Current Revival." Montessori International, October - December 2010. Included here with permission of Montessori International.
  • Whitescarver, Keith, and Cossentino, Jacqueline. "Montessori and the Mainstream: A Century of Reform on the Margins.” Teachers College Record, December 2008.


  1. "Maria Montessori," Association Montessori Internationale web page.
  2. Rita Kramer, Maria Montessori: A Biography, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 32.
  3. Rita Kramer, Maria Montessori: A Biography, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 34-35.
  4. E. M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, (New York: Penguin Group, 1998) 27.
  5. "Maria Montessori,"
  6. Maria Montessori, "How It All Happened," 1942. See "Dr. Montessori Writes of San Lorenzo 1907" on Montessori Teachers Collective web page.
  7. Maria Montessori, "How It All Happened," 1942. See "Dr. Montessori Writes of San Lorenzo 1907" on Montessori Teachers Collective web page.
  8. Maria Montessori, "How It All Happened," 1942. See "Dr. Montessori Writes of San Lorenzo 1907" on Montessori Teachers Collective web page.
  9. E. M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, (New York: Penguin Group, 1998) 40-51.
  10. D. Renee Pendleton. "Maria Montessori: A Brief Biography". Available at North American Montessori Teachers' Association.
  11. "Maria Montessori,"
  12. Winifred Wylie, "Montessori and the Theosophical Society" Quest 96.2 (March-April 2008): 53-55.
  13. Rita Kramer. Maria Montessori: A Biography (Da Capo Press, 1988), 342.
  14. Anonymous, "Madame Montessori in India" The American Theosophist 28.11 (November, 1940): 260.
  15. Rita Kramer. Maria Montessori: A Biography (Da Capo Press, 1988), 355.
  16. E. M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1959), 50-51.
  17. Rita Kramer, Maria Montessori: A Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 367.
  18. D. Renee Pendleton, D. Renee. "Maria Montessori: A Brief Biography". Available at North American Montessori Teachers' Association.
  19. Rita Kramer, Maria Montessori: A Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 360-362.