Dr. Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work Part 1/3

Have you ever wondered who Maria Montessori actually is? What has she done, and how has she created the Montessori method? Today’s the day we start our three-part learning journey about Dr. Maria Montessori’s life and work.

Maria Montessori, a woman that changed the world of the child forever, a woman worshipped by many, misunderstood by even more. All over the world, she inspired people with the “Montessori Method,” a genuinely fascinating scientific study of human development. But how did she turn out to become the woman who gave children the chance to learn how nature intended? Where did her interest in auto- education come from? How did she develop the strength and will that fought for the child every day? To truly understand this fascinating, strong, sagacious woman and scientist, we need to take a step back and look at her life.

It all started on August 31st, 1870, in Chiaravalle, Italy. It was a time of change. Italy had newly united, and there was a lot of redevelopment. It didn’t take Maria’s parents, Alessandro and Renilde, long to figure out that their child was driven to learn as much as possible. At the age of 5, they decided to move to Rome to give Maria a better education than was offered in her hometown. She had always been passionate about life; at her young age, she started expressing interest in engineering, followed by a strong interest in biology.

Finally, she decided that medicine was what she wanted to study. Sadly this was not something she could just simply do. It was a long hard path. A woman wasn’t permitted to study medicine. After being declined entry to several universities, she went to see Dr. Bacelli, head of the education faculty, who also told her she could not enroll at University as a medical student. Leaving his office, she very politely said: “I know I shall become a doctor of medicine,” and with determination and some help from the Pope, she eventually did.

Being able to walk the halls at the University of Rome as a female medical student was not easy. Without going into too much detail, one might say that she was not treated very well, rules had to be changed, and the conditions weren’t the best. Maria always had her mother’s support; Alessandro (Maria’s father) disapproved of Maria’s choices and disowned her. Never-the-less, Maria continued, won scholarships, and gained the respect of her fellow students. In 1896 she graduated top of her class and was the first woman in Italy to become a medical doctor. There was a reconciliation between her and her proud father as he came to her graduation.

Being the first doctor of medicine, Dr. Montessori was asked to speak at the first International Women’s Congress in Berlin, addressing working women’s rights, equal pay for equal work, voting, and education. Dr. Montessori worked as an assistant doctor at a psychiatric clinic for 2 years. Her job was to visit asylums for children with disabilities. This was her first contact with children. When she came into a bare room with just tables and chairs, she was devastated and overwhelmed by the poor conditions these children were enduring. The nurses complained about the children; in disgust, one of them told Dr. Montessori that the children would throw themselves on the floor looking for the crumbs after meals.

After observing these children, she concluded that their desire for the crumbs was not disobedience; it was the craving to handle something with their hands. The more time she spent with the children, the more she believed that their mental conditions could be improved immensely with the right sort of education.

To learn more and help the children, Dr. Montessori went to Paris to study the works of Jean-Marc Itard and Edouard Seguin. Both had worked with special needs children in the past and very interested in their work she took the opportunity to learn from their discoveries. Back at the asylum, Maria spent all day with the children experimenting with materials that stimulated their senses. At night she would write down her notes, reflect and prepare additional materials.

Dr. Montessori believed in her children. When state examinations for children of elementary age came, she sent her children to be examined. Once again, Dr. Montessori surprised the public. Some of her special needs children passed with the same or better marks than the children from “normal” schools. Overnight she was praised as a miracle worker.

Her interest in brain development grew, and after giving birth to son Mario in March 1898, she started her second degree in psychology and anthropology.
In 1906, due to the fast industrial changes and the dire housing situation in Italy, a group of people called themselves the “citizens of goodwill” tried to improve Rome’s slums and started building communal living complexes. A remodel of around 50 houses was in progress. To live there, certain requirements (like employment) had to be fulfilled to live there. This obviously brought up the problem of childcare for the under six-year-olds. It was decided that the cost of childcare would be less than the cost of repairing the damage that unsupervised children might cause. A new arrangement had to be found.

After the success Dr. Montessori had had, she was asked to be in charge of the children. Dr. Montessori saw the opportunity in this experiment to apply her theories with children from all kinds of backgrounds.

Dr. Montessori removed the furniture and, and with lots of help, opened a school that was different from anything the world had ever seen. The tables and chairs were made in the child’s size, little armchairs for rest, and some Educational material that she had prepared filled the room.

On January 6th, 1907, the first “Casa Dei Bambini” was opened in the communal complex at 58 Via dei Marsi San Lorenzo in Rome.
And so it started, it was just her, a lady she had hired to assist her and 60 frightened, malnourished children.