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Maria Montessori: Educator, Feminist, Icon

Alison's Montessori Fabric Box

It is not true that I invented what is called the Montessori Method. I have studied the child, I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it, and that is what is called the Montessori Method.” - Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori was a pioneer, educator, and physician, known for her revolutionary child-focused approach to education. Growing up in nineteenth-century Italy, Montessori overcame stifling barriers to create what we now know as the Montessori method. Unlike many women in Italy at the time Montessori went to school where she fell in love with learning. A fearless and determined student, Montessori did not let conventions stop her from pursuing what she wanted. At the age of 13, Montessori enrolled in an all-boys technical institute to pursue a career in engineering. Not long after she altered her career path to pursue medicine. Montessori applied to the University of Rome’s medical school but was rejected. This did not stop her. Montessori studied harder and took additional courses to better prepare herself. Her hard work and perseverance paid off when she was admitted into medical school. In 1896 Montessori graduated medical school - opening the door wider for future women in medicine.

Maria Montessori, c. 1910–15.

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (file no. LC-DIG-ggbain-14964)

Among Italy’s first female physicians she focused her practice in psychiatry. On this path, Montessori developed an interest in education which she supported through taking classes in pedagogy and investigating educational theory. Through these experiences, she began to call into question the methods of educating children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In 1907 Montessori was given the opportunity to take her research and enact real change. She opened the first Montessori school called the Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House in Rome on January 6, 1907. The school was located in San Lorenzo, a poor inner-city district of Rome, serving children age 3-7 most of whom had never received an education. The school’s ethos was rooted in nurturing a children’s natural desire to learn and grow.

Montessori observed how the children retained information from their surroundings. Through scientific observation and classroom experience, she developed learning tools and a classroom environment that allow children the freedom to explore and tap into their natural hunger for knowledge. A Montessori toy is a tool that prompts learning by encouraging children to experiment. These physical, multi-sensory objects allow children to build developmental skills. The tools aid in teaching the child how to manipulate objects and independently think to creatively problem solve at their own pace.

The Montessori Method by Maria Montessori

One example of a Montessori tool is the Touch Fabrics. This exercise aids in developing and refining a child’s fine motor skills and in doing so it builds on their ability to concentrate, discriminate, and make judgments. This sensory experiment is aimed at children ages 2-5. A teacher will have a box of a variety of fabrics including silk, linen, velvet, muslin, satin, wool, and cotton. The teacher picks two of the most contrasting fabrics in terms of feel. For example, linen and cotton would not be a good comparison due to the similarity therefore too complicated to introduce the lesson. However, velvet and linen are very different in texture. Demonstrate how to lightly feel the fabric with their fingertips in between their finger and thumb. Allow the children to feel the two different fabrics one at a time then at the same time by placing them on top of each other. The students should experiment with pairing the fabrics by touch. Then the teacher will instruct the students to try closing their eyes as they feel and pair the fabric. After a student has paired three sets they may experiment with the whole box. By the end of the class, every student should feel and pair the following fabrics: silk, linen, velvet, muslin, satin, wool, and cotton. This experience is an introduction to textiles which are a stable of Montessori education.

"How we Montesorri" Sensory Bean Bags

Under Montessori’s new method of education, the children in her prgram flourished, exhibiting confidence, self-discipline, and enthusiasm. As a result, the Montessori Method leaped into the public eye. Only three years after the establishment of the Casa dei Bambini, Montessori schools could be found throughout Western Europe and were to be established worldwide. In 1911, the first Montessori opened in the United States. Maria Montessori’s work did not end there. Montessori dedicated the remainder of her life to bettering her approach to education. She was determined to get her message out there. Montessori traveled giving lectures, wrote books and articles, and published a guide for teachers to adopt her approach. Her determination and hard work lead to the establishment of Montessori education worldwide.

Maria Montessori’s fearlessness and drive did not end with her educational method. Montessori was a vigorous advocate for women’s rights. Montessori was actively involved in the fight for equality her entire life. Her work began by rebelling against conventions of what a woman should do by pursuing male-dominated fields such as engineering and medicine. The establishment of the Casa dei Bambini blended her feminist, social, and scientific approaches creating a space for holistic education. The Casa dei Bambini was not only a place for children but allowed for women to pursue careers outside of child-raising. Montessori explained, “Let it be remembered that all the mothers in the tenement may enjoy this privilege, going away to their work with easy minds. Until the present time, only one class in society might have this advantage.” Prior to her establishment of the Casa dei Bambini, Montessori received international acclaim as an advocate for women’s rights at the International Women’s Congress in Berlin in 1896 - the same year she graduated from medical school. She emphasized the need and importance of education and bridging the illiteracy gap. In her address, she spoke, “for the six million Italian women who work in factories and on farms as long as eighteen hours a day for pay that is often half of what men earn for the same work and sometimes even less.” Her moving words resonated with Congress and they adapted her proposal for equal pay for women without opposition. For the remainder of her life, Maria Montessori worked to better the lives of others through her words and writing.

The Montessori Method by Maria Montessori


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