Maria Montessori, who was born in 1870, was the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Italy. She developed an interest in childhood diseases, and later developed a teaching programme that enabled apparently 'ineducable' children to read and write. She based her ideas on the principle that the senses should be educated first, and then the intellect. Skills should be learnt not by endless repetition, she suggested, but by providing exercises that prepare the children to discover things for themselves. For example, learning to look develops into reading, while touching leads to writing.
In 1901, she was put in charge of a centre for supposedly unteachable children in Rome, where she was appalled by the conditions she found. She transformed the environment there into one providing care, love and rich experiences. Following the application of the learning principles she had observed from children themselves, they soon began to pass exams for which they were thought incapable. As she herself said, 'I studied the children and they taught me how to teach them.'
In 1907 she had the opportunity to organise day-care for young children in one of Rome's poorest areas. Using the principles she had learnt, she provided a place where the children took care of their own environment and were given interesting things to play with which related to real life, and which challenged them in different ways. This was the first of many Casa dei Bambini (Children's Houses) which were eventually established across the world.
A prepared environment
Maria Montessori was convinced that learning comes through all five senses, not just reading, listening or watching. She was also convinced that children instinctively know what is appropriate to their own development, and that this is different for every child.
Consequently, formal whole-class-based lessons are rejected in favour of creating a prepared environment which provides the resources for children to learn at their chosen time and pace. Each child can choose from a wide variety of activities, watched over by a teacher who encourages and facilitates the learning process, but does not force it. Children are able to remain at one activity for as long as they wish, or to move to another - but only when they have carefully returned the materials to their proper place.
Entering into a Montessori setting, you are likely to find children deeply involved in all sorts of learning activities, often using beautifully created materials and tools, specially designed for the purpose. This approach means that 'subjects' are not taught in rigid isolation at specified times; instead, you might find elements of maths, language, science, history, art, music, and so on, being touched on during any one session.
Social education is not neglected, however, and children are encouraged to respect and help one another and to care for the facilities and resources, putting things away properly, and not interrupting one another.
Put very simply, the Montessori method is to create an stimulating, multi-sensory environment where the children are able to learn for themselves without external pressure.
We have a page of useful links which includes a number of Montessori organisations.
© 2014, Shamley Green Montessori Pre-school