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What is Montessori?

You may have heard of the word ‘Montessori’ and it is certainly becoming a term that is becoming more and more talked about in academic circles, but many people are still unsure of the significance of this revolution in education and often ask the following questions:

‘What is Montessori?’
‘What is the Montessori method of teaching?’
‘How will Montessori education benefit my child?’


So let us start from the beginning and talk about the history of Montessori and how it has evolved into one of the most revolutionary and exciting education methods available today.

The History of Montessori

Maria Montessori (born 1870, died 1952) was an Italian Doctor and Educator who has now become world famous for the teaching method that she invented and championed – the Montessori method.

After spending a lot of time studying educational theory in her early career she started to challenge the conventional methods of education used to teach children, and instead she devised learning materials and a classroom environment that nurtured the children’s desire to learn. She found that by giving the children educational work such as solving puzzles and learning to prepare meals, they developed an enthusiasm for learning, absorbing knowledge from their surroundings and environment, and ultimately teaching themselves and each other. This educational method was used in her first ‘Casa de Bambini’ or Children’s House which was opened in Rome in 1907, the children studying there made incredible academic progress, many reading and writing before they were 5 years old. Montessori later famously stated of her teaching method – “I did not invent a method of education, I simply gave some little children a chance to live”.

Word of this extremely effective educational method spread fast and some other countries in Europe started adapting their classrooms into ‘Casa de Bambini’ and practising the Montessori method. By 1909, Maria Montessori was giving training to other teachers who were keen to use her educational process and by 1911 the first Montessori school was opened in New York, USA. Dr Montessori herself then travelled to the US in 1913 and gave lectures on her teaching method and results to hundreds of eager listeners, and by 1916 there were more than 100 Montessori schools operating in the US.

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori in 1913.
Wikimedia Commons

This incredible growth of the teaching method in the US would undoubtedly have continued if it were not for World War I which led to negative sentiment and caused travel restrictions for Dr Montessori meaning that it would have been dangerous for her to make the journey from Europe to the US in order to continue with training and promoting her teaching. As a result the Montessori method became quite subdued in the US for the next 30 years until a teacher named Nancy McCormick Rambusch read about Montessori’s teaching, and then in 1953 travelled to Europe to learn more and receive training. She then worked passionately to cause a resurgence of the Montessori method in the US and founded the American Montessori society. Montessori education has remained very well practised in the United States since that time.

Maria Montessori continued teaching the method in Europe, but then World War II resulted in many of the Montessori schools being closed. Dr Montessori then left Europe and spent 7 years in India teaching the method to more than 1000 Indian teachers.

The rest – as they say – is history, the two World Wars that occurred during Maria Montessori’s life and career also encouraged her to encapsulate peace education into the Montessori curriculum, and education for social justice and peace remain core elements of the curriculum to this day.
Maria Montessori died in 1952 at the age of 81, during her life she had been nominated 3 times for the Nobel peace prize for her work on promotion of peace through education, and today there are more than 20,000 schools worldwide teaching the method that bears her name.

The Philosophy Behind Montessori Education

A cornerstone of the Montessori philosophy is the child centered approach (child-led learning). The teaching is based on an educational framework that places the child at the center of their learning journey. Children are empowered to construct their own knowledge, guided by their curiosity, creativity, and intrinsic motivation. This is a stark contrast to the traditional model of education, where learning is imposed upon the child.

The Child

The Montessori Method is rooted in a deep understanding, belief in and respect for the child.
Montessori identified specific planes of human development. Additionally, she isolated a list of universal human tendencies that all humans possess as a way to satisfy their fundamental

The Prepared Environment

“The idea is not to reproduce the adult world in miniature, or to distort reality into a make-believe paradise in which children’s wishes and fantasies are the only things considered.
Rather, the prepared environment should bring the world at large, and thus the adult world, within reach of the child at whatever stage of development it is at a given moment.” Maria Montessori, 1992

child led learning

Children serving food together at a Montessori school picnic

While the contents of the prepared environment for each “plane of development” will differ as it responds to the particular social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs of the children at a particular “plane of development,” there are some “essential characteristics” that should guide us in the construction of all appropriately “prepared environments” whether in the home or the school.
According to Montessori, the prepared environment should:

• provide ORDER
• provide NATURE and REALITY
• promote FREEDOM of CHOICE

The Adult

The responsibilities of the Adult are as a Creator and Caretaker, Exemplar, Observer, Stimulator, Instructor, Supporter, Protector and Respector.

“As much as nonintervention, self-teaching and liberty must be stressed, the adult’s role as supporter and helper should not be neglected. When a student needs help and requests it, that help must be there. Part of the role of a supporter, however, is found in holdingback… ‘[The teacher] must always be calm, always ready to run when she is called to show her love and sympathy. To be always ready, this is all that is required.” Maria Montessori – 1948

montessori guide

An adult instructor in the garden at Mammolina Montessori

Montessori Education

Montessori education is often described as an “education for life.” It is an individualized and practical learning approach which allows children to explore and progress at their own pace, through direct experience and through a process of research and discovery. The child is presented with lessons with materials from concrete and self-correcting learning that are ordered and displayed in shelves from the simple to the complex, in an environment carefully prepared and designed for your particular stage of development. This process is facilitated by a Montessori teacher specially trained, called a guide.

Understanding the Montessori Classroom (The Montessori Environment)

A crucial aspect of the Montessori method lies in its uniquely structured classroom environment. The classroom setup is designed to foster child independence, curiosity, and peer interactions. It is not unusual to find classrooms segmented into different areas, each dedicated to a specific learning material or activity. This allows children to choose what they want to learn, thus promoting self-directed learning.
Learning materials in a Montessori classroom are meticulously chosen and often have a sensory aspect to them. They are designed to be self-correcting, which means that the child can independently identify and correct their mistakes without needing the teacher’s intervention. This fosters a sense of independence and promotes problem-solving skills.

The teacher’s role in a Montessori classroom is more of a guide than an instructor. They are there to facilitate the learning process, not to dictate it. Teachers observe the interests and progress of each child, then subtly guide them toward activities and materials that will further their development. This enhances the child’s independence while also ensuring they are continually learning and growing.

montessori environment

The Montessori Environment in Childrens house at Mammolina Montessori

Benefits of Montessori Education

The Montessori method of education offers numerous benefits that contribute significantly to a child’s holistic development. Personalization is a key characteristic of this method. It allows educators to tailor the learning environment and curriculum to each child’s individual needs, interests, and pace of learning. This level of personalization not only caters to the child’s academic growth but also aids in emotional growth by acknowledging their unique abilities and potential.

A Montessori education also plays a pivotal role in enhancing creativity. Unlike traditional education systems that follow a rigid curriculum, Montessori teaching encourages the exploration of creative pursuits. This freedom stimulates the child’s imagination and fosters a love for learning, leading to a more engaged and enthusiastic learner.

Fostering independence is another significant benefit of Montessori education. Through practical life activities and freedom within limits, children learn to do things independently, developing self-confidence and problem-solving skills. This independence aids in academic achievement and sets the foundation for lifelong learning and adaptability.

Social development is also at the core of a Montessori education. The mixed-age classrooms promote interaction among children of different ages, facilitating peer learning, cooperation, and respect for others. This environment nurtures a sense of community and helps children understand and appreciate the diversity of the world around them.

Lastly, the focus on emotional growth in Montessori education ensures that children are not just academically prepared, but also emotionally resilient. By giving children the space to express their feelings and handle challenges, Montessori education cultivates emotional intelligence, empathy, and resilience in students. This holistic approach prepares children to navigate the world both academically and emotionally.

This progressive educational approach is now practised in thousands of schools across the globe, influencing generations of learners. It has also inspired numerous educational theories and practices, reshaping our understanding of how children learn and grow.

Famous Montessori Alumni

You only need to look at just some of the famous names that were educated by the Montessori method to realize that this teaching method has produced some world class innovators, in arts, science and technology.

Jeff Bezos – Amazon CEO
Larry Page and Sergey Brin – Google founders
Will Wright – Video game pioneer, creator of SimCity When I was a child I attended a Montessori school until 6th grade. At first I didn’t think much about it, but then I realized that that was the highest point of my education
Anne Frank – World War 2 diarist
George Clooney – Actor
David Blaine – Magician
Peter Drucker – Management innovator
Andrew Lloyd Webber – Composer
Mark Zuckerberg – Facebook founder
Joshua Bell – Violinist
Gabriel García Márquez – Colombian novelist, Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982I don’t think there is a better method than Montessori to sensitize children to the beauties of the world and to awaken their curiosity about the secrets of life.

famous montessori alumni

Jeff Bezos, Gabriel García Márquez,
Mark Zuckerberg and Andrew Lloyd Webber are all Montessori Alumni

Quotes by Maria Montessori

The child gives us a beautiful lesson – that in order to form and maintain our intelligence, we must use our hands.

The child is the creator of the man, certainly with regard to his adaptation to the environment.

I call a child of three years a man because I see his merits instead of his size. He has acquired a great degree of independence and can do many things for himself – he can eat, speak, and walk without assistance.

Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.