Biography of Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori was, in many ways, ahead of her time. Born in the town of Chiaravalle, in the province of Ancona, Italy, in 1870, she became the first female physician in Italy upon her graduation from medical school in 1896. Shortly afterwards, she was chosen to represent Italy at two different women's conferences, in Berlin in 1896 and in London in 1900. 

In her medical practice, her clinical observations led her to analyze how children learn, and she concluded that they build themselves from what they find in their environment. Shifting her focus from the body to the mind, she returned to the university in 1901, this time to study psychology and philosophy. In 1904, she was made a professor of anthropology at the University of Rome. 

Her desire to help children was so strong, however, that in 1906 she gave up both her university chair and her medical practice to work with a group of sixty young children of working parents in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. It was there that she founded the first Casa dei Bambini, or "Children's House." What ultimately became the Montessori method of education developed there, based upon Montessori's scientific observations of these children's almost effortless ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings, as well as their tireless interest in manipulating materials. Every piece of equipment, every exercise, every method Montessori developed was based on what she observed children to do "naturally," by themselves, unassisted by adults. 

Children teach themselves. This simple but profound truth inspired Montessori's lifelong pursuit of educational reform, methodology, psychology, teaching, and teacher training—all based on her dedication to furthering the self-creating process of the child. 
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. 

In 1940, when India entered World War II, she and her son, Mario Montessori, were interned as enemy aliens, but she was still permitted to conduct training courses. Later, she founded the Montessori Center in London (1947). She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times—in 1949, 1950, and 1951. 

Maria Montessori died in Noordwijk, Holland, in 1952, but her work lives on through the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), the organization she founded in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 1929 to carry on her work. 

Montessori 101

"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."- Dr. Maria Montessori

The Montessori Method is a philosophy that respects the unique individuality of each child. Dr. Montessori believed in the worthiness, value and importance of children. Her method is founded on the belief that children should be free to succeed and learn without restriction or criticism.

It is an approach to education that helps children learn in their own way at their own pace. The main concept of Montessori is to promote the joy of learning. This joy of learning develops a well adjusted person who has a purpose and direction in his or her life. Children, who experience the joy of learning, are happy, confident, fulfilled children.

Other important skills it teaches are self-reliance and independence. It helps children to become independent by teaching them life skills, which are called “practical life”. Montessori children learn to dress themselves, help cook, put their toys and clothes away and take an active part of their household, neighborhood and school.

Montessori works in a methodical way. Each step in the process leads to the next level of learning. When a child plays, he or she is really learning concepts for later learning. Repetition of activities is an integral part of this learning process. 

Maria Montessori’s scientific observation of the child was the essential component of her scientific research. The revelation came from the children; it is contained in their special kind of mind and the fact that we can allow them to act freely in the right environment. 

Horme - The secret of childhood is that deep within each and every child, there is an inner drive. This unconscious life force, called horme, drives the child to develop himself (auto-educate). This is how the child’s mind is built. In order to provide the necessary sensory input so the synapses in the brain can multiply, the child must be fully engaged in his environment and be free to move. 

“Only through freedom and environmental experience is it practically possible for human development to occur.” Movement has great importance in mental development; however, it must be connected with mental activity. 

How Does the Brain Develop

  • neurons, dendrite, synapses, neural pruning
  • if conncections are not made, they will die off
  • this is the importance of early learning

All development is cephalocaudal - top/down, centre/out 

Movement requires the coordination of the brain, the senses and the muscles. It is through movement that the child develops his intelligence and gains his independence. 

The Absorbent Mind Maria Montessori believed that every human being went through a quantum leap in learning during the preschool years. She felt this was especially true during the first few years of life. The years when a child learns language is surely a profound and mysterious process of learning. The urges that a baby has to sit up, crawl, and walk are also stages of development that are innate. Montessori called this process of learning and behavior norms as the sensitive periods. During a sensitive period it is very easy to teach children certain concepts that later on will be considerably more difficult for an older child to learn. 
Dr. Montessori believed that a child was the teacher and that we should observe our children to know which stage of learning or sensitive period they are in.

Sensitive Periods for Learning
Birth to 3 years:The absorbent mind-the mind soaks up information like a sponge.Sensory learning and experiences: The child uses all five senses-touch, taste, feel, sight, and hearing-to understand and absorb information about his or her environment.

1 ½ to 3 years:Language explosion-a child builds his or her future foundation for language at this period. 

1 ½ to 4 years:Development and coordination of fine and large muscle skills, advanced developing grasp and release skill spawns an interest in any small object (usually dangerous ones on the floor). 

2 to 4 years:Very mobile with greater coordination and refinement of movement, increased interest in language and communication (they love to tell stories- true or not!), aware of spatial relationships, matching, sequence and order of objects. 

2 ½ to 6 years:Works well incorporating all five senses for learning and adapting to environment . 

3 to 6 years:Interest and admiration of the adult world, they want to copy and mimic adults-such as parents and teachers. One of the few times most children are very open to their parents and other adults. 

4 to 5 years:Using one’s hands and fingers in cutting, writing and art. Their tactile senses are very developed and acute. 

4 ½ to 6 years:Reading and math readiness, and eventually, reading and math skills. 

The Montessori method is based upon an environment prepared especially for the child. 

How is the environment prepared? 
The environment is prepared in a way that meets the needs of children. 


  • Child-size
  • Easily movable.
  • Tables
  • Shelves


  • Progression of materials
  • Easy to difficult
  • Left to right
  • Simple to complex
  • Concrete to abstract

Freedom of Movement:

  • When a child begins to act freely in the prepared environment, as his normal routine, because he has chosen to do so, then his whole ego is active and his personality functions as a unity following the intimate rhythm of his life. We say this is work.


  • Aware of the developmental needs of the child
  • A catalyst for learning
  • Must have faith in the child
  • Is the connection between the material and the child
  • Walks a fine line between imposing her will and allowing the child to express his needs in the construction of his or her personality.
  • Is creative, respectful and flexible
  • Allows the child to explore the material in a respectful manner allowing the child to self- construct
  • Establishes order in the classroom
  • Sits back, yet intercedes when needed
  • Nurtures the children
  • Moves the child along, when they are ready
  • Assesses strengths, weaknesses and capabilities
  • Able to deal with spur of the moment situations

“The work of education is divided between the teacher and the environment” 
- Discovery of the Child page 152 
The classroom is divided into 5 areas - Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Math and Cultural studies. 

Independence is not a static condition, it is one of continuous conquest ... to reach not only freedom but also strength, and the perfecting of one’s powers. Children actively choose their own work to develop independence and strength. We are living in a time when parents feel they must do everything for their child and schedule them “to death”. The Hurried Child syndrome is defeating the purpose of childhood and we are creating people with poor work ethics and attitudes. 

A child who is allowed to follow his or her inner urge is naturally developing his or her own self. 

Development of the Will 
A child’s will power is something that arises from within the child. It must be produced, starting from nothing. Knowledge and will must be created. If the child never uses his will, it will never develop. He or she must have the power over their individual choices. The child must be allowed to self-construct. Learning to make choices enables children to live from their own forces. 

Four Planes of Development Dr. Montessori observed that children go through four quite distinct and noticeable periods of physical and psychological changes. As the needs of the child change at different stages of development, so must the environment change, and the experiences within that environment. What we offer the child at one stage is often not helpful at another stage, and sometimes even harmful.

We must realize that Human Tendencies are observable at all ages, but they manifest themselves differently. For example, during the ages 3-6, children explore through their senses, and during the ages 6-12, they explore through their imagination. The Montessori approach is the same at all ages, but the particular applications of the approach must change, according to the child's needs.

Dr. Montessori described four planes (or stages) of development, each of which last six years:

  • Birth to six (infancy)
  • Six to twelve (childhood)
  • Twelve to eighteen (adolescence)
  • Eighteen to twenty-four (transition to adulthood)

The first three years of each plane show the most dramatic change; during the second half, the child stabilizes. The first and third planes of development have some parallels and similarities. They show the most dramatic development, and have many needs. The second and fourth planes are also similar. They are healthy, stable, strong periods of development.

The First Plane of Development 
The most special characteristic of this plane is the Absorbent Mind. This makes the child of this age different from any other time of life. There is a very different capacity for learning. Through the Absorbent Mind, the child creates the person she will become. It enables the child to acquire the culture of her environment. To assist the child in this creative process, the adult should create a special, prepared environment.

The Sensitive Periods are strongest and most prevalent during this plane. The sensitive periods attract the Absorbent Mind, and facilitates the child's learning of the skills necessary for the child's survival. The intensity of interest during a sensitive period is unlike at any other time. It is rather like a flashlight that shines on a particular area giving the child a focal point.We should respond to that intensity of interest by making activities appropriate to that interest available. 
The First Sub-Plane (Birth to three years)

This is the most critical period of development. The greatest changes take place during the first 3 years of life. At this time, the child has what is called the unconscious Absorbent Mind. This means that she is not conscious of her actions and reactions. She does not act on a willed choice, nor have a conscious memory. She is very intent on using the five senses for exploring (a Human Tendency), and therefore, the adult must provide sensorial exploration, by letting her be a part of everyday life.

The Second Sub-Plane (three to six years) 
At this stage, the child still has the Absorbent Mind, but she is now in the stage of the conscious Absorbent Mind. She realizes that she is learning. She is conscious of her thoughts, and the fact that she can think for herself. She must be allowed to actively participate in life around her, by using her hands. The child at this stage needs to do things by herself. She can only learn through her own experiences, by doing with her hands.

The Second Plane of Development 
Compared to the first plane of development, children at this stage are more stable, have great energy, and relative calm. The child has mastered the basic human skills: basic intelligence, coordinated movements, fluent speech, and a developed personality. He is socially adapted to his culture. He no longer has the Absorbent Mind. He now learns through reasoning, using his imagination and logic to explore areas of study. The child at this age has an insatiably inquisitive mind. He wants to know how, when, where of everything.

During this plane, the child is in the sensitive period for peer identity. It is very important for him to be accepted as a member of a group. It is at this stage that children first begin to distance themselves from their families. It's not that they love them any less, but that they love being a part of a group and the feeling of independence that brings. 
This plane also brings a sensitive period for developing morals and ethics. The children should be involved in setting up rules of the classroom, or home. It is during this time that children should be introduced to fairy tales. They love stories where the bad guy gets punished.

The Third Plane of Development 
We can compare the third plane of development to the first, because it is a time of great transformation, both physically and psychologically. The first sub-plane (12-15 years) is a time of greater change than the second sub-plane (15-18 years). At this stage, children are not inclined to great energy. They like to sleep late. It is difficult to get them to do chores. Mentally, they have developed logical thinking, but they do not like to be pressured into learning facts. All academic learning should be connected to real life skills: cooking, gardening, sewing, car repair, etc. Maria Montessori envisioned a different type of school environment for the third plane of development, which she called Erdkinder. She was never able to create such a school, but she did write about her ideas for it. She envisioned a self-sufficient community, possibly a farm. The students would grow their own food (study agriculture), plan meals (study nutrition), add to the buildings (architecture), make their own clothing (clothing design). They may also write their own plays about historical events, write poetry, songs, choreograph dances... In this protected environment, under adult supervision, adolescents would be prepared for living on their own. This would satisfy their strong need for independence while helping them learn that a harmonious society consists of inter-dependent people.

If the child in the second plane of development is allowed to learn all that he is capable of, then we can let up on the adolescent. The educational environment should be truly based on the developmental needs of children and not on some arbitrary criteria designed by a bureaucratic board of education.

The Fourth Plane of Development 
This is the transition to adulthood. It is usually the time when they have their first experience living away from home. From 18-21 years, they are in a period of questioning, a career search. From 21-24, they are settling in with what they want to take on. If we have given the youth enough exposure to many branches of learning and practical skills, s/he can now choose a profession that is deeply satisfying. The quest for independence can now be achieved Therefore, they are now accepting of their parents. 

Dr. Montessori built her entire educational approach around the special needs and characteristics of each stage of development. With knowledge of the four planes of development, we can prepare the right environment for our children. With activities suited to their age and natural inclinations, we can have happier, healthier children and adults. 

Freedom and Discipline 
Freedom in an ordered society carries with it responsibility. It is this balance of liberty and responsibility which leads the individual to self-discipline, the ability to make correct choices. The freedom in the Montessori classroom allows children to make choices which are dictated by the child's natural laws of development, particularly those of the Sensitive Periods. Choosing an activity which is of vital interest during a Sensitive Period results in productive work, intense concentration, and joyful, easy learning of skills.

Freedoms in the Montessori classroom must have logical limitations, which become guidelines for appropriate behavior. When we give freedom to children without any limitations, we are guilty of abandonment and neglect. Children must be given norms for their own moral development. Children are not born with knowledge of good and bad or right and wrong. We have to give children clear guidelines for responsible behavior. However, the difficult job of the adult is to make sure that the guidelines are neither too strict nor too free. We must prepare the child for life. Dr. Montessori believed that education should be an aid to life.

There are specific freedoms in the Montessori classroom, each one with certain limitations:

  • Children are free to choose work: A child can follow his own interest, as dictated by the Sensitive Periods. True choice must be based on knowledge; one must be given knowledge of the material before one can choose work. The limitation is that the child must have been presented a material before he may choose it. In the beginning, when the child knows few materials, freedom is limited. Freedom expands as the child's knowledge of the materials expand.
  • The children must use the materials with respect to its purpose: The materials must not be misused or abused.
  • Children are free to work as long as they wish: A child may work according to his own particular timing and rhythm. We do not schedule the children's work. Through repetition, he becomes more deeply involved in his work, which leads to concentration. We must hold sacred the child's right not to be interrupted while concentrating, even to the point of not giving a small word of praise. There are few limits to this freedom, except that they may work on something as long as they wish, as long as they are working productively.
  • Children are free to move about: Movement and learning are intricately connected; children may move about the room as they wish. Children can choose the place where they work - on a "working rug" or at a table. The limitations are clear: the freedom to move is never a license for disorder and making noise. Children may not move in a way that would disturb other children's work. All the lessons of Practical Life help children gain control over their bodies.
  • Children are free to talk and converse: Children can freely interact and communicate, which brings about natural socializing. The limitations are again clear: voices must be kept low enough not to disturb others (but not a whisper). The children must learn not to interrupt others in their work. However, idle chit-chat that distracts from work is discouraged.
  • Children are free to repeat: A child may work with materials as often as he wishes. When a child uses a material for the first time, it is out of superficial curiosity. It is during repetition that the child is deeply drawn into the activity, gaining from it the skill or knowledge for which it was designed. It is sometimes difficult to establish repetition because we live in such a hurried society. However, all creative people - inventors, discoverers, artists - had to repeat and repeat to find what they were looking for or to create what they had planned.

We must teach all the necessary lessons of Grace and Courtesy to teach appropriate manners. In the beginning, freedom is limited; gradually it is expanded, as the children develop self-discipline.

Through a carefully prepared environment and a balance of freedom and discipline, the child can reach a state of normalization, which Montessori described as an optimum functioning of an individual. Always, we must hold before us a vision of a child who has attained the higher human faculties of self-control and self-discipline. Such a child will become the new man or woman of tomorrow, who will be able to help shape the future of humankind.


Can anyone open a Montessori School? 
Yes, they can. The name Montessori is in the public domain and anyone can use it.  Many nursery schools and daycares use the name Montessori without actually following the philosophy designed by Dr. Maria Montessori.

In Canada, the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators accredits Montessori schools.  Accredited schools are listed on the CCMA website (  Tall Pines School is the longest accredited CCMA school in Canada.  Our teachers all have credentials to prove their qualifications and our classrooms are superbly equipped with Montessori learning materials.  The most common Montessori teaching credentials are A.M.I., A.M.S., and T.M.I.  In accredited schools, the teachers are qualified, the environment is properly equipped with materials for learning at the appropriate age and developmental stage, and the children attend five days a week.  In accredited schools, a group of consultants from CCMA has visited the school, including each classroom, and has ensured that the school meets the national standards for Montessori education, is financially sound and is professionally run.

The Ministry of Education does not accredit or inspect elementary schools.  Private elementary schools are simply listed with the Ministry and the schools submit statistical information every year.  The Ministry of Education does inspect schools that offer secondary school programs from grades nine to twelve.

Why aren't all Montessori Schools accredited? 
Accreditation is a lengthy process. All areas of the school are examined - financial, academic, and social.  Staff go through a process of self-evaluation, peer evaluation and ultimately CCMA evaluation.  The consultants ensure that policies and procedures, parent education, student tracking, evaluation, planning and communication are being done appropriately.  In short, CCMA determines that the school is walking its talk. We must ensure that the Montessori philosophy is being lived if we call ourselves a Montessori school. 
There are, unfortunately, many schools which use the Montessori name, even though they do not have the Montessori materials nor trained teachers.

How Can I Recognize a good Montessori School? 
First of all, there is a special kind of joy in a Montessori School. There is an air of busyness, respect and excitement. The Montessori prepared environment has certain especially designed equipment that must be a part of the program. Practical Life materials, or everyday living equipment, is meticulous. It is clean, tidy, colour coordinated and limited only in amount. Sensorial materials are an important part of the Montessori program. They are often wooden and, they show that they have been used carefully.  Montessori Math materials are not worksheets and books. They are hands-on Montessori materials, such as the Golden Bead Material,  that develop the mathematical mind of the child. They show relationships between quantities, e.g. ones and thousands, or tens and hundreds. Montessori Language materials center around the sandpaper letters and Movable Alphabet. Whether spoken or written, language is alive in the Montessori classroom. Culture is a way of life. Science, cultures and traditions, the life of the animal and plant kingdoms, and a developing sense of being a true person open the eyes of the young child in a Montessori classroom. 

Montessori children are children in love with the world. They are excited by an insect, love to look up at the sky, and make exciting discoveries in every aspect of life. Montessori is joy! 

Why is the Montessori classroom so quiet? 
I can see the children talking, but with 30 children in the classroom, it seems very quiet. 
All of the children are expected to be respectful - respectful of themselves, others and the environment. They understand the necessity of "inside" voices, and they also understand that at a different time of the day, they will be able to use their "outside" voices. Children understand that in order to be respectful of others, they must be able to control their voice. 

I hardly noticed the adult in the classroom. Shouldn't she be more in charge? 
One of the things that is very important in the Montessori environment is the independence of the child. The directress or guide gives the children only support for their own development of independence. Once something has been shown, the children are set free on a path of self-construction and exploration. The role of the directress is one who directs or guides the children. Montessori is child-centered education, not teacher centered. 

Why doesn't the directress stop the children once they have done a particular activity?
Some of the children repeat the same thing again and again? Once they have done something, why do it again?  The children are responding to a personal intrinsic need for repetition. Adults work to achieve a product while children work for the process. They do not just focus on achieving a specific goal. They love the process. The child is proud when he can pour water without spilling a drop. Imagine how good they feel about themselves when they can do it again and again and again. The motive of the adult is to pour the water for a purpose, the children do it to develop the adult they are to become - unhindered by the challenges put in the way by the adult. The adult in the Montessori classroom stands back out of respect for the child and the human he is constructing. 

Does the adult ever step in when a child repeats and repeats? 
Yes, of course.  If a child is unfocused and not deliberate in his actions, he may be challenged to do something else.  The role of the directress is to challenge the child on an ongoing basis - she is aware of the next step in the continuum of human development. 

How do you know what all of the children have achieved and what they should be doing next? 
All classes have extensive and intensive tracking processes. Observation is extremely important in the Montessori environment.  Staff maintain detailed records of each child.  Running records are maintained of exercises presented and completed and the exploration that followed; anecdotal records are kept of observations of social interaction or difficulties with concepts or ideas; and goals or expectations of children are always defined so that benchmarks are established, but are not restrictive in any way.  There is never an upward limit for the Montessori child.

Books About Montessori

Suggested Reading List

By Dr. Montessori:

  • The Secret of Childhood
  • The Absorbent Mind
  • The Discovery of the Child
  • The Formation of Man
  • Education for a New World
  • To Educate the Human Potential
  • The Child in the Family
  • Education and Peace
  • From Childhood to Adolescence
  • The Advanced Montessori Method: Volume One
  • The Advanced Montessori Method: Volume Two

By Mario Montessori, Jr.:

  • Education for Human Development: Understanding Montessori

By E.M. Standing:

  • Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work
  • The Montessori Revolution in Education

By Paula Polk Lillard:

  • Montessori, A Modern Approach

By Rita Kramer:

  • Maria Montessori, a Biography 

By Angeline Stoll Lillard:

  • Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius