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The Century of the Child
Imagine the curtain of the twentieth century opening upon a
stage. Gathered on this stage are many of the great minds of
the world, poised to begin the mission of this new era declared
the “Century of the Child.” Among those great minds were
Sigmund Freud, Karl Jung, Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Anna
Freud, and a young woman named Maria Montessori. They
would be among the early leaders of the new century guiding
humanity to a greater understanding of the nature of the child,
and creating a new vision for child development and education.
Over the next fifty years, these great thinkers performed key
roles on the world stage that significantly influenced the dawning
of a new reality for the twentieth century children—and beyond.
Each of these individuals was a genius in his/her own right. Each
contributed greatly, from a particular perspective, to the understanding
of a child’s nature regardless of race, class, or culture,
and ultimately, to an understanding of our humanness. There
has been no other time in history when so many great minds, all
working simultaneously yet independently, escalated in such a
dramatic way knowledge and understanding of the child.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the child was a forgotten
citizen. The common byword of the day in the Western
world was “the child is to be seen, but not heard.” Children were
shuffled away; out of sight, out of mind, until such a moment
when they were brought forth as proof of a parent’s prowess and
fertility. Children had no rights and were considered little more
than small animals to be cared for and tolerated until the great
moment when the “rational mind” appeared. The magical “age
of reason” was thought to appear in the child somewhere around
age seven. It was at this age, educational authorities determined
a child’s formal education could begin.
Early Inspirations for Dr. Montessori
While these influential thinkers turned their thoughts to
life, learning, and the patterns of development, not one of
them took up the cause of the young child more than Dr. Maria
Montessori. In 1896, Maria Montessori became the first female
to earn a medical degree in Italy, graduating with honors from
the University of Rome Medical School. As a young physician,
Dr. Montessori worked in the hospital wards, lectured at the
University of Rome Medical School, and conducted research in
the psychiatric clinic connected to the university.
It was through her research work on the development of the
brain that Dr. Montessori first went to the local insane asylum
looking for research subjects. At the beginning of the twentieth
century, the only means to study the human brain was through
research on subjects with abnormal brains. The best resource
for subjects was the local insane asylum housing inmates ranging
from the criminally insane to young children living in
poverty who were labelled “misfits of society.” At the insane
asylum, children were housed alongside adults in a single institution.
As a relatively new democratic nation, modern Italy did
not have the resources to create separate institutions for those
who needed to be removed from society and for young children
imprisoned simply for trying to survive in a poverty-stricken
environment. Thus, children were lumped in with adults in
what was little more than a “friendly prison.” It was here that
Dr. Montessori first met children living under the direst of
While research at the Orthophrenic Hospital was conducted
on subjects of all ages, Dr. Montessori was particularly drawn to
the conditions and circumstances of the children.
Dr. Montessori was horrified at the very thought of young
children being housed with criminally insane adults. She was
also mystified by the asylum staff’s treatment of the children,
many of whom considered the children little more than unmanageable
One particular day, Dr. Montessori arrived just as the children
were finishing lunch. She witnessed the children scrambling
on the floor in search of fallen crumbs of bread. The
caregivers at the asylum interpreted this behaviour as evidence
that the children were little more than animals. However, Dr.
Montessori viewed this behaviour as that of stimulus-starved
children. The asylum was devoid of toys, educational materials,
or even the simplest items of everyday life. The stark nature of
this environment left the children limited to the most mundane
sources of intellectual stimulation.
Dr. Montessori witnessed the children’s great curiosity and
intensity even as they explored the breadcrumbs. Her heart
went out to these impoverished children living in such a sensory
deprived environment and it became her mission to save as many
of them as she could.
First, Dr. Montessori pleaded with the staff for the separation
of the children from the asylum’s population of primarily
insane criminals. She also took advantage of the fact that the
research subjects she chose would be removed from the insane
asylum and taken into residency at the Orthophrenic Hospital.
Dr. Montessori found herself adding more and more children to
the list of research subjects in an attempt to get them out of the
While her research and that of her colleagues revolved around
the medical aspects of treatment, Dr. Montessori was drawn to
the children’s strong desire to learn. She realized early on that
the surrounding environment must play a role in supporting and
nurturing a child’s development. She was drawn to researching
the potential of these children.
Dr. Montessori gave a great deal of thought and energy
toward understanding the anthropological dynamics of the
abnormal child. She also recognized how important it was for
children to have decent hygiene and a healthier diet. As a part
of her research, she began to chart the physical development
of the children as their overall health began to improve. At
the same time, Dr. Montessori became increasingly curious
about the learning potential of these disadvantaged children.
She believed they had innate powers that could be tapped into,
even when there appeared on the surface to be little potential
still remaining in these so called “mentally defective” children.
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The Writings of Itard and Séguin
Dr. Montessori began researching academic writings regarding
instructional techniques that might be used with the children
from the asylum. She found little, aside from the writings of
two French medical doctors from the 1800s, Jean Marc Gaspard
Itard and Edouard Séguin. Both of these men had worked with
children labelled as “mentally defective.”
Dr. Itard became a surgeon and worked in the army during the
French Revolution in the 1790s. In 1796, Dr. Itard was working
as a surgeon in the hospital at Toulon, France. He showed great
talent and was later accepted for an internship in Paris. In 1800,
Itard became the chief physician for the National Institute for the
Deaf and Mute in Paris. Around this same time, a “wild boy” was
discovered in the forest near Aveyron, France. He was twelve years
old, mute, and walked on all fours at the time he was discovered.
Many of Dr. Itard’s contemporaries considered this boy to
be nothing more than an abandoned, mentally retarded child.
However, Dr. Itard believed the boy had simply been isolated
from human contact for too long. He worked with the Wild Boy
of Aveyron, later named Victor, for five years. He believed he
could teach Victor through stimulation of the senses and adaptation
to social norms.
Dr. Itard had only limited success in his work with Victor.
However, he was later awarded for his work as one of the earliest
teachers advocating for special teaching methods to educate
disabled children. Today, Dr. Itard is hailed as the “father of
special education.” His writings formed the basis for the work
of Edouard Séguin, who also did some of the earliest work with
mentally retarded children.
Dr. Séguin came from a family of prominent physicians and
received the best medical training that existed in the early nineteenth
century. Interested in psychology, he studied under Dr.
Itard who was instrumental in directing Dr. Séguin’s interests
toward the needs of mentally retarded children.
In 1837, Dr. Séguin began to work with his first mentally
retarded patient. He began with stimulation of the senses, following
in the footsteps of his mentor. He firmly believed that
mental deficiency was not a matter of an abnormal brain but of
an abnormal “nervous system.”
Dr. Séguin’s class of mentally retarded patients grew rapidly.
He focused on the development of instructional activities that
would serve to stimulate the individual sense organs as the portals
to the mind. Sensory training and motor training with age
appropriate activities were key components in working with the
impaired students. Dr. Séguin applied these techniques and
provided a rich, stimulating environment for his subjects. He
also created educational guidelines that involved intellectual and
physical tasks specifically to help disabled students develop independence
Dr. Séguin’s educational guidelines influenced later work by
others educating children with special needs. Sadly, despite his
accomplishments, in many ways Dr. Séguin considered himself a
failure since he could not find a cure for mental deficiency.
The writings of these two doctors inspired Dr. Montessori. She
also realized they were the only documented practical attempts to
teach children with mental deficiencies. Dr. Montessori went to
Paris and translated these writings word-for-word by herself so
she would not miss any nuance of inspiration. While both Drs.
Itard and Séguin felt they were unsuccessful in many aspects of
their work, both developed important techniques for working
with disadvantaged children. Dr. Montessori recognized the tremendous
value in their educational approaches.
Montessori teachers today will recognize the influences of Dr.
Itard in the use of the moveable alphabet and of Dr. Séguin,
in the matching of pairs material in the sensorial area—tasting
bottles, sound boxes, color tablets. These techniques and
the learning materials described in their writings served as Dr.
Montessori’s beginning point.
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Dr. Montessori Creates Her Own Program
Her lectures at various medical and educational congresses,
especially the Educational Convention in Turin in 1898, led to
greater prominence. Italy’s Minister of Education appointed Dr.
Montessori as the Director of the Orthophrenic School, a new medical-
pedagogical institute in Rome. In this position, Dr.Montessori
gave lectures to teachers on learning abilities and appropriate techniques
for teaching children with learning difficulties.
For two years, Dr. Montessori trained teachers to use the
techniques she had developed. Oftentimes, she was in the classroom
working with the children as much as the teachers she was
training. During this exciting time of developing her program,
Dr. Montessori believed these teaching techniques would be
appropriate and beneficial for all children. However, she also
faced the scorn of her colleagues. Many of Dr. Montessori’s
medical contemporaries accused her of lowering herself to the
level of a kindergarten teacher. This criticism did not deter Dr.
Montessori from her research and application of a new approach
to teaching children.
Dr. Montessori’s initial work with children who had been
labelled “defective and hopeless” was so successful that many of
these children passed the state examination that “normal” children
took in the public schools. Many educators wondered what
magical instructional techniques Dr. Montessori had discovered
that made it possible for her “defective” students to excel beyond
the “normal” students. At the same time, Dr. Montessori wondered
about the limitations of Italy’s state educational system.
In 1904, Dr. Montessori gave up her direct work with the
children at the Orthophrenic School, resigned from all hospital
obligations, and closed her private medical practice. She chose
to again become a student at the University of Rome. This time,
she studied philosophy and anthropology. She also continued
to lecture at the University about her experiences working with
children at the Orthophrenic School.
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The First Children’s Houses
In 1906, Dr. Montessori was offered the opportunity to create
a series of schools for infants in the tenements of Rome. A group
of wealthy bankers, calling themselves the Insituto Romano di
Beni Stabili (Roman Good Building Institute) was revitalizing
abandoned housing complexes. In the late 1800s, there were
sections of Rome that had large housing complexes partially built
but never finished due to a series of economic recessions.
This group of bankers bought the abandoned buildings and
refurbished them to provide housing for people from the countryside
moving to the city to work in factories. At the time, these
tenements were considered a great example of urban renewal.
The bankers were quite proud of their efforts and were determined
to do the same in several other parts of Rome.
The first housing area refurbished was the San Lorenzo quarter,
a very poor neighborhood within Rome. Workers who lived in
these buildings considered them a great improvement over their
previous living situations. The bankers got great positive press coverage
for their successful efforts. There was only one problem; San
Lorenzo was “infested” with a gang of young children who were left
to their own devices while their parents were at work. The children
were vandalizing the buildings and creating mischief.
The Director of the Roman Association for Good Building
asked Dr. Montessori to take charge of these wayward children who
ranged in age from two to seven years on a type of “home school”
setting. The owners gave Dr. Montessori one apartment for her
needs, but not much more. She opened the first of these “infant
schools” in the San Lorenzo quarter on January 6, 1907, which is
the Feast of the Epiphany, a special Christian celebration.
Dr. Montessori called her schools Casa dei Bambini, or as we
know them today in Montessori education, Children’s Houses.
Dr. Montessori opened two Children’s Houses in the tenements.
The remainder of her schools were opened in other venues
throughout Rome and later Milan because of a growing enthusiasm for her successful approach to teaching children. A series
of sixteen schools was to become the foundation and the catalyst
for a great social and educational experiment. Dr. Montessori
only opened a couple of Casas for this group of bankers before
striking out on her own.
The openings of Casa dei Bambini in Rome and Milan
allowed Dr. Montessori a variety of children from diverse
backgrounds to become part of the experiment. For example,
she opened a Montessori school at the British Embassy for the
education of the staff children. The Catholic Franciscan Sisters
opened a Montessori school specifically for children orphaned
by the 1908 Messina, Sicily earthquake that killed some 70,000
people. From this point on, Dr. Montessori dedicated herself to
a deeper understanding of the nature of learning in children.
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Dr. Montessori’s Travels to the United States
In 1911, Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone)
read about Dr. Montessori’s teaching methods in
“McClure’s,” an American literary and political magazine. The magazine had featured a series of articles by Josephine Tozier that described Dr. Montessori’s work as “this marvellous new
educational approach.” Bell offered to help Dr. Montessori
get to the United States to lecture about her findings because
of the growing interest in her educational approaches. Samuel
McClure, editor and owner of “McClure’s,” saw the opportunity
to spread the word through a speaking tour and the creation of
a Montessori Department in his magazine, which would offer
ongoing information on Dr. Montessori’s work. In 1913, Dr.
Montessori made her first visit to the United States, sponsored
by Samuel McClure. She travelled and lectured throughout the
United States and was a huge success.
Dr. Montessori returned to the United States for a second—
and last—visit in 1915 to help set up a Montessori classroom
exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, also
called the World’s Expo, in San Francisco. When Dr. Montessori
arrived at the venue she quickly saw the challenge of setting up
a model classroom in an open space. She wanted to protect the
children and still give the visitors a close-up view of what was
happening inside. Dr. Montessori resolved this challenge by having
a series of glass walls erected around the open space. Bleacher
seats were provided outside the glass walls for the observers and
visitors. This “glass classroom” soon became a favorite stopping
place at the World Expo.
Thousands of parents applied for their children to be accepted
into the model classroom at the World Expo, but only 30 children
were chosen. Dr. Montessori allowed the classroom sessions
to be conducted by two of her American teaching students.
A favorite time for visitors was just about lunch time when they
could watch the children prepare their own food, then serve each
other with great elegance. Visitors were mesmerized with how
the children conducted themselves with great grace and dignity.
The Montessori exhibit was awarded both of the gold medals for
Education at the close of the 1915 World Expo.
Montessori Approach Expands Worldwide
Despite prejudices and discouraging articles written against
the Montessori approach, and the advent of two world wars, Dr.
Montessori’s work continued to grow in influence and application
throughout the world. Dr. Montessori spent the remainder
of her life exploring the means to educating “man” to his fullest
potential. She wrote prolifically about her discoveries and
trained teachers worldwide who used her methods.
Dr. Montessori never considered herself an educator, but
always saw herself as a researcher. The children were her subjects
and from them she learned everything she needed to know to
meet their needs. She did not believe that her discoveries were
ever hers, but that they belonged to the children. Indeed, it was
not her method, but rather the children’s method since they were
the authors who revealed their natural way of learning to her.
Despite Dr. Montessori’s humility in taking credit for her
work, she interpreted what she observed in the children’s learning.
Her interpretation of these observations and the creation of
activities for the children was truly Dr. Montessori’s genius. She
learned much from her study of Drs. Itard and Séguin’s writings
and findings. She also expanded her understanding by sharing
ideas with her contemporaries. However, it was Dr. Montessori’s
insight that gave structure to the application of the ideas and the
creation of a teaching or “pedagogical system” for early childhood
Dr. Montessori eventually expanded her exploration of the
learning needs of children to include six-to-twelve-year-old
students, young adolescents, and the young adult. She saw the
need for a specific type of environment and a particular set of
learning activities and techniques appropriate for the development
of the full human, or what she called “the new man.” Today
in Montessori, we think of this as the development of “the new
human.” Dr. Montessori saw early learning as the process of
creating the whole of the new personality of the individual.
In essence, each child is creating the core of the man or woman
he/she will become in the years that follow.
Dr. Montessori survived two major world wars, the second
of which could have easily destroyed her life’s work. She became
increasingly convinced that the only way to change society was
through the education of the young child. She believed that children
with a strong positive sense of self, and a respectful positive
attitude toward others, could become the basis for a new society. Dr.
Montessori envisioned this new society based on cohesion, respect,
and dignity. It would be a society grounded in peace, not war.
Throughout her lifetime, Dr. Montessori was quite vocal in
her message regarding the nature of peace and the role of education.
Her efforts were recognized with nominations for the
Nobel Peace Prize in both 1949 and 1950.
Dr. Montessori’s legacy exists today through the organization,
the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), which she created with
her son, Mario Montessori. Today, her legacy is carried out in
AMI training centers throughout the world and in all classrooms
where teachers still apply Dr. Montessori’s original principles in
the twenty-first century.
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