Born in Italy in 1870 into an affluent family, Maria Montessori came of age in an industrial era devoid of any recognition of the rights of children and only a shade more attentive to the plight of women. The circumstances did little, however, to deter her.
In 1896 she became the first woman in Italy to take the degree of Doctor of Medicine. In this same year she championed the cause of Italy’s working women at a feminist congress in Berlin. A few years later, she gave her support to a movement directed against the exploitation of child labor. For Maria Montessori, a lifelong commitment to society’s voiceless, powerless, and disenfranchised members had commenced.
A decade later Montessori’s work for the Psychiatric Clinic in the University of Rome took her into the city’s asylums where she was introduced to the “idiot children” who were housed with the insane. After much observation and study, Montessori concluded that the children’s mental challenges were pedagogical rather than medical in nature.
From here, Montessori’s conviction that the neglected children were capable and deserving of much more intellectually and spiritually, led to the creation of the famous Casa de Bambini (Children’s House) in the slums of Rome in 1912. It was there the children revealed to her that they were not little adults, and that each and every student demonstrated unique tendencies and sensitivities in relation to their development and the school’s environment.
Montessori set out to provide a special setting, a prepared environment, specifically suited to the needs of the children. From the size of the furniture to the sensorial nature and practicality of the materials to the absence of motivation by rewards and punishments to the indirect role of the teacher, the message to the children and the world beyond was clear: This is a place that respects and attends to the whole of a child’s personality and potential.
Montessori began to construct a grand vision of the child. For her, children came to represent the vital paths to peace and justice and morality. Bearing witness during both world wars to the fury and impact of modern warfare, Montessori looked to the child and education as the source of hope and salvation. By meeting the needs of the child, the needs of the world would also be met.
As WWII approached, Montessori set off throughout Europe and India as an emissary for peace. Forced to leave Italy in 1934, she traveled to Barcelona, Spain, but had to be rescued there by a British cruiser in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. She proceeded to open the Montessori Training Centre in Laren, Netherlands, in 1938, and founded a series of teacher training courses in India in 1939.
When India entered World War II in 1940, she and her son, Mario Montessori, were interned as enemy aliens, but permitted to continue conducting training courses. In 1947 she founded the Montessori Center in London and 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 to carry on her work.