Dr Maria Montessori was one of the most influential pioneers in early childhood education. Her ideas have become known and recognized throughout the world over a period of more than one hundred years and yet still seem fresh, modern and child-centered when encountered for the first time. It is no surprise that they have also been incorporated into good practice in mainstream education.

Dr Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. Her original interest was in medicine, she was the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome Medical School and gradually became interested in education through her work as a doctor, treating what are known today as children with ‘special needs’. Because of her medical background she approached education not as an educator or a philosopher but as a scientist.

Working with some of the poorest and most disadvantaged children of working parents in Rome, she used the classroom as a laboratory for observing them and developing ideas and materials which would help them to achieve to their full potential. There was nothing cold or clinical about her theories, they were tailored to the needs of the growing child but sprang from Montessori’s intense love and respect for all children. So great was the success of her Montessori method that she travelled the world, establishing Montessori schools and lecturing about her discoveries. She wrote numerous books on her Montessori methods as well as many articles right up until her death in 1952 at the age of 82.

Dr Montessori gave to the world the legacy of a method of education which combines a practical approach based on a carefully planned learning environment with a philosophy centered on the idea of independence for the child. This is gained through freedom of choice within boundaries. All children, says Montessori, are intrinsically motivated to learn and they absorb knowledge without effort when provided with the right kind of activities at the right time in their development.

Dr Montessori believed in children aged 3 to 6 sharing the classroom together, as the younger children strive to be like the older children, and the older children develop leadership qualities by assisting the younger ones. They also consolidate their skills through repetition. The teacher’s role is to guide each child by specially preparing an environment which satisfies the child’s need for order, and encourages the development of self-discipline and self-esteem.

The Montessori apparatus encourages learning through the senses and has an in-built factor that allows for self-correction. Problem solving becomes the child’s responsibility and challenges are welcomed. The curriculum is based on each child’s needs and capabilities, and aims to develop the child in all areas, namely, physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual.

Dr Montessori’s particular cause was to help children learn to live together in harmony and believed in the importance of quality early childhood education as this forms the basis of adulthood.