What is A Montessori School?

Montessori Materials. Photo © Lori Hughes

Montessori schools follow the philosophy of Dr. Maria Montessori, Italy's first female doctor who dedicated her life to discovering more about how children learn. Today, there are Montessori schools around the world. Here's more about Dr. Montessori and the Montessori Method based on her teachings.

More About Maria Montessori

Dr. Montessori (1870-1952) studied medicine at the University of Rome and graduated, despite harassment over her gender.

After graduating, she became involved with the study of children with mental disabilities and read widely in the field of education. She later helped to direct a school to train teachers to work with mentally disabled children. The school won acclaim from authorities for its compassionate and scientific care of children.

After studying philosophy (which we would today recognize as closer to the field of psychology), she was involved in 1907 in opening Casa dei Bambini, a school for the children of working parents in the Roman slum of San Lorenzo. She helped to direct this school but did not teach the children directly. In this school, she developed many of the methods that became the core of her educational Montessori Method, including using light, child-sized furniture that the children could move as they liked, and using her materials instead of traditional toys. In addition, she asked the children to take care of many practical activities, such as sweeping, caring for pets, and cooking.

She noticed that over time, children left to explore and play on their own developed self-initiative and self-discipline.

Montessori's methods became so popular that schools based on her methodology spread across Europe and the world. The first American school based on the Montessori Method opened in Tarrytown, New York, in 1911.

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, was a huge proponent of the Montessori Method, and he and his wife opened a school in their home in Canada. Dr. Montessori wrote many books about her educational methods, including The Montessori Method (1916), and she opened training centers for teachers around the world. In later years, she was also an advocate of pacifism.

What is the Montessori Method Like Today?

There are currently over 20,000 Montessori schools around the world, which educate children from birth to age 18. Most of the schools serve young children from about age 2 or 2.5 years to age 5 or 6. The schools that use the name "Montessori" in their titles vary with regard to how strictly they adhere to Montessori methods, so parents should be sure to research the school's methods carefully before enrolling their children. There is some controversy in the Montessori community about what constitutes a Montessori school. The American Montessori Society keeps a list of schools and teacher training programs.

Montessori schools intend to foster the creativity of their students by encouraging them to play independently. Students often can choose what to play with, and they interact with Montessori materials rather than with traditional toys.

Through discovery rather than direct instruction, they work to develop independence, self-reliance, and confidence. Usually, classrooms have child-size furniture, and the materials are placed on shelves where the children can reach them. Teachers often introduce the materials, and then children can choose when to use them. Montessori materials are often practical in nature and include pitchers from which to measure, natural materials such as shells, and puzzles and blocks. The materials are often constructed from wood or textiles. The materials also help children develop skills such as fastening buttons, measuring, and building, and they are designed to help the children master these skills over time through their own self-directed practice.

In addition, children are usually taught in mixed-aged classrooms so that older children can help nurture and teach younger children, thereby increasing the older children's self-confidence.

The same teacher generally stays with children for their entire time in one grouping, and therefore the teachers get to know the students very well and help guide their learning.

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski