Dr Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870, a woman ahead of her time. In 1896 she became the first woman to qualify as a medical doctor in Italy. When she volunteered to join a research programme at a psychiatric clinic which involved visiting children’s asylums, Dr. Montessori observed that the lack of sensorial stimulation and activities with their hands was contributing to the children’s conditions.
Dr. Montessori also became interested in the work of Jean Itard, who had developed techniques of education through the senses, and Edouard Seguin, who was working to adapt these techniques to mainstream education. Dr. Montessori would use these materials in new ways.
Her work in the asylums with children who, at the time, were labelled as ‘mentally retarded’ and ‘disturbed’, marked a shift for Dr. Montessori from a physician to an educator. She studied pedagogy, anthropology and educational philosophy, and from the results that she saw in the children from the asylums, she became interested in the impact of the environment on learning and behaviour. In January 1907 an opportunity came to work with ‘normal’ children in a deprived area in Rome. Dr. Montessori established her first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House), developing her educational approach on the strength of the progress that the children were making.
According to Dr Montessori, during the first 6 years of life, children are engaged in a process of self-construction, and our job as educators is to remove any obstacles that may interfere with this process. Thus, a basic tenet of Dr. Montessori’s principles was her realization that when children are placed in an environment where the activities are designed to support their natural development, they have the power to educate themselves.