08/29/03
Maria Montessori
    by John Cech

It's Maria Montessori's birthday this weekend. She was born in 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy; and by the time she was 26, she had become that country's first female physician. Her treatment of mentally retarded children led her to study psychology, and that, in turn, took her into the field of early childhood education, because, she believed, this period of life was crucial to our development as adults, and baffling in many ways to the adults like herself who observed it because they had so little influence over it. "The only language [people] ever speak perfectly," she wrote, "is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything!" Unraveling those mysteries of how we learn as children would become her life's take, one that she began in earnest to pursue when, in 1906, she founded her first experimental school, the Casa dei Bambini in the poor San Lorenzo section of Rome.

What fascinated her was the way children "naturally" gained knowledge of their world, through concentrated play and manipulation of things that intensely interested them. The teacher had little to do with it, other than to provide stimulating materials, and then stand back and observe the individual children, learning from them. Dr. Montessori was quick to point out that there was a big difference between the discipline that enforces artificial silence upon children and, to her way of thinking, annihilated the individual, and the discipline that the child learned herself, through the engagement of all her senses in a project of her choice. Young children, she argued, essentially taught themselves, and they should be provided with the environment to do so. This was a powerful idea, one that she had inherited, in part, from Rousseau and Froebel -- and one that she brought into the twentieth century through scientific observation and her tireless work to develop a method that would incorporate her intuitive discoveries. Her theories caught the attention of such luminaries as Helen Keller and such self-taught, tinkering children-become-adults as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, whose wife Mabel established the Montessori Educational Association in their home. But her ideas also attracted the enmity of Musolini's and Franco' fascists, who forced her to leave her homeland and, later, Spain. She was a tireless worker for a better understanding if and less dictatorial treatment for the world's children, which is most certainly why she was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. "If help and salvation are to come," she wrote, "they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men."

Copyright 2003 John Cech

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Friday, 25-Jul-2003 14:43:50 EDT


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