Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy in 1870. A capable student who excelled in school, she was criticized as she pursued higher education and became, in 1896, the first female physician in Italy. First working with children who were developmentally disabled, she researched and developed methods and teaching materials for these children. In 1901 she began a private practice and continued with research and observation as she broadened her interest to include all children.
In 1907 she established the first Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in San Lorenzo, a low income area of Rome. She invited the neighborhood children who lived there to be a part of this first Montessori environment. Here they had the opportunity to interact with specialized, hands-on teaching materials and to learn skills for everyday living. Maria Montessori continued observing the children and reached several conclusions: children need to be in an environment which is prepared especially for them; children need uninterrupted periods of time to do their work; children need freedom to choose and to move about the classroom; learning comes best by interacting with materials (not listening to someone talk) and children develop autonomy and self-reliance when given opportunities to do so. These observations and conclusions which Maria Montessori reached over one hundred years ago remain the cornerstones of Montessori education today.
Maria Montessori traveled extensively, spreading Montessori education beyond Italy. In October 1911 the first Montessori school was opened in New York and two years later there were more than 100 Montessori school in the United States. Maria Montessori was invited to demonstrate her methods at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915. A classroom was set up where fairgoers could observe students in a Montessori environment.
The next decades brought expansion of Montessori schools to six continents, establishment of training centers and development of Montessori education from birth through high school.
Maria Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and was awarded the French Legion of Honor among several other distinctions. She died in 1952 at age 81.