The Life of Maria Montessori


The child is not a vase to be filled, but a spring to be sprinkled.

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori’s life is a path that, through narrow parades, suddenly leads to the horizon, each step preparing the next.

Edwing Mortimer Standing, Maria Montessori

Who is Maria Montessori?

Maria Montessori has dedicated her life to the human being.

Her choice to become a doctor will be a determining factor in the great mission of her life. She managed to break into the secret universe of childhood.

She studied the physical and psychological development of the child from birth. Her many conferences will be a spiritual stimulus and will allow the emergence of more and more schools all over the world.

Maria Montessori was born on August 31, 1870 in Chiaravalle, near Ancona, Italy. She comes from a bourgeois family. Her parents married in 1866. Her father Alessandro Montessori is a strict and rigorous man, her mother Renilde Stoppani defends her liberal aspirations: very educated, she is open to new ideas. She will be very close to her daughter and will respect her freedom.

Maria’s family moved to Rome in 1875, where she studied elementary from 1876 to 1882. She showed a great interest in mathematics at an early age and wanted to become an engineer. She was then confronted with her father’s disagreement, who was considering a teaching career for her.

Supported by her mother, Maria enrolled in 1883 in a technical college for boys. At the age of 13, she was already facing the social and cultural limits that were available to women at that time.

Maria Montessori wanted to become a doctor, but faced with the hostility of her entourage and supported only by her mother, she initially opted for the Faculty of Science. Her tenacity would finally later on open the doors of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery in Rome.

A brilliant student, she quickly won the sympathy of some of her professors, despite recurrent hostility and the male resistance of the university world to a female presence. Maria would face many other difficulties than the animosity of the students.

At that time it was unthinkable for a young girl to dissect corpses in the presence of men. She would thus have no other possibility than to practice her dissections alone and often at night.

In 1896, she defended her doctoral thesis on a psychiatric subject (it is a clinical study on “antagonistic hallucinations”), encouraged by the director of the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome.

Maria Montessori then became one of the first female doctors in Italy. For 10 years, she worked tirelessly, both professionally and personally, to help people on the margins of traditional society.

She was an active advocate for the defence and recognition of the rights of women and children with mental disabilities.

Very quickly, she became interested in social issues and in particular the role of women in society. In 1896 she presented herself as emissary of Italian women at the Women’s Congress in Berlin. She continued her militant and social involvement at the London Congress in 1899. She thus carried out several interventions for the emancipation of women demanding more humane working conditions.

In Rome, Maria Montessori continues her research as part of a team that includes doctors, scientists and researchers. She studies the behaviour of mentally retarded children through internships in children’s medical services. While continuing her activities, she opened a private practice.

The Beginning of Work on Education

It is based on the work of Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard and Edouard Seguin, who have developed special educational methods for children with disabilities and have developed a new approach to mental illness. Maria concludes that “education” is more beneficial to these children than mere medical care. Seguin is the disciple of Jean Itard who took in a child (the savage of Aveyron). This child was not speaking and Jean Itard looked for ways to help him acquire the language but without success.

Maria Montessori then began to reflect on the work of Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin and developed materials that are still used today, particularly fraction materials (Edouard Seguin has published books on sensory education). After this work in psychiatry Maria became a lecturer at the Rome Training Institute.

Mario’s birth

During this period, on March 10, 1898, she gave birth to a boy whom she named “Mario”. (There is speculation about Mario Montessori’s exact date of birth, but according to Mario himself, he was born on March 31, 1898).

Mario is the result of a relationship between Maria Montessori and Giuseppe Montesano, a medical researcher at the psychiatric clinic who is pursuing psychopathological research. He was Maria’s psychiatry teacher during his medical studies.

As she is a child born out of wedlock, Maria’s pregnancy is kept secret. Dr. Montesano, from a wealthy family with an authoritarian mother, never married Maria Montessori, so Mario will not take his father’s name.

Maria Montessori was a single mother: at that time, it was considered sacrilegious. According to Mario, only Maria’s parents and some close friends and associates were aware of his existence. 

Maria had to give in to their pressure and send Mario back to a family in the countryside near Rome. He would grow up there, raised by a nanny, and it is only in adolescence that he would be able to live with his mother. Maria Montessori would experience this separation as a tear, even if she sometimes visits her child.

Between 1899 and 1901, Maria participated in the educational congress in Turin and gave a series of lectures in Rome.

Continuation of research on education

She then became the director of the State School of Orthopaedics. In this school she would have to work with deficient children who are described as “crazy” or “stupid”. Over time, Maria Montessori realized that these children learn like all children.

She would then observe them, think about them and start developing specific equipment adapted to handling. These children will learn to read and write, and their work will enable them to successfully obtain the certificate of study.

At the same time, Maria Montessori undertook studies in anthropology, which led her to a teaching chair in pedagogical anthropology at the University of Rome.

From 1906 onwards, she took care of normal pre-school children, for whom she created her own teaching method.

In 1907, at a time when workers were working in difficult conditions, their children who lived there did not know what to do and destroyed what surrounded them.

Maria Montessori hears about these children for whom we are looking for a care system, so she decides to take care of them. The same year she opened the first children’s house “la casa dei Bambini” in San Lorenzo, Rome, which welcomes young children. She uses this experience to develop and implement educational materials that children can use.

The latter will quickly invest and appropriate the use of this equipment. It is a success.

From the beginning, Maria Montessori considered that children deserve love. To help her, she did not want qualified staff, she worked with an untrained assistant, who was instructed not to disturb the children who were working and concentrated.

Scientific Pedagogy, the United States

In 1909, in Italy, Maria Montessori gave the first training course in her pedagogy, attended by about a hundred teachers. She also published Volume 1 of Scientific Pedagogy, a book in which she explains her method and origins.

Between 1910 and 1912 the first Montessori schools opened in the United States, Paris and Boston.

In 1913, she published the second volume of Scientific Pedagogy.

Between 1913 and 1918, Maria Montessori gave several training courses in her pedagogy, supported by the Montessori Committee of the United States.

In 1913 she made her first trip to the United States. It was also the creation of the Montessori Educational Association with Graham Bell, his wife and President Wilson’s daughter. Opening of a Montessori school in Paris.

In 1915: She returned to the United States.

In 1916: Installation in Barcelona at the invitation of the city government, opening of a Training Centre and a model school.

During this period she was accompanied by her son Mario. This trip probably marked the beginning of a long-standing association between mother and son, both personally and at work. From then on, Mario Montessori would continue to promote the principles and practice of Montessori pedagogy. He began to accompany her on all her tours and helped her conduct her classes. Together, they created the International Montessori Association as a supervisory body to oversee the activities of the schools.  This work extended all over the world and included the supervision of teacher training. 

In 1920: Lectures at the University of Amsterdam (for the first time, Maria Montessori unveils the main lines of secondary education).

In 1921: Opening of the first International Congress of New Education.

In 1924: Maria Montessori met Benito Mussolini.

In 1926: Visit to Argentina and speech on “education and peace” at the League of Nations in Geneva.

In 1927: Presentation to the English court.

In 1929: Creation of the MIA (Association Montessori Internationale) in association with Mario, in Berlin.

With the creation of the MAI, the activities of the Montessori movement are becoming more organized.

Political instability and the inter-war period

The 1930s and their historical environment, marked by instability, marked a halt in the spread of Montessori pedagogy.

In 1930, at a conference in Vienna, Maria met Anna Freud. She participates in the Congress of New Education and gives a Montessori course in Nice, France.

In 1931, she gave lectures at the University of Berlin and the Sorbonne. Mahatma Gandhi came to Rome and visited the Montessori schools there.

In 1933, the arrival of the Nazis led to the closure of Montessori schools in Germany.

In 1934, the same thing happened in Italy, whereas a few years earlier Mussolini was assigned to Maria Montessori.

In 1935, the Montessori International Association (MIA) moved to Amsterdam.

In 1936, at the 5th Montessori Congress in Oxford, Maria spoke for the first time about cosmic education. She settled in the Netherlands following the coup d’état and the beginning of the civil war in Spain.

In 1938, at a conference at the Sorbonne, she made one of her many calls for peace.

In 1939, she went to India with her son. It provides training courses in Madras for more than 300 students. But a few months later, Italy’s entry into the war with Germany, which marked the beginning of the Second World War, meant that Maria, as an Italian national, was deprived of travel: she was placed under house arrest in India until 1945. She then founded several small schools for children from 3 to 12 years old and it is there that she studied the main principles of the pedagogy of 6 – 12 years old.

During this period and with the collaboration of her son Mario, she developed the concept and great ideas of “cosmic education”. Essentially, this concept is to give the universe to the child as a whole with the organization of the mind as a framework. It means looking at the universe as a cosmos in order and harmony where everything is connected to everything.

The post-war period

In 1945, Maria Montessori returned to Europe and conducted a training course in London in 1946.

In 1947, at the request of the new government, Montessori settlements in Italy reopened. Maria was focusing her work on the 0-3 age group.

In 1948, she returned to India for training courses and conferences.

In 1949, Maria Montessori published The Absorbent Mind in which she transmitted her spiritual and philosophical approach to the child.

In 1950, at a conference in Perugia, Italy, Maria Montessori presented a first outline corresponding to the 4 development plans.

At the end, Maria continued to travel the world to share and divulge her teaching method, with Mario as her constant companion. They have given courses and conferences in London, Scotland, Rome, Berlin, Ceylon, India, Pakistan, the Netherlands and France.

Maria died on May 6, 1952 in Noordwijk aan Zee, the Netherlands. She was then 82 years old, an honorary citizen of many cities and decorated with the Legion of Honor.

After Maria Montessori’s death, Mario continued his dissemination work, working for the Montessori movement. He will continue to actively lead the training courses.

Montessori pedagogy has inspired thousands of teachers around the world, leading to the creation of many nursery and primary schools, colleges and high schools.

Thus the name Maria Montessori is still more alive today.

Jeannette Toulemonde – A Lie, Really ? (1969)


This article was published in partnership with the Nascita Montessori Centre of the North and its documentary collection.

(Documentary collection, EV. 1969 – Extract “Le vrai et le faux”, by Jeannette Toulemonde, founder of the CNMN and L’Enfant et la Vie)

What if we think we discover a lie in our child?

“Mom, the mistress said we should bring a roll of tape…”

A little girl would ask her mother something new every day. The mother asked the teacher and learned that she did not require anything of the kind.

She thought about her own attitude towards her daughter and acknowledged that, although she was generous with toys, she did not like to lend her the contents of her drawer: glue, pencils, etc., or buy these items from her at the stationery store.

By hearing the answer ‘no’, the little girl had found a way to acquire these objects, much more interesting for her than toys, and much more constructive.

Behind our children’s ‘lies’, we can often find a mistake on our part. This error is often too much of an influence on the child, forcing him or her to use indirect means to achieve the goal set for him or her internally.

Again, this is a deviation: the child has encountered an obstacle and is moving in another direction. Let us not be an obstacle in our children’s path.

But let us not take for lies all their words which are not true according to us.

The little child is an apprentice.

His mind is exercised, seeks; he can sometimes make mistakes. It is not by taking it back, by scolding it for a so-called lie that we will help it to see clearly.

Let’s help him with a clear atmosphere.

To a 4-year-old boy who says to his friends: “my daddy drives a big truck”, whereas this one is employed at the town hall, for example, we don’t answer naughty little liar; because it’s not on purpose that he has made reality turn sour.

An unconscious fault is not a fault.

He took, as often “his desires for realities”, it is so imposing a big truck! And he wanted his father, whom he loves, to have the pleasure of driving him.

The child always has a reason.

Let us look for this reason every time we see a disorder, a deviation. Even if we haven’t found it, let’s make it the positive atmosphere in which the defect cannot live.