Dr Maria Montessori was a prominent early years educator of the 20th century, an innovator of classroom practices and ideas which have had a profound influence on the education of young children globally. She was more than just a woman seeking to better educate young minds, she had a real mission in life and spent her time diligently to understand how and why children learn.

Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle in the province of Ancona, Italy on the 31st of August, 1870. Her father, Alessandro Montessori, a former military man and mother, Renilde Stoppani — niece of Antonio Stoppani ― the great philosopher, scientist and priest, were from an academic family. Being well-read herself, she encouraged and supported Maria’s pursuit of a career. Her curiosity and questioning intellectualism provided Maria with the intellectual and moral fibre to break out of the traditional mould of passive Italian womanhood.

At age six, Maria started attending a local public elementary school. When she was 12, her parents moved to Rome, where she was able to receive better education.  She had an aptitude for Mathematics; she wanted a career in engineering.  A year later, she was enrolled at Regia Scuala Technical Micheangelo Buonarotti college, where she later graduated at the age of 16 in 1886. She was accepted at the Technical Institute, where she excelled and qualified to join the University.

In 1892, at the age of 22, Maria began the medical degree course. She found medical school a constant struggle but refused to be defeated by the obstacles she faced in a male-dominated field. She had to work alone in the laboratory late at night because it was not considered proper for a girl to dissect cadavers in the presence of male students. This was quite a shock for Maria. With poor illumination in the lab and smell of decaying flesh, the experience was too overwhelming that one evening, she panicked and left the laboratory and ran into the street. She walked through the town till she came to the Pincio Gardens. There, she noticed an old beggar lady with a young child who was seated on the grass. Little did she know that meeting that child was destined to alter the course of her life.

The child was so absorbed in playing with scrap of red paper that nothing in the surrounding could distract her. This complete concentration on the part of the child spoke to Maria in a strange way, deep within her heart. She was quoted by Phyllis Wallbank to have said, “Suddenly, I knew this way of knowing was akin to the self-discovery felt at the centre of any deep mystical experience. I felt strange and afterwards, I felt a great peace spread through me and I was no longer frightened, because I knew then that I had special work to do.” after this experience, she continued with her studies and thus became the first woman in Italy to receive a Bachelor of Medicine degree  in 1896.

Upon graduation, she was appointed assistant doctor at the psychiatric clinic in the University of Rome. She was required to visit asylums in order to  assess patients for treatment at the clinic. As she began doing this, her interest in feebleminded children grew. During a visit to one of the asylums, she came across a number of mentally retarded children who were treated like prisoners and kept in unconducive environment. There were no toys or materials of any kind. These children would throw themselves on the floor immediately after meals to search for crumbs. Montessori noticed the children’s craving for a better environment and quality of life, and not just food. She believed the only path for these children towards intelligence was through their hands.

Her special interest in these children led her to study the work of Jean Itard and Edouard Sequin. Using their work, she began to formulate her ideas for helping children to learn.  She made use of their sensory teaching materials and modified them for her own use. She designed and manufactured new teaching materials based on their principles. In fact, she regarded the years she spent with the mentally retarded children as her true degree in education. She was able to make new materials, write notes and observe the children in order to meet their needs; and to her amazement, they were able to learn a lot of things that seemed impossible. Like the normal children, they succeeded in the same exams. This discovery convinced her that a similar method could equally be used for the normal children to develop their personality and innate potential. Her budding interest in children and their learning process made her devote more time to studying and she later returned to study philosophy and psychology in the university.

In 1907, when she was asked to direct a day care centre in San Lorenzo, she saw this as an opportunity to work with the normal children between the ages of 3 and 7 years.  Through observation and experiment, she was able to develop and adopt strategies that best meet the needs of the children she was working with at Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House). She discovered a world within the child and her discovery gave birth to her method.

According to Rita Kramer, in her biography of Maria Montessori, her relationship with Professor Guiseppe Montessano, a colleague at the psychiatric clinic developed into a love affair and in 1898 Maria gave birth to a boy named Mario, who was given into the care of a family who lived in the countryside.  For some unknown reason, Montesano failed to marry Maria and later married someone else. The birth of Mario was kept a close secret. Maria visited Mario often, but it was not until he was older that he came to know that Maria was his mother. A strong bond was nevertheless created and in later years he collaborated and travelled with his mother, continuing her work after her death.

Doubtlessly, Maria Montessori was more than just a woman seeking to better educate young children; she was someone who had a real mission in life and dedicated herself to understanding how and why children learn.