Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori

By Scottie May


DR. MARIA MONTESSORI (1870-1952), an Italian physician, is best known for the Montessori Method of education. “The Montessori Method is based on love, and the genius of the great educator lies in the fact that she made love the foundation for man’s dealing with himself, with his fellow men and with God” [sic] (Cavalletti and Gobbi, 1964, 132). Its purpose is to “bring human activity into accord with the natural order of the universe” through the virtues of concentration, coordination, order, independence, and respect (Cossentino, 2005, 216). Her academic training enabled her to bring scientific methodology to the research of children. She carefully watched and listened to children, making copious notes on her observations, and then designed materials based on those observations in order to enhance children’s learning.


Dr. Maria Montessori: Her Life & Work

Maria Montessori in many ways was a woman ahead of her time. Her work as a scientist-practitioner was innovative and has had long-lasting influence. The result of her work is known globally as the Montessori Method. It is the “single largest pedagogy” in the world with more than 8,000 schools on six continents.

Montessori was born in the town of Chiaravalle, in the province of Ancona, Italy, on August 31, 1870, the only child of Alessandro Montessori and Renilde Stoppani. Alessandro was a government official with a military background, and Renilde was an educated woman and avid reader, several years younger than her husband. Renilde was politically savvy, forward thinking, and passionate about the hope for a unified Italy. (This unification of Italy into a constitutional monarchy actually took place the year of Maria’s birth.)

When Maria was five years old, Alessandro changed jobs which necessitated a family move to Rome. As a result, Maria was afforded a richer education. She was an excellent student, a quick learner who enjoyed math. As a child, she was talented, headstrong, self-confident, optimistic, and stimulated by change. A biographer reports that she became seriously ill at age 10, greatly concerning her mother. Maria told her, “Don’t worry, Mother, I cannot die: I have too much to do” (Kramer, 1976, 28). She had a good relationship with her father, but it was her mother that encouraged Maria to dream and then follow those dreams. Religion and science, important interests in her mother’s family were passed on to Maria, though there is little evidence that she had a vital faith clear through her twenties. In fact, Maria often found herself at odds with many of the teachings of the Catholic church.

It is notable that some of the prime bibliographic sources such as E. M. Standing and Anna Maccheroni provide contradictory anecdotes, omissions, and dates about her life. As much as is possible, the more recent resources (Kramer and Trabalzini) have been used to supply the biographic data provided here.

At age thirteen, against the wishes of her father but with the support of her mother, Maria began to attend a boys’ technical school in order to become an engineer. After seven years of engineering, she transferred to medicine. In 1896, at the age of 26, she became Italy’s first female physician. Some of her medical studies had to be done by herself at night because, in that day, it was considered improper for a woman to dissect the human body in the presence of men. She also studied physical anthropology and developed a keen ability to observe natural phenomena. This skill served her well as she began observing children. During her studies, her faith was almost squelched by the nature of rationalistic inquiry and the challenges she faced as a scientific woman.

Montessori did not set up a traditional medical practice. Instead, she worked at the University of Rome psychiatric clinic with developmentally challenged children. She also was an instructor in hygiene and anthropology. She read the works of Itard, Seguin, and Froebel extensively. (These men, whose spirit had been influenced by Rousseau, in turn, influenced Montessori’s view of the child.)

Just a few years after becoming a physician, she left the field of medicine. Some sources say that it was because of the gender role issues of that day. More likely, it was due to a life-changing event. In 1898, Montessori gave birth to a son, Mario, through a relationship with a colleague, Dr. Guiseppi Montesano. Montessori and Montesano agreed not to marry-ever. Although Guiseppi married soon after, Maria never did. In fact, it is likely that she left her work in medicine so she could work in a different field than the father of her child.

That maternity was not widely acknowledged until relatively recently. Mario was raised from infancy by a wet nurse in the countryside near Rome. At age seven, he was sent to a boarding school near Florence. Maria visited Mario from time to time at both places but never revealed her identity to him. In 1913, when Mario was 15, he approached her during one of her visits and said, “I know you are my mother” (Kramer, 1976, 185). At that point, Maria took him to live with her. Most people actually thought Montessori adopted Mario when he was a teenager, because that is when he began appearing publicly with her.

For the rest of Montessori’s life, the two were inseparable. Mario became her invaluable assistant and advocate. He contributed to his mother’s work by writing a booklet about tendencies noted in children at different phases of development. He identified the propensity of children to emulate significant adults in their lives noting the importance of modeling. Mario married twice and had four children, Marilena, Mario Jr., Renilde, and Rolando. When she wasn’t traveling, Maria lived with his families until her death. Mario died in 1982.

Maria, not surprisingly, was a feminist, but she also was a scientist and considered that her vocation. Some Montessori scholars think that if she had married, she would have been expected to conform to the cultural expectations of that day regarding the role and behavior of a wife and mother. It is reported that her parents supported the couple’s decision to not marry.

Maria Montessori had a fascination with science. Scholar Paola Trabalzini (2006) speculates that Antonio Stoppani, a relative of Montessori’s mother, may have fostered this influence. A scholar and scientist, he became the Director of Natural History in Milan, Italy, and also a professor of theology and geology. Dialogue between Renilde and Antonio likely sparked Maria’s scientific thinking. In addition, a priest in Barcelona, Spain, later helped her define the connection between theology and science.

This affinity for science carried directly into Montessori’s work with children. She was a keen, systematic observer, one of the first educators to watch and learn from the child. After leaving her position as a university lecturer, she began working with institutionalized, “uneducable” children. She watched and listened to the children. Then she began developing methods and materials to aid these disadvantaged children. Soon, many of them were reading and developing cognitively at remarkable speed.

She noticed that, with almost no effort, children would “absorb” knowledge from what surrounded them. It seemed to her that the children were teaching themselves. This insight informed the rest of her life’s work. Montessori described the outcome of a day: “When the children had completed an absorbing bit of work, they appeared rested and deeply pleased. It almost seemed as if a road had opened up within their souls that led to all their latent powers, revealing the better part of themselves. They exhibited a great affability to everyone, put themselves out to help others and seemed full of good will” ( , retrieved January 20, 2007).

Her early scientific training enabled her to be disciplined empirically in her pedagogy, yet she possessed a therapeutic interest in the individual child. Throughout her career, she felt that the development and needs observed in the child should drive education rather than education being imposed by adult assumptions.

Encouraged by her results with these children, she established a Casa dei Bambini, Children’s House, in order to have a controlled environment where “normal” children could live and learn. The Montessori movement officially began on January 6, 1907 with the opening of the first Casa dei Bambini in the impoverished San Lorenzo area of Rome. (An international centennial commemoration was held in Rome in January 2007.) She began this Children’s House with fifty children. She observed that freedom and self-discipline developed together without the need for extrinsic rewards. She used multi-age groupings and filled the day with long blocks of unscheduled time, up to three hours, for the children to learn at their own pace.

Her insights about children contradicted traditional pedagogy of the day that expected all children to do the same thing at the same time in the same way. She felt that the children in traditional settings were at a disadvantage because adults failed to understand their abilities. She saw that the proper materials could enable children to learn much more effectively. She advocated that it was more important for the teacher to pay attention to the child than the reverse; that children should learn at their own pace; and that self-correcting material would enhance a child’s learning. She also was one of the first people to notice that there were certain times or “sensitive periods” when the child was primed to grasp new concepts. She wanted a teacher of her method to learn to “sit on her hands” so as not to interfere with what is developing within the child. Dr. Montessori called this the “secret of childhood.”

Yet Montessori did not support the extreme romantic trust that Neill (Summerhill) and Holt (Why Children Fail) came to advocate in their educational methods. The teacher/adult was to provide freedom and liberty-not to interfere with the child, as long as constructive activity was taking place. She instructed her teachers to be very sensitive to the attitudes behind children’s actions. When lapses occurred, the teacher was to guide the child directly.

Antonio Stoppani’s influence may have helped her realize that her work was also religious. It was in Barcelona that a Casa dei Bambini, a Children’s House with child-sized altar pieces and holistic experiences, was first held in a church. This melding of Montessori’s approach and a church setting happened quite unintentionally on her part.

In 1909, a Spanish priest returned from ministry in Guatemala with the realization that the church needs to be a place or house for children so that they could grow up in the shadow or protection of the church (Standing, 1965, 21). The next year that priest learned of Montessori’s “Children’s Houses” in Rome. In due time, an experiment began in a Barcelona church with the aim of making the liturgy accessible to children-to enable the children to become active in the life of the church.

The first five chapters of Montessori’s book edited by Standing, The Child in the Church (1965), describes the development of this religious phase of her work. She felt that a key component of her approach, the carefully prepared environment, was already present in the church. She was very intentional in drawing the parallel between the Montessori Method as found in a Casa dei Bambini and the work the child needed to do to be part of life in the church. She called the church-based environment an Atrium. She described the Atrium work as being-a much broader thing than merely “teaching the child his catechism”- often with the avowed aim of making a good impression on the diocesan inspector, of the bishop! It will rather be a life complete in itself, something which will affect the children at all point. It will be like a surrounding and pervading atmosphere in which they will live and move and have their being (44).

Consistent with the Montessori Method, the teacher, as well as the environment, must be prepared, for the teacher must see the child as Jesus did and have an interior life that reflects godly attributes. Acts of humility are essential. Montessori’s view of “teaching” children is based on the parable of the wheat and the tares. “The surest way of keeping down the bad seed is to encourage the growth of the good. . . . [I]t is better to let tares also grow, than to destroy the good grain along with them. The key to the problem is, therefore, not to destroy evil but to cultivate good” (53).

Crucial for Montessori in teaching religion to children is not so much what to teach, but when and how to teach. When to teach requires attention to the “laws” of development. For her, this means watching and listening to the child-following the lead and personality of the child. Noting Matthew 18, she writes that teachers should “permit” the child to come to the Lord Jesus (55). That means that the adult should not “lead” the child nor “abandon” the child, but help the child to help herself or himself. Montessori suggests that for the young child (age 3 to 6), this happens in the prepared church environment for the child to have self-activity, activities that the child chooses that prepare the child indirectly to be able to reason about faith. Unfortunately, as will be noted later, this church-based work did not continue as part of Montessori’s work.

Montessori’s faith journey

Early on, as Montessori’s approach became known throughout Italy, she was criticized for considering the child as able to “build” herself or himself. The traditional Catholic view was that the family and the church should “build” the child and that a child is born with original sin and, therefore, unable to do that “building.”

There are conflicting interpretations of Montessori’s theology. An archivist at Rome’s Opera Nazionale Montessori stated that, especially during the early years of her work with children, she viewed the child as able to save herself-that the child could correct herself of sin and educate herself to right behavior. This same humanistic management of sins of the teacher is described as well. Although Montessori seemingly viewed Jesus Christ as Savior, in The Secret of Childhood Montessori wrote that every child is her own messiah. The environment is a key factor in this process. She saw education as “saving” the child-that if correct materials are used and the environment is properly prepared, a “new” child would emerge. She felt that most children were spiritually and intellectually undernourished (Caillon, 1968, 173). She proposed “cosmic education” with the “authority” coming from education. This unorthodox view opposed the official Catholic position regarding children. The use of child-size materials was widely accepted, but her view of the child and of education was not. Many biographic sources on Montessori claim her deep devotion to the Catholic Church, but those sources undoubtedly refer to her mid- to late-adult years.

Kramer (1976, 91), in her significant biography of Montessori, infers that as a young practitioner, Montessori was essentially a freethinker, especially when it came to the doctrines of the church. Mario Montessori gave a series of lectures in London in 1961 in which he described part of her spiritual journey: The more Maria worked with children, the more she saw the creative presence of God within them. A subtitle of a chapter in The Child in the Church (Montessori, 1965, 4) reads, “God Created The Child More Admirable Than We Think.” Mario said that she began taking yearly two-week spiritual retreats resulting in significant change in her personal faith.

Miller (2004, 16) reflects on Montessori’s faith. Her method diverged from the American form of education that had been influenced significantly by Calvinist Protestantism. Her “renewed” Catholic faith enabled her to see the goodness of all creation, including the child. She cites the words and life of Jesus to show people the nature of the child and that the child is the adult’s guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. Essentially, her views lean toward universalism. Yet Montessori in 1948 is reported to have lectured in London where she stated:

I see it-this Original Sin-who would not see a thing so evident? In the depths of the human soul is the possibility of continuous decadence…In fact, there are innate tendencies in man’s soul which lead to maladies of the spirit sometimes even unknown to ourselves, just as the germs of disease may work silently, and unknown. This is the death of the spirit which brings insensibility with it. These tendencies come from the soul itself and not from the environment (Berryman, 2002, 95).

If nothing else, Montessori’s spiritual journey was eclectic. Berryman writes that she was influenced by many thinkers of her day and consequently used many names for dynamic force behind the growth of living things. She called it Life Force, Energy, Syntrophy and Entrophy, and, “when she returned to the Christian symbol system, she called it God” (1980, 304). In her final view while in her late 70s, Montessori declared, “This force that we call love is the greatest energy of the universe. But I am using an inadequate expression, for it is more than an energy: it is creation itself. I should put it better if I were to say: ‘God is love’ (Montessori, 1949a, 290).

Montessori Theory

Montessori’s theory of education is best described in her own words as she contrasts her classroom with that of the traditional classroom of that day:

In the “Children’s Houses,” the old-time teacher, who wore herself out maintaining discipline of immobility, and who wasted her breath in loud and continual discourse has disappeared. For this teacher we have substituted the didactic material which contains within itself the control of errors and which makes auto-education possible to each child. The teacher has thus become a director of the spontaneous work of the children. She is not a passive force, a silent presence (Montessori, 1912, 371).

Ritualized activity marks life in a Montessori classroom. These rituals become the means for the child’s self-discipline and self-education. It is significant to note that Montessori schools choose the degree to which it adheres to Montessori elements and rituals.

A startling feature of a Montessori classroom for the first time observer is the activity of the children. Montessori developed her view of child discipline at a time when desks were used in traditional schools to control posture and behavior. At the time, teachers went to great lengths to prevent children from moving naturally-even to requiring corsets and braces to be worn. Montessori rigorously opposed this, so there are no desks in a Montessori classroom. She described her views of discipline of the child in Chapter 5 of The Montessori Method:

The pedagogical method of observation has for its base the liberty of the child; and liberty is activity. Discipline must come through liberty. Here is a great principle which is difficult for the followers of common-school methods to understand. How shall one obtain discipline in a class of free children? Certainly in our system, we have a concept of discipline very different from that commonly accepted. If discipline is founded upon liberty, the discipline itself must necessarily be active. We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined (86).

She viewed the child as disciplined when the child was able to manage his own behavior. Whenever offensive behavior occurred, Montessori would intervene. Every effort was made to change that behavior in a positive way. Active discipline was key to her theory of education. This form of self-respect and control also applied to the teachers in her schools. In fact, her method links means and ends by a symbolic relationship between the teacher and the child through three steps: approaching, touching the shoulder of the teacher, and waiting, as if linking hand and mind through patience.

The theory of Dr. Montessori was developed through observation and “experimentation,” resulting in a constructionist perspective. She identified seven human tendencies present throughout one’s life: (a) Exploration – to expand the brain by engaging the senses, and the child needs freedom to do this exploring; (b) Orientation – a tendency that comes from a sense of the environment since the child needs reference points; (c) Order – to help the child classify information found through exploration and orientation, including predictable routine primarily for young children up to age 6; (d) Communication – an intrinsic tendency as oral muscles are the only voluntary muscles at birth; (e) Imagination/Abstraction – a tendency related to the exploration of things that cannot be seen directly; (f) Repetition/Self-perfection – the tendency toward assimilation of order, not perfectionism; (g) Exactness – an inherent desire for precision. In order for some of these tendencies to be present, a child needs security before curiosity will be evident.

Montessori noted four planes of development. Plane 1 is from birth to age 6; plane 2 is from 6-12 years; plane 3 is 12-18; and plane 4 is 18-24. Each six-year plane has two sub-periods: the first is acquisition, and the second is perfection (similar to Piaget’s assimilation and accommodation). During plane 1, Montessori considers the child to have an “absorbent mind.” From birth to age 3, she regards the young child as a “spiritual embryo.” By “spiritual” she means that the spirit of the child is infused with the divine (the imago dei).

The lessons planned around these planes are made of carefully designed materials that are self-correcting for the most part. At every level, children learn skills relating to Practical Life, skills such as cleaning, organizing, or simple food preparation. In plane 1, in particular, the child is sensitive to the following learning tasks: movement, order, language, sensory development, love of the environment, interest in detail, grace and courtesy, and numeration. Plane 2 acquisitions are reason and logic, imagination, morality, enjoyment of friends, culture, physical strength, and increased mental capacity. During plane 3, the child is sensitive to acquire sexual identity, something to worship or admire identity, family independence, and spiritual values. Plane 4 includes idealism, community activity, career, physical strength, and intimacy. In the learning setting, the teacher becomes more active as the child progresses through planes 2 through 4. In plane 3, the child is involved in “real” work, such as farming. The teacher is responsible to maintain the environment and initially present each lesson to the children, often one-on-one. This environment is virtually wall-to-wall materials for learning.

The significance of the environment in the Montessori Method cannot be over emphasized. “It is the environment that educates, not the teacher directly; more precisely, it is the child’s inherent formative energies, finding material in the environment to act upon purposefully, that calls or brings forth the child’s true nature” (Miller, 2004, 20).

The intent behind her approach was that the children be “normal.” That means that the “natural law” of the child has been revealed. This involves a “deprogramming of the adult.” If a child could not normalize, he or she was excluded from the school. This exclusion also applied to the parents as well if their attitudes were not receptive of Montessori’s approach. So, in a way, her “experiments” were controlled.

The Spread of the Montessori Method

Word of the unique educational approach of Montessori quickly spread beyond her native Italy. Americans heard about it primarily through features written by the editor of McClure’s Magazine, a popular U.S. periodical in the early 20th century. In 1913, Montessori made her first trip to the United States. She had been invited by Alexander Graham Bell whose wife Mabel founded the Montessori Educational Association in Washington, DC. While on that trip, she was also received by Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.

On Montessori’s second trip to the United States, she was received like a celebrity. She lectured in Carnegie Hall after being introduced by John Dewey, even though he opposed her approach. It was 1915, the year of the World’s Fair in San Francisco. A glass classroom was constructed, surrounded by bleachers for people to watch, for Montessori to demonstrate her approach in an “authentic” prepared classroom. It was reported that children engaged in the learning activities as if no else was around. Erik Erikson started a Montessori school about that same time. Although criticism of the method became especially strong in the U.S. in the early 20th century, there has recently been a resurgence of Montessori schools.

In 1918 Montessori went to visit Pope Benedict XV. As a result of that visit, the Pope blessed Montessori’s work Il Metodo Della Pedogogia Scientifica Applicator All’Educazione Infantile Nelle Casa dei Bambini (later entitled in English The Montessori Method). This blessing was highly significant for her work since she had come to be regarded as “liberal” by the church because of views described earlier. With the pope’s sanction, her method was declared as harmonious with the church, though she did not publicly acknowledge this until 1926.

In 1922, after World War I ended, Mussolini headed the government of Italy, and Fascism dominated. With its anti-liberal philosophy, this regime regarded the thinking of Montessori and others disapprovingly. Life in Italy was no longer as it had been for Montessori. Now there was tension between the church and the state. Vatican City was created to separate those two entities. In 1929, to gain favor with the church, Mussolini signed a peace agreement with the church.

Montessori’s desire was to work in Italy even though Children’s Houses (Casa dei Bambini) had been established all over the world. Because she wanted the favor of both the state (Mussolini) and the church, she now acknowledged the pope’s blessing. To gain favor with Catholic groups, such as the Jesuits who criticized her for naturalism and positivism, she began to change the tone of her writings. Her work began liberal and became increasingly conservative, though never to the complete satisfaction of the Jesuits. The essence of her approach and its methods did not change, but her vocabulary and explanations did. By the third edition of The Montessori Method, she included a chapter on religious education.

Criticism never completely subsided. The 1929 papal encyclical opposed the fact that she educated male and female children together. She was considered by some to be “new age” because of her “theosophical bent.” This latter accusation was fueled by her decision to abolish the short-lived religious education from her approach after she and Mario spent several years in India and were exposed to Hinduism and Buddhism. She felt it was not possible to use her approach to represent the abstract concepts of those religions so she eliminated all explicit religious education from her method. Late in life, Montessori regretted not keeping religion as an ongoing part of her work.

Also in 1929, Dr. Montessori founded the Association Montessori Internationale in Amsterdam to maintain the integrity of the work even after her death. The organization has been successful in this. Interestingly, Jean Piaget, who was born two years before her son Mario, attended the last class Montessori taught before she and Mario had to flee Italy in 1934 due to the rise of Fascism. Piaget became the first president of the Swiss Montessori Society. He conducted many of his own experiments in his version of a Casa dei Bambini.

While working at her school in Barcelona, Spain, Montessori had to flee in 1936 to Amsterdam due to civil war. While in Amsterdam, she started a training center in 1938. In 1939 she was invited to India to teach for the Theosophical Society. Because of Britain’s control of India and its involvement in World War II, Montessori and her son Mario were interred in India for seven years though they were allowed to travel throughout India. Hundreds of Indian teachers were trained in the Montessori Method during this time. This period, as well as a return visit to India, were very productive. She lectured widely, and the lectures became books such as The Absorbent Mind and The Secret of Childhood. In 1947, she founded a center in London. In 1949, 1950, and 1951, Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. While contemplating a trip to Africa, she died in Amsterdam in 1952.

Though the majority of Montessori schools globally focus on young children (plane 1), an increasing number of schools at the secondary level are being established, especially in the Netherlands. This coupled with the prevalence of Montessori schools in scores and scores of countries around the world (4,000 in the U.S. alone as of 2003) supports the universality of her pedagogical principles.

Critiques of the Montessori Method

John Dewey and others disapproved of the Montessori approach, because they felt it emphasized individualism over social interaction that they view as the catalyst for growth. Montessori saw the growth of the child happening from the inside out-from the spirit of the child gradually, through development, to a widening sphere of influence. Her perceived overemphasis on cognitive development above social and emotional growth stems from the fact that she saw young children relate more to physical objects than other children or the teacher. Montessori felt that “things” were the best teachers, thus fostering independence. She considered that children too easily try to please adults rather than engage in authentic learning.

W. H. Kilpatrick, an American educational philosopher, and contemporary of Montessori, was one of her most outspoken critics. Kilpatrick was a devoted student of Dewey and also Dewey’s successor. In 1914, he wrote about her approach concluding that she was fifty years behind in the development of educational theory and that the only thing that she had in common with Dewey was that they both opposed traditionalism. He saw Dewey as educating for life, but Montessori educated for preparation for life.

Dewey felt Montessori children also were not allowed to innovate. He criticized her approach because the materials used by the child were pre-made and not created by the child. He felt the approach too rigid and adult-oriented. In 1916, he wrote that her approach demands

[m]aterials which have already been subjected to the perfecting work of the mind . …That such materials will control the pupil’s operations so as to prevent errors is true. The notion that a pupil operating with such material will somehow absorb the intelligence that went originally to its shaping is fallacious. Only by starting with crude material and subjecting it to purposeful handling will he gain the intelligence embodied in finished material.

One might argue, in Montessori’s defense, that many of the basics of life are given to children in pre-existing forms-concepts such as language, numeration, and social customs.

Her method is also criticized for her disdain for fairy tales or fantasy in any form. She viewed play as having little value; it was merely social adaptation, so play should serve work. This may be more her own personal view rather than from observation of children. This view is not held by most other educators, and contemporary research does not necessarily support her position.

She has also been criticized for being pedagogically unsound because her approach seems to favor sensory and intellectual content over imagination or meaning construction. Her definition of free play differs considerably from other educators: hers is purposeful choice; others see free play as random choice.

Elkind (1967) compares Montessori’s work with that of Piaget. The latter contributed to a philosophy of knowledge, while the work of the former resulted in a philosophy of education. Piaget was more focused on theory while Montessori emphasized practice. In many ways the thinking of Piaget and Montessori was compatible and complementary, and they both brought new insights to the nature-nurture dialog. They both realized the when a child repeats actions, intelligence unfolds and learning results. Nature establishes the pattern and schedule for development, while nurture enables the pattern to be realized.

Miller (2004, 20) states that Montessori should be credited with identifying a child’s need to have a prepared environment for healthy growth and development, but that environment may not be limited to Montessori’s prescriptions for it. Miller feels that her a priori assumptions likely may have influenced her more than she was aware, but that does not lessen the significance of the principles she identified. What was brilliant was her identification of the “deadening materialism” of her day (which has only escalated as time has passed) and her strategies to counter that effect.

As with several aspects of her method, Montessori’s view of imagination seemed to shift later in her life. She came to believe that the young child (three to six years of age) has the ability to imagine things that are not directly visible. This insight becomes an impetus for subsequent models of religious education that flow from the Montessori Method (e.g., Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Young Children and Worship, and Godly Play).

In the view of many educators, the criticisms of the Montessori Method pale in light of the significance of her theoretical contributions.

Contributions to Christian Education

As previously mentioned, Montessori (1965) felt that the question of what to teach in religion does not really arise. It is not so much a question what to teach but how and when to teach it. She said, “It becomes therefore a question of the attitude of the adult toward the children. The adult becomes an obstacle when he tries to do himself what should be done by the child, to do what in fact can only be done by the child” (55). This did not mean, she insisted, that the child be left alone to find his own way regarding religion. But it does mean, that the “deepest longing of the child’s soul-if he could only articulate it-would be expressed in just this way: ‘Help me to help myself'” (56). For this to happen, Montessori advocates the need for a carefully prepared environment that contains the content of what the child should “absorb.”

Given the above statements and the positive influence of Montessori’s work, one might ask why there are relatively so few contemporary religious Montessori schools. Perhaps her removal of explicit religious education from her books is a contributing factor. Yet, these writings are filled with references to scripture and religious metaphors. Noteworthy to evangelical educators is her extremely high view of the child. She is reported to have said to a co-worker, “I don’t need to teach anything to children: it is they who, placed in a favorable environment, teach me, reveal to me spiritual secrets as long as their souls have not been deformed” (Kramer, 1976, 251). She would say that the content comes from the symbols and the materials rather than directly from the biblical text. The absence of significant explicit references to Jesus’ death on the cross, his resurrection, and to the Holy Spirit will concern evangelicals as well.

Even though explicit religious references are absent from many of her writings and evangelicals disagree with some of her theological positions, Christian adherents to the Montessori Method view the approach as infused with religious meaning and depth. Religion-Christian religion-is implicit throughout her work. Later in her career, she appears to have had resurgence or new boldness in her faith. During that period she wrote Life of Christ and The Mass Explained to Children and lectured about children’s spirituality.

The pedagogical principles of Montessori’s Method are like a sociological impetus that advocates for all children everywhere. This aspect alone should pique the interest of Christian educators who are passionate about holistically meeting needs of underserved children. However, another caveat must follow for the evangelical. According to Cossentino (2005), the Montessori Method is not built on a priori belief but on a foundation of practice (236). It is built on a worldview that values exactness and harmony. In other words, the method is not founded on core Christian tenets, but it is compatible with most Christian teachings. Knowledge and belief are developed through practice. Faith, as evangelicals know it, is not a prominent concept in Montessori’s approach. The method’s use of ritual and repetition are reminders of patterns found in scripture, particularly the Old Testament feasts and traditions. Even though Montessori’s view of Scripture may be questionable for conservative Christians, it is hard to imagine the cohesive worldview so dominant in her theory as being possible without Christian faith.

Berryman stated that Montessori’s “contribution to religious education has been ironically overlooked by many religious educators and Montessorians. It was at the core of her life and work” (1980, 294). In 1915, at the age of 45, Montessori included a religious dimension to her education with children. The reason for this shift is not entirely clear, though some feel that Mario’s presence in her life may have influenced this.

Intentional in the Montessori Method is the provision for holistic development. The learning environment is designed to provide for intellectual, physical, social and moral, emotional, creative and cultural, and spiritual growth. Nowhere is holistic integration more evident in the Casa dei Bambini than in the way Montessori engaged children in growing and harvesting all that was needed to prepare elements for the Eucharist. Children were instructed how to plant seeds carefully in rows, and then tend and weed the sprouting plants until the grain was ready to be harvested. When the grain was ripe, they would reap and bundle it, send it off to a mill, and wait for it to return as flour. The last step was to bake the bread from the flour ground from the wheat they had cultivated themselves. The same was true for the grapes. They tended vineyards. As clusters of grapes developed, the children would gently cover them with bags of light cloth so that insects could not damage the fruit. Festivals marked the harvests of these crops. These activities were a beautiful melding of practical work, cyclical celebration, and significant religious symbolism for the children. Eventually these activities were abolished as being “too Catholic” for the diversity of children that were attracted to the schools.

According to Cavalletti and Gobbi (1964), [t]he Montessori Method … is only a way of helping small children to educate themselves. But this way is one that is naturally religious. It is based on a sense of awe before truth, of reverence for all the works of God’s hands, of minute care and perfection in every action, of deep respect for the human person created in the image of God (even if that person is only two years old). Self-control, recollection, contemplation, silence, grace, courtesy, mutual help-those are its tools and its aims. It is easy to see how a person whose religious sense has been thwarted in a secularized life might confuse religion itself with a way of education based on naturally sacred values (11ff).

Montessori’s use of carefully prepared materials for learning is a model for Christian educators in ways that some say make “incarnate” the images of religious language, images such as the Good Shepherd or the parable of the vine and the branches.

Her influence in the field of Christian education is most clearly evident in the work of Cavalletti and also that of Berryman, both cited above. The ministry approach of Sofia Cavalletti’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (see the entry for Cavalletti on this website and clearly demonstrates that influence. It does not take more than a minute or two in an atrium of Catechesis to see the very direct effect of Montessori in the use of space, preparedness of the environment, and learning experiences of the children. Cavalletti’s Catechesis is found primarily in sacramental churches. The Montessori Method along with Cavalletti’s work then influenced Jerome Berryman as he developed Godly Play and Sonya Stewart as she worked with Young Children and Worship. The trajectory of Montessori’s influences also shows in Upper Room’s The Way of the Child ( https://www.umcdiscipleship.or…, accessed 5.10.07), the work of Gretchen Wolff Pritchard of St. Paul & St. James Church in New Haven, Connecticut, as well as many others. These latter two approaches are readily adaptable to a broad spectrum of churches, particularly mainline churches, but they are seeing increasing reception in evangelical ones.

As 21st century life in the West becomes more and more compressed and fast paced, it behooves Christian educators who work with children or equip others in churches and schools to work with them to give thoughtful, discerning consideration to her philosophy of education, especially as it evolved in the second half of her career. Recognizing that theological adjustments would be necessary, this philosophy might provide grounding for ministry approaches that can be alternatives to the “traditional” Sunday school model or to the more contemporary media-oriented, “spectator” models. (The latter models often include activity for the sake of activity itself.) A drawback for large churches is that her approach is not intended for masses of children but for settings where careful observation of the needs and development of each child can be identified.

According to Miller, Montessori’s educational vision is far more profound than simply a method, materials, and classroom routines. Her method “essentially aims for a complete transformation of virtually all modern assumptions about teaching, learning, childhood, and the very purpose of human existence on Earth” (2004, 14). This vision was evident even in the early days of her method. Miller feels that Montessori understood the child’s need for nurture better even than Dewey. She inserted a domestic feeling in her casa dei bambini-homes for children-intentionally including the love that should be found in a family. Love, for Maria Montessori, is a pedagogical destination.

Works Cited

  • Association Montessori Internationale. (2006). Montessorians serve as advocates for all children-championing the rights of the child in society. Retrieved January 14, 2007 from
  • Berryman, J. (1979). Being in parables with children. Religious Education, 74(3), 271-285.
  • Berryman, J. (1980). Montessori and religious education. Religious Education, 75(3), 294-307.
  • Berryman, J. (2002). The complete guide to godly play, Vol. 1. Denver: Living the Good News.
  • Caillon, P. (1968). The first seven years are the ones that count. Religious Education, 63, 172-179.
  • Cavalletti, S. & Gobbi, G. (1964). Teaching doctrine and liturgy: The Montessori approach. New York: Society of St. Paul.
  • Cossentino, J. (2005). Ritualizing expertise: a non-Montessorian view of the Montessori method. American Journal of Education, 111 (Feb.), 211-244.
  • Davidson, J. (2004). Maria Montessori: her life and legacy. San Luis Obispo, CA: Davidson Films.
  • Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan, 232.
  • Elkind, D. (1967). Piaget and Montessori. Harvard Educational Review, Fall, 535-45.
  • Gustafsson, C. (1994). Montessori and education. In International Encyclopedia of Education, T. Husen & T. N. Postlethwaite, eds. New York: Pergamon, 3912-14.
  • Kilpatrick. W. H. (1914). Montessori system examined. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Kramer, R. (1976). Maria Montessori: A biography. New York: Putnam.
  • Miller, R. (2004). Nourishing the spiritual embryo: The educational vision of Maria Montessori. Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, 17(2), 14-21.
  • Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori Method, translated by Anne Everett George. New York: Frederick A. Stokes. Retrieved January 18, 2007,
  • Montessori, M. (1965). The child in the church: Essays on the religious education of children and the training of character. St. Paul: Catechetical Guild. Edited by E. M. Standing.
  • Montessori, Maria: A brief biography. Retrieved January 14, 2007, from
  • Montessori, M. Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society. Retrieved January 14, 2007, from
  • Montessori: The International Montessori Index. Retrieved January 20, 2007.
  • Ripping, T. 2006. Notes from training workshop presented October 5, at Opera Nazionale Montessori, Rome, Italy.
  • Trabalzini, P. 2006. Personal conversation on October 5, at Opera Nazionale Montessori, Rome, Italy.



  • Montessori, M. Childhood education see Formazione del’uomo.
  • Montessori, M. From childhood to adolescence, see De L’Enfant a l’adolescent.
  • Montessori, M. (1905). Caraterri fisci delle giovani donne del Lazio. Rome, Italy: La Sede delle Societa.
  • Montessori, M. (1909). Il metodo della pedogogia scientifica applicator all’educazione infantile nelle case dei bambini. Castello, Italy: Lapi. Translation published as The Montessori Method. (1912). New York: Stokes. Revised edition published as The discovery of the child. (1948). Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House. Published as La Scoperta del bambino. (1950). Milan, Italy: Garzanti. Translation by Anne E. George published as The Montessori Method (1964). New York: Schocken.
  • Montessori, M. (1913). Antropologia pedagogica. Milan, Italy: Vallardi. Translation published as Pedagogical anthropology. (1913). New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company.
  • Montessori, M. (1914). Dr. Maria Montessori’s own handbook. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. Published as Dr. Montessori’s own handbook. (1965) New York: Schocken Books.
  • Montessori, M. (1915). My system of education. Education in relation to the imagination of the little child. The organization of intellectual work in school. The mother and the child (lectures). New York: House of Childhood.
  • Montessori, M. (1916). L’autoeducazione nelle suole elementary. Rome, Italy: Loescher. Also published as L’autoeducazione nelle suole elementary, Nuova ed. (1970). Milan, Italy: Garzanti.
  • Montessori, M. (1917) The advanced Montessori method. (two volumes: Spontaneous activity in education and The Montessori elementary material), New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company.
  • Montessori, M. (1921). Manuale di pedagogica scientifica, Naples, Italy: Morano.
  • Montessori, M. (1931). Education religieuse: la vie en Jesus-Christ. Translation by Georgette J.-J. Pernard and Anne-Marie Bernard. Rome: Instituto Tipo-litografico Garzanti.
  • Montessori, M. (1932). The Mass explained to children. London: Sheed and Ward. Published as The Mass explained to boys and girls (1934). Chicago, IL: Sadlier.
  • Montessori, M. (1932). Peace and education. Geneva, Switzerland: International Bureau of Education. Translation by Helen R. Lane published as Education and peace. (1972). Chicago: H. Regnery Co.
  • Montessori, M. (1934). Psico geometria, Barcelona, Spain: Araluce.
  • Montessori, M. (1934). Psico aritmetica. Barcelona, Spain: Araluce.
  • Montessori, M. (1939). The reform of education during and after adolescence. Amsterdam: Association Montessori Internationale.
  • Montessori, M. (1939) The secret of childhood. London: Longman. Translated and edited by Barbara Barclay Carter.
  • Montessori, M. (1939). The Erdkinder, and the functions of the university. London: Montessori Society of England.
  • Montessori, M. (1942). Reconstruction in education, Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House.
  • Montessori, M. (1946). Education for a new world. Adyar, India: Kalakshetra.
  • Montessori, M. (1948). Child training (radio talks). Delhi, India: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
  • Montessori, M. (1948) The child. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House.
  • Montessori, M. (1948). De L’Enfant a l’adolescent. Bruges, Belgium: Descles. Translation published as From childhood to adolescence. (1973). New York: Schocken.
  • Montessori, M. (1948, 1973). To educate the human potential. Madras, India: Kalakshetra Publications.
  • Montessori, M. (1949). Life of Christ. (It: La vita in Cristo). Milan, Italy: Garzanti.
  • Montessori, M. (1949a). The absorbent mind. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House. Revised edition (1967). New York: Holt Rinehart.
  • Montessori, M. (1949). Formazione dell’uomo, Milan, Italy: Garzanti. Translation by A. M. Joosten. Published as The Formation of Man. (1955). Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House. Published as Childhood Education (1970) in the United States by Chicago: H. Regnery Co.
  • Montessori, M. (1958). Ideas generales sobre me metodo. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada.
  • Montessori, M. (1964). Spontaneous activity in education. (Volume 1 of The Advanced Montessori method). Cambridge, MA: R. Bently. Translated by Florence Simmonds.
  • Montessori, M. (1965). The child in the church: Essays on the religious education of children and the training of character. St. Paul: Catechetical Guild. Edited by E. M. Standing.
  • Montessori, M. (1967). The discovery of the child. New York: Ballantine Books. Translated by M. Joseph Costelloe. Translation of La scoptera del bambino.
  • Montessori, M. (1970). Child in the family. Chicago: H. Regnery Co. Translated by Nancy Rockmore Cirillo. Originally published as San Kind in der Familie. (1948). Vienna, Austria: Montessorischule.
  • Montessori, M. (1971). Educazione alla liberta. Bari, Italy: Laterza. Edited by Maria Luisa Leccese.
  • Montessori, M. (1973). The Montessori elementary material. (Volume 2 of The advanced Montessori method). New York: Schocken Books. Translated by Arthur Livingston.
  • Montessori, M. (1975). L’Enfant (translated from Italian). Paris: Denoel/Gonther.
  • Montessori, M. (1977). What you should know about your child. (2d Kalakshetra ed.) Madras, India: Kalakshetra Publications. Interpreted and edited by A. Gnana Prakasam.
  • Montessori, M. (1978). Look at the child: An expression of Maria Montessori’s insights. Compiled by Aline D. Wolf, with photographs by Don Bakier and John Rodasill. Altoona, PA: Montesori Learning Center.
  • Montessori, M. (1989). Child, society and the world, The: unpublished speeches and writings. Oxford, England: CLIO Press. Translated, where necessary from original manuscripts by Caroline Juler and Heather Yesson.


  • Opera Montessori, (1950). Milan, Italy: Garzanti.
  • Note: An exhaustive bibliographic resource was compiled in conjunction with the January 6, 2007, centennial celebration of the first Montessori school. This work cites 11,100 entries from 56 countries written from 1896-2000 about Montessori and her work. In addition there are 1500 entries written by Montessori herself. As of October 2006, this resource was available in Italian only.

Select Secondary Sources

  • Berryman, J. (1979). Being in parables with children. Religious Education, 74, 271-285.
  • Berryman, J. (1980). Montessori and religious education. Religious Education, 75 (3), 294-307.
  • Caillon, P. (1968). The first seven years are the ones that count. Religious Education, 63, 172-179.
  • Cavalletti, S. & Gobbi, G. (1964). Teaching doctrine and liturgy: the Montessori approach. New York: Society of St. Paul.
  • Cossentino, J. (2005). Ritualizing experitise: a non-Montessorian view of the Montessori method. American Journal of Education, 111 (Feb.), 211-244.
  • Crain, W. (1992). Montessori’s educational philosophy. Theories of development: concepts and applications, 3rd edition, 57-74.
  • Elkind, D. (1967). Piaget and Montessori. Harvard Educational Review, Fall, 535-45.
  • Elkind, D. (1980). The role of play in religious education. Religious Education, 75 (3), 282-293.
  • Hainstock, E. G. (1971). Teaching Montessori in the home. New York: Random House.
  • Hainstock, E. G. (1986). The essential Montessori. New York: New American Library.
  • Kramer, R. (1976). Maria Montessori: A biography. New York: Putnam.
  • Kilpatrick. W. H. (1914). Montessori system examined. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Lillard, A. S. (2005). Montessori: The science behind the genius. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Lillard, A. S., and Else-Quest, N. (2006). The early years: Evaluating Montessori education. Science, 313(5795), 1893-1894.
  • Maccheroni, A. M. (1947). A true romance: Dr. Maria Montessori as I knew her. Edinburgh:
  • Miller, R. (2004). Nurturing the spiritual embryo: The educational vision of Maria Montessori. Encounter, 17 (2), 14-21.
  • Montessori, Mario. (1984). Dr. Maria Montessori and the child. In The spiritual hunger of the modern child: A series of ten lectures. Charles Town, WV: Claymont. (From lectures given in London, 1961.)
  • Mooney, C. (2000). Theories of childhood: An introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget and Vygotsky. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
  • Oren, R. C. (ed.) (1974). Montessori: Her method and the movement: What you need to know. New York: Putnam.
  • Standing, E. M. (1962). Maria Montessori, her life and work. New York: New American Library, Inc.

Digital video recordings

  • Davidson, John. (2004). Maria Montessori: Her life and legacy. San Luis Obispo, CA: Davidson Films.
  • Lillard, A. S. (2006). The science behind the genius. Charlottesville, VA: DVD video production by Paladin Pictures.

Websites of bibliographies

  • The NAMTA Montessori Bibliography and Research Guide (Third ed.). Compiled by D. Renee Pendleton. Contains more than 13,000 citations of English-language articles from 1909 through 2001, classified by topic. Useful for parent education, research projects, school newsletters, teacher development as well as Montessori theory, methods, and history. Available at:
  • The NAMTA Montessori Bibliography Online. NAMTA’s online bibliography is a searchable online version of the 800-page The NAMTA Montessori Bibliography and Research Guide. Including Web-based database with more than 16,000 citations. Montessori sources in English from 1909-present. Available by subscription ($20/year). Subscription information: <a href=”
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  • An annotated Montessori Method bibliography › document › annotated-bibliography and › concesmontessori › Annotated_Bibliography

Excerpts from Publications

Montessori, Maria. (1948). The discovery of the child. Madras. Reprinted 1967, New York: Random House. p viii.

In good faith, like the simple Aladdin, I thought that I held in my hand a lamp which at the most could lead me into a place hitherto unexplored, but what I discovered unexpectedly was a treasure hidden in the depths of a child’s soul, and it is this new, surprising revelation, and not what might be called “the importance of my contribution to official science,” which has spread my method so far over the world, so far from the land of its birth.

Montessori, Maria. (1965). The child in the church, E. M. Standing, ed. St. Paul, MN: Catechetical Guild.

Respect for the child’s nature, which God Himself demands of us, compels us to search most carefully for those conditions in which children can abandon themselves most easily to God. (p. 16)

The tendency on the part of the adult to behave [as if the child were still an infant] comes from the understandable-but no longer admissible-need of the educator to keep the child in a state of infantile dependence, in order that the adult may enjoy the feeling of being continuously indispensable. (p. 17)

Imitating our Divine Master we shall not let ourselves be motivated by the impulse to pomp and power, but by the respect for Christ-in-the-child, who-with our helpmust grow into the fullness of his personality. (p. 20)

The Prepared Environment would be useless without the Prepared Adult-the adult who understands and forms the dynamic link between the children and this environment. (p. 61)

Montessori, Maria. (2004). Maria Montessori: Her life and legacy. Davidson Films. Backcover copy of quote from Montessori’s Absorbant Mind.

We discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words but of experiences in which the child acts on his environment.

Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori method. . New York: Stokes.

This work contains the essence of Montessori’s approach. It explains the essential materials, preparation of the environment, and the processes. Many Montessorians regard this work as the “key text” for developing a Montessori school.

Montessori, M. (1939). The secret of childhood. . London: Longman. Translated and edited by Barbara Barclay Carter.

In a more casual diary or journal-like style, Montessori describes her actual observations of children, revealing her perception of their value. She explains her understanding of a child’s ability to self-regulate regarding sleep and other life necessities is the conditions and environment is properly managed.

Montessori, M. (1949). The absorbent mind. . Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House. Revised edition (1967). New York: Holt Rinehart.

Based on lectures given during Montessori’s time in India, this work focuses on early childhood-the child in Plane 1. She describes various aspects of the growth and development of the young child, exploring the “inner and secret world of the child.”

Other Resources

Association Montessori Internationale. The objectives of the Association are to uphold, propagate and further the pedagogical principles and practices formulated by Montessori for the full development of the human being. Web site:

Communications, the biannual journal of the Association Montessori Internationale. It publishes articles by Montessori as well as scholarly papers on her work and related topics. The AMI also produces The AMI Bulletin triennially featuring Montessori news and articles from around the world.

Http:// A Web site highlighting various conferences, events, and resources related to the 100-year anniversary of the opening of the first Casa dei Bambini on January 6, 1907.

Montessori: The International Montessori Index. The international index of Montessori schools, teachers, materials, and methods. Web site:

North American Montessori Teacher’s Association. A membership organization open to teachers, parents, or persons interested in Montessori education. The NAMTA Journal is published triennially by the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association. Web site:

Author Information

Scottie May

Scottie May is Assistant Professor of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College. She earned her Master’s Degree from Wheaton College and Doctor of Philosophy Degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1993. She wrote “A contemplative model of children’s ministry,” in Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation: Four Views, 2006, Michael Anthony (ed.), Broadman & Holman; Children Matter, 2005, with Catherine Stonehouse, Beth Posterski, and Linda Cannell, Eerdmanns; and was contributing editor with senior editor, Don Ratcliffe, on Children’s Spirituality, 2004, co-authoring the chapter with Ratcliffe, “Brain development and the numinous experiences of children.”

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