Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was an individual ahead of her time. Born in Ancona, Italy, to an educated middle class family, she grew up in a culture very conservative in its attitude toward women. Yet even against the opposition of her father and teachers, Montessori pursued a degree in engineering and then became interested in medicine. She had to get special permission from the Pope to enter medical school and then became the first woman physician in Italy.
As a physician working in an asylum associated with the University of Rome, she quickly became fascinated with children's intellectual development. Helping children learn to care for their physical needs became the foundation for her "Practical Life" activities. After studying with Itard, Seguin, and others throughout Europe, she began creating materials to help these children learn basic concepts and then academic subjects.
The minister of education would not allow Montessori to use her method in the public schools, although most of the children she worked with in the asylum were able to pass the public school exams after only two or three years. A group of investors asked her to open a place for children in the midst of the tenement houses they had built in one of the worst slums in Rome. Her first casa de bambini ("home for children") opened on January 7, 1907.
Because she did not have preconceived ideas about how children learn, she used scientific observation and experimentation to develop the philosophy, materials, and teaching methods that have become known as "The Montessori Method." She "followed the child" with deep respect, allowing each child to inspire her with the unique person he was becoming as he worked in a classroom environment that balanced freedom with responsibility.
Since Montessori revealed the universal qualities of the child, her philosophy is easily implemented in all cultures, across all socio-economic levels. Today there are about 22,000 Montessori schools in 110 countries, with close to 4,200 of them in the United States. In addition to classrooms for the original age level of 3 to 6 years, there are programs for infants, toddlers, elementary, middle school, and high school children, as well as a center for the elderly with dementia.