For Maria Montessori’s Birthday, A Tribute to Her Legacy

The philosophy and pedagogy of The Children’s School owe an enormous debt to Maria Montessori, who was born on August 31, 1870. Dr. Montessori’s years of empirical research and deep thinking about how children learn, along with her endless experimentation with learning materials, revolutionized the understanding of cognitive development in the early years. From her pioneering work came a wealth of insights that have stood the test of time, such as the high correlation between children’s movement and cognition, the benefits of active learning and the value of allowing young children to experience choice in what they learn. And no one in the history of education has done more to emphasize the importance of a carefully ordered learning environment.

Maria’s meticulous observation and teaching of children allowed her to develop some of the core principles that form the heart of her approach: educating children through their five senses; taking the time to learn about each child through close observation; preparing a learning environment that is thoughtful and responsive to the specific needs of that child; and an unwavering belief that all children have the potential to learn.

Dr. Montessori was eager to see if her methods would be effective. Thus, when the opportunity arose in 1907 to start a school for impoverished children in the Roman slum of San Lorenzo, she jumped at the chance. The famed Casa dei Bambini—the Children’s House—was founded, with Montessori appointed its director. It was here, in the ground-floor room of a tenement, that she began her work with some 60 children, a journey that would lead to the development of a philosophy, curriculum and system of pedagogical techniques for the education of young children.

As word spread of her astonishing success with the children of the poor, Dr. Montessori was heralded around the world as an educational revolutionary. Her method and ideas took root in other parts of Europe and Asia and eventually gained a large following in the U.S. Today, there are an estimated 100,000 Montessori schools worldwide.

Over her many years of observing children, Montessori felt it was critical for educators to create an environment that would inspire children to direct their own learning and vigorously pursue their own interests. She developed eight principles to give children the confidence to see their behavior, attitudes and choices in the context of a classroom community. The soundness of these principles has since been borne out by scientific studies in child psychology and education—and guide our practices at The Children’s School.

  1. The ordered environment and mind

The carefully prepared and ordered learning environment is a hallmark of the Montessori philosophy. It is also a centerpiece of The Children’s School, where it is fully expressed both in the interior learning space as well as in the design of the building and campus. A classroom with everything in its place is only one aspect of Montessori orderliness. She also believed that “aural order,” a quiet and purposeful atmosphere, was essential to successful learning, particularly for older, elementary-age children. As it turns out, she was right to think that the planned and ordered learning space would have a high correlation with mental order, focus, concentration and intelligence. A raft of scientific studies has shown that order is crucial to learning and psychosocial development.

  1. Respect a child’s interests

What inspires a child to want to acquire knowledge about something? Montessori answered that question by honoring what she saw in children’s behavior: interests are what drive learning. That is why she spent so much time developing learning materials for her students. She wanted to do everything possible to kindle a child’s interest in interacting with—and thus learning from—a material.

The Children’s School has a different term for this: materials are “merchandised” by displaying them so artfully they prove irresistible. Similarly, individual and group lessons are structured to pique a student’s curiosity and appetite to learn more.

  1. The value of choice

It seems so obvious: young children are more excited about learning when they are given a choice of what to learn and can follow their interests. When they are free to choose, children make good choices, including imposing limits on themselves in terms of the time spent on a given activity. Study after study has shown that children in a Montessori setting give themselves over to long periods of concentration on their classroom “work.”

  1. Movement boosts learning

In The Children’s School classroom, you will see children freely moving from one learning area to another, from inside the classroom to outdoor play areas, picking up and putting away their learning materials. This is based on Montessori’s insight that movement is essential to cognition. No surprise, then, that Montessori’s curriculum involves lots of manipulation of objects and materials with the hand. Recent neurological research supports the link between movement and learning.

  1. Learning in context

Casting the child in the role of a “motivated doer” means that doing and learning must be rooted in a meaningful context. For example, students enrolled in the primary program at The Children’s School come to think of themselves as genuine published authors when they create a book from start to finish. In the process, they learn everything from organizing a story into its proper parts to punctuation, matching illustrations and summarizing their story in a title.

  1. Learning with and from peers

The Children’s School features one of Montessori’s major educational innovations: grouping children of different ages in the same classroom. This practice comes out of the recognition that peers have an enormous impact on a child’s development. Montessori was one of the first educators to recognize that mixed-age groupings can be a “powerful engine” for children to acquire skills as varied as writing, math and good manners.

  1. Respectful teacher-and-child interactions

Maria Montessori never wavered in her belief that children should be seen, heard and respected. Nowhere is this more evident than in her idea that respect is the defining characteristic of the teacher-student relationship. Hence, one of the five core techniques utilized at The Children’s School concerns affirmative language: the importance of teachers communicating respect, both verbally and nonverbally, to children at all times in its classrooms.

  1. Avoid external awards

With her conviction that a child’s desire to learn must come from within, Montessori took a dim view of external rewards—stickers and gold stars—as a motivational strategy. In addition, she found these rewards disruptive to a classroom and a child’s ability to concentrate. There are no stickers, stars or other extrinsic rewards at The Children’s School. Instead, you will hear affirmations such as, “You worked very hard to balance that tower!”

It has been over a century since Maria Montessori founded her famed Casa dei Bambini in Rome, and yet her belief in children’s potential remains as fresh and relevant today as ever. We would be remiss if we did not pay homage to her exceptional achievements, as her method is one of several important influences shaping the educational approach of The Children’s School. In fact, we like to think that she would applaud what we have created atop Scofieldtown Road precisely because we know, as she did, that “children are capable of astonishing things.”

Maureen Murphy