'Help me to do it myself'

How did it all begin?

Dr Maria Montessori, the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome Medical School, became interested in education as a doctor treating mentally handicapped children. After returning to the university for further study, she began her work with non – handicapped children in 1904.

In her research, Dr. Montessori noted the specific characteristics associated with the child’s interests and abilities at each plane of development. She argued that a school carefully designed to meet the needs and interests of the child would work more effectively because it would not fight human nature. Montessori taught teachers how to “follow the child” through careful observation, allowing each child to reveal his/her strengths, weaknesses, interests and anxieties; and strategies that work best to facilitate the development of the child’s human potential.

This focus on the “whole child” led Dr. Montessori to develop a very different sort of school from the traditional adult – centred classroom. To emphasise this difference, she named her first school the “Casa dei Bambini” (Children’s House).

There is something profound in her choice of words, for the Montessori classroom is not the domain of the adults in charge, but rather it is a carefully prepared environment designed to facilitate the development of the children’s independence and sense of personal empowerment.

Who would benefit from attending a Montessori school?

The Montessori system has been used successfully with children aged from 2 ½ years from all socio-economic, emotional, mental and physical levels.

Montessori schools believe very strongly that intelligence is not fixed at birth, nor is the human potential anywhere near as limited as it sometimes seems in traditional education. We know that each child is a full and complete individual in his/her own right. Even when children are very small, they deserve to be treated with the full and sincere respect that we would extend to their parents. Respect breeds respect, and creates an atmosphere within which learning is tremendously facilitated.

Success at school is directly tied to the degree to which children believe that they are capable and independent human beings.

If they knew the words, even very young children would ask: “Help me to do it myself!”

The Montessori system allows children to develop a meaningful degree of independence and self-discipline, which sets a pattern for a lifetime of good work habits and a sense of responsibility. Children learn to take pride in doing things for themselves carefully and well.

Montessori schools treat each child as a unique individual. Children learn at their own pace, and learn in ways that work best for them to discover and develop their own talents and possibilities. The goal is flexible and creative.

Learning the right answers may get a child through school, learning how to become a life-long, independent learner will take her anywhere! Montessori teaches children to think, not simply to memorise, regurgitate, and forget.

What does it entail?

It is a system of education in both a philosophy of child growth and a rationale for guiding such growth. It is based on the child’s developmental needs for freedom within limits and a carefully prepared environment that guarantees exposure to materials and experience through which to develop intelligence as well as physical and psychological abilities. It is designed to take full advantage of the self-motivation and unique ability of young children to develop their own capabilities. Children need adults to expose them to the possibilities of their lives, but the children themselves must direct their responses to those possibilities.

Key principles of Montessori education are:

  1. Children are to be respected and treated as individuals.
  2. Children possess unusual sensitivity and mental ability to absorb and learn from their environment, unlike adults, both in quality and capacity.
  3. The most important years of growth are the first six years of life, when unconscious learning is gradually brought to a conscious level.
  4. Children have a deep love and need for purposeful work (play). The child works, however, not as an adult for profit and completion of a task, but for the sake of the activity itself.

Montessori identified ‘the universal characteristics of childhood’ from her observations of children of different cultures at various stages in their development. These characteristics can be summed up as follows:

  • All children have ‘absorbent’ minds.
  • All children pass through ‘sensitive periods’.
  • All children want to learn.
  • All children learn through play (work).
  • All children want to be independent.