Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952)

Born in 1870, Maria Montessori was the first woman to qualify as a medical doctor in Italy. Montessori’s strong belief in observation coupled with her scientific background, led her to gain remarkable insight into children’s learning patterns. This knowledge underlies the Montessori philosophy and the design of the accompanying teaching materials. She pioneered an approach to education that focuses on children’s innate desire to learn and their enormous capacity to do so when provided with a favourable environment, and guidance that is conducive to their natural development.

What is Montessori education?

Montessori is an approach to early education that focuses on the immense capacity of children to absorb information when given the freedom and independence to learn at their own pace, and takes into account how children’s thought processes differ from those of adults.

Her insight and approach to child development have been enormously influential all over the world, both through what has become the Montessori movement and through mainstream education, which has gradually accepted many of her practices.

It is now over 100 years since the first Montessori school was established in a slum area of Rome in 1907, and yet we find that the approach fulfils the needs of children in the 21st Century.

  • Children learn through exploration with their senses and through movement.
  • They need freedom within a structured environment in order to do this.
  • They need the opportunity to make constructive choices of activities and to learn through repeated experiences.
  • Learning skills for daily living develops independence and self esteem.
  • Self-discipline is developed through the framework of acceptable ground rules for behaviour.
  • Close contact with reality and nature is encouraged to allow the child to understand his/her place in the world.
  • Diversity is embraced and explored.

When allied to an availability of specially developed materials in a favourable environment, and under the close observation and guidance of a Montessori-trained directress/teacher, this leads to an enormously powerful, confidence-building approach to learning.

The benefits of a Montessori education:

By understanding how children learn, and providing them with tools and opportunities tailored to the way they experience the world around them, the Montessori approach allows children to learn through understanding, rather than through being told. From understanding comes confidence and a joy in learning.

The national and global reach of Montessori education:

The Montessori approach has proved so successful that it has been adopted all over the world and continues to influence ‘mainstream’ educationalists’ thinking everywhere. Today they are over 300 Montessori pre-schools around South Africa and many thousands more around the globe.

Famous Montessorians

Montessori education has been linked to many famous personalities throughout the years.

Those who were Montessori educated:

  • Larry Page and Sergey Brin – Co-founders of Google
  • Jeffrey Bezos – Founder of
  • Jimmy Wales – Founder of Wikipedia
  • George Clooney – Academy award-winning actor
  • Helen Hunt – Academy award-winning actress
  • Katharine Graham – Former owner/editor of the Washington Post
  • Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis – Former US First Lady
  • Sean ‘Puff Diddy’ Combs – Music and rap star
  • Anne Frank – Author of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Nobel Prize winner for Literature
  • Princes William and Harry – English Royal Family
  • Julia Child – Chef and author
  • Friedensreich Hundertwasser – Austrian painter and architect

Other famous people connected to Montessori include:

  • Alexander Graham Bell (inventor) and his wife Mabel founded the Montessori Education Association in 1913.  They also provided financial support directly to Maria Montessori and helped establish the first Montessori class in Canada and one of the first in the United States.
  • Thomas Edison, scientist and inventor, helped found a Montessori school.
  • US President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter trained as a Montessori teacher.  There was a Montessori classroom in the basement of the White House during Wilson’s presidency.
  • Erik Erikson, noted anthropologist/author, had a Montessori teaching certificate.
  • Jean Piaget, noted Swiss psychologist, made his first observations of children in a Montessori school.  He was also head of the Swiss Montessori Society for many years.