Maria Montessori was the first female physician in Italy. Her background is important, because she was trained as a scientist. She was trained to observe and test her assumptions. In her early career she was working with the equivalent of mentally deficient children in an institution. Based on her observations, she felt that they were deprived of stimulation. She began to use some of the equipment developed by Edouard Séguin with these children. In 1901, the “deficient” children that she had been working with passed the Italian public school exams. While this made international news, Dr. Montessori was wondering what was wrong with the traditional educational system.
A few years later she had the opportunity to open a school for children in the slums of Italy. The children’s parents worked, and the landlords of the building wanted a place for the children during the day. The children were initially supervised by a woman who was barely more than a girl with no training as a teacher. Dr. Montessori made changes to the environment based on extensive observations of children over time and what they were universally drawn to or rejected.
Over time Dr. Montessori developed a system of education based on concrete materials, freedom of movement and individual choice. She recognized that a child has a natural sensitive periods when children are biologically primed to learn certain concepts more easily than at a later time. The materials that she developed are integrated and reinforce learning across the classroom and over time as the child grows.