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What is usually called the Montessori method is not really a method. It is an understanding of child development and an approach to Education based on a clearly defined set of principles. Dr. Montessori formulated these fundamental principles based on careful and scientific observation of the natural tendencies of children. Dr. Montessori saw the role of the adult, as educator, as a secondary, yet important role. In Montessori, the adult is not called a teacher, but a directress, because she gently guides and directs. All education should be an aid to life, meaning that nothing should be forced or imposed. Children need guidance more than instruction. Maria Montessori observed that children follow an inner guide which she called the child's inner teacher. By following the promptings of this inner teacher, children seek activities that are most necessary and adequate to satisfy their needs at given stages of their development. This allows each child to fulfill its own potential. Wholesome growth cannot take place without the right conditions. These conditions are referred to in Montessori as the "prepared environment."

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In many ways, Maria Montessori was ahead of her time. Born in the town of Chiaravalle, Italy, in 1870, she became the first female physician in Italy upon her graduation from medical school in 1896. Shortly afterwards she was chosen to represent Italy at two different women's conferences, in Berlin in 1896 and in London in 1900. Early in her medical practice her clinical observations led her to analyze how children learn, and she concluded that they build themselves from what they find in their environment. Shifting her focus from the body to the mind, she returned to the university in 1901 to study psychology and philosophy. In 1904 she was made a professor of anthropology at the University of Rome. Her desire to help children was so strong that in 1906 she gave up both her university chair and her medical practice and founded the first Casa dei Bambini, or "Children's Home." This was a programmed established to help a group of sixty young children of working parents in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. What ultimately became the Montessori "method" of education developed there, based upon Montessori's scientific observations of these children's almost effortless ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings, as well as their tireless interest in manipulating materials. Every piece of equipment, every exercise, every method Montessori developed was based on what she observed children doing "naturally," by themselves, with little or no assistance from adults.

Children teach themselves. This simple but profound truth inspired Montessori's lifelong pursuit of educational reform, methodology, psychology, teaching, and teacher training-all based on her dedication to furthering the self-creating process of the child.

Maria Montessori made her first visit to the United States in 1913, the same year that Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel founded the Montessori Educational Association at their Washington, DC, home. Among her other strong American supporters were Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.

In 1915 she attracted world attention with her "glass house" classroom exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. On this second U.S. visit she also conducted a teacher training course and addressed the annual conventions of both the National Education Association and the International Kindergarten Union. The committee that brought her to San Francisco included Margaret Wilson, the daughter of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

The Spanish government invited her to open a research institute in 1917. In 1919 she began a series of teacher training courses in London. In 1922 she was appointed a government inspector of schools in her native Italy. Because of her opposition to Mussolini's fascist regime, however, she was forced to leave Italy in 1934 after all her Casa dei Bambini (Children's Homes) were shut down. She traveled to Barcelona, Spain, and was rescued there by a British cruiser in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. She opened the Montessori Training Centre in Laren, Netherlands in 1938, and founded a series of teacher training courses in India in 1939.

In 1940, when India entered World War II, she and her son, Mario Montessori, were interned as enemy aliens, but she was still permitted to conduct training courses. Later, she founded the Montessori Center in London (1947).
She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times: in 1949, 1950, and 1951.

Maria Montessori died in Noordwijk, Holland, in 1952.

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