She was the originator of the Montessori method of education for the preschool child and was the first woman to receive (1894) a medical degree in Italy. After working with subnormal children as a psychiatrist at the Univ. of Rome, she was appointed (1898) director of the Orthophrenic School. There she pioneered in the instruction of retarded children, especially through the use of an environment rich in manipulative materials. In 1901 she left the school to embark on further study and to serve (1901-7) as lecturer in pedagogical anthropology at the Univ. of Rome. The success of her program at the Orthophrenic School, however, led her to believe that similar improvements could be made in the education of normal preschool children, and in 1907 she opened the first case dei bambini [children's house] as a day-care center in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. The success of this venture led Montessori and her followers to establish similar institutions in other parts of Europe and in the United States, where the first Montessori school was established (1912) in Tarrytown, N.Y. In 1929 the Association Montessori Internationale was established to further the Montessori method by sponsoring conventions and training courses for teachers. By this time, however, interest in Montessori education had declined in a number of countries, especially the United States, mainly because of opposition from those who felt that the method was destructive of school discipline. The Montessori method experienced a renaissance in many American schools during the late 1950s, and in 1960 the American Montessori Society was formed. The chief components of the Montessori method are self-motivation and autoeducation. Followers of the Montessori method believe that a child will learn naturally if put in an environment containing the proper materials. These materials, consisting of "learning games" suited to a child's abilities and interests, are set up by a teacher-observer who only intervenes when individual help is needed. In this way, Montessori educators try to reverse the traditional system of an active teacher instructing a passive class. The typical classroom in a Montessori school consists of readily available games and toys, household utensils, plants and animals that are cared for by the children, and child-sized furniture-the invention of which is generally attributed to Dr. Montessori. Montessori educators also stress physical exercise, in accordance with their belief that motor abilities should be developed along with sensory and intellectual capacities. The major outlines of the Montessori system are based on Dr. Montessori's writings, which include The Montessori Method (1912), Pedagogical Anthropology (1913), The Advanced Montessori Method (2 vol., 1917), and The Secret of Childhood (1936).
See E. Mortimer Standing, Maria Montessori (1958, repr. 1962) and The Montessori Revolution (1966); biography by Rita Kramer (1983).