Maria Montessori – The Discovery of the Child

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The Discovery of the Child (1950) is a book by Maria Montessori which can be considered a summary of her experiences in the field of education in over forty years. It represents a rewrite of a previous written work dating back to 1909 and entitled Il Metodo della pedagogia scientifica applicato all’educazione infantile nelle Case dei Bambini (“The Method of Scientific Pedagogy Applied to Infant Education in Children’s Houses”). Montessori rewrote and republished the original work five times, adding some conclusions to which she had come. The Discovery of the Child, therefore, represents the fifth edition of the original work dating back to 1909. It was republished in 1913, in 1926, in 1935 and in 1950, changing its name only in the last edition.[1]

The guidelines provided by Maria Montessori

In the text, and especially in the first pages, one of Montessori’s concerns seems to be trying to explain that this is not a method, but rather the results of his teaching experiences on children, starting from which new methods could later develop.

The author also focuses on the “state” of pedagogy at that time (especially at the beginning of her career) which didn’t follow a scientific approach, despite its being called “scientific pedagogy”. It was speculative and philosophical rather than focused on experimentation and scientific research methods. In that period, there was a push towards the foundation of scientific pedagogy, but the results weren’t satisfacory according to Montessori; even some separate degree courses focused on pedagogy (separate from those on philosophy), the so-called Scuole di pedagogia scientifica, had started in Italy when Montessori started to develop its method.

Giuseppe Sergi, who had been Maria Montessori’s lecturer, already understood that the field pedagogy had to be refounded and regenerated (Montessori, p. 15), but this need for change was interpreted by his students as pedagogical anthropology, that is in the sense of having to measure the anthropometric data of the child and correlate them with its education, in order to find factors capable of improving the education. This approach was regarded by Montessori as insufficient to achieve a true regeneration of pedagogy, since it employed just the methods of empirical science.[2]

The scientist teacher

The best approach, according to Montessori, is to follow the children’s education by embracing more disciplines, and not only through anthropometric measurements. According to Montessori, the teacher must follow an approach similar to that of a scientist. That is, the teacher must observe carefully before interacting and before formulating any method. Only a careful analysis of the development of the child can lead to a useful strategy for the progress of the child and, consequently, of the whole humanity.

The true teacher should look for the “spirit” rather than the “mechanism”. A true scientist is not only one who knows how to handle chemical compounds or “prepare microscopic slides” (activities carried out even by assistants who limit themselves to the mechanical aspect of science). A true scientist is one who is animated by the ardent desire to investigate the secrets of nature and to get closer to the truth, one who deliberately infects himself with tuberculosis in order to understand the mechanisms of contagion, who “is neglected in clothing because he no longer remembers himself”. The scientist, like a monk, bears the signs of his own vocation. (Montessori, p. 17),

Just as scientists do, the true teacher must be animated by the desire to reach the truth, to find the right strategy to educate each child, to try and evaluate from time to time the different strategies. The general guidelines provided by Montessori are nothing more than general advice, on which the entire educational path should be set.

We must inspire, in the teacher’s mind, the interest in the manifestation of natural phenomena in general, to the point that they will love nature, and they will feel the anxious expectation of those who prepared an experiment and are awaiting its outcome (Montessori, p. 18) .

Freedom and school

Montessori has great criticism of the traditional school, which at that time was much more austere and inhibiting than today. In particular, Montessori places the concept of freedom at the center of the activity of education, a concept not restricted to its common usage, limited to philosophy or propaganda books, relating to social classes or rights, but to freedom in a general sense. Children must be free to do what they want to the greates extent possible, and only “useless or harmful” actions or activities (for instance, violence) must be repressed. An emblem of this lack of freedom in the traditional school system is, according to Montessori, the student desk, which over the years was more and more improved, even introducing new models (even patented) which reduced the occurrance of spinal deformities and prevented the student from moving.

From this point of view, the student desk represents an instrument that corrects a problem rather than preventing it, in the same way as a hernia girdle would correct a worker’s inguinal hernia. What the workers ask for is not the girdle, but better working conditions. In the same way, at school, the solution is not the student desk but instea limiting the time the children remain seated, alternating it and let the children be free to perform all the movements they want rather than forcing them to be immobile (Montessori, pp. 22-23).

Awards and punishments

The habit of rewarding or punishing students, typical of the traditional school, is also criticized by Montessori, who considers prizes and, in particular, punishments as reserved to the people Montessori defines “inferior”, that is people who, in her opinion, don’t contribute to the progress of humanity, but they are guilty of crimes and because of this they must be punished. According to Montessori, rewarding or punishing a student is not only useless, but it is even detrimental, as it would divert the students from their path and it would put them on the “false path of vanity”. According to Montessori,

All victories and all human progress are dependent on the strength which comes from within (Montessori, page 26).

Only the inner strength, or vocation, can transform a student into a great doctor or in general into a skilled professional. If a student is not driven by a vocation, but only by a reward or the hope of an advantage, the world will not make great progress thanks to him. Even if awards and punishments of a family life manage to make a student into a doctor, it is better if he never becomes a doctor (Montessori, page 26). According to Montessori, the only possible prize can only be the satisfaction of achieving one’s goals and of reaching the realization of what one wants to be.

The origin and development of Montessori’s thought

Maria Montessori’s experiences can be considered the continuation of the studies carried out by:

  • Giuseppe Sergi
  • Jean Marc Gaspard Itard
  • Édouard Séguin
  • Wilhelm Wundt

The work and ideas of Maria Montessori stem from her previous studies and experience with children with intellectual disabilities. When she was working as a doctor and assistant in the mental hospital of the University of Rome, Maria Montessori had the chance to visit and interact with many disabled children and she was also appointed by Italy’s Minister of Education Guido Baccelli as a lecturer on “disabled children” for other teachers; the course later became a real school, the Scuola magistrale ortofrenica. During these courses, Montessori didn’t just lead other teachers, but she taught children herself full-time. This experience was of great help and, as she stated, “they are my first and true title in the field of pedagogy”. Montessori put into practice the so-called “physiological method” devised by Édouard Séguin on “retarded children” and, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Montessori already understood that those methods were more efficient even with normal children. Building on the experiences of Séguin and Itard, Montessori achieved remarkable goals in the field of the education of retarded children (Montessori, p. 34).

Séguin’s method was developed on the basis of previous experiences made by Jean Marc Gaspard Itard (Séguin’s lecturer) during the years of the French Revolution and, according to Montessori, Itard is the true founder of the so-called scientific pedagogy, since his methods were not only aimed at studying behaviors (as physiological psychology did), but acting effectively on the education of the mentally disabled children.

Séguin devised a method, the so-called “physiological method” which, if correctly employed, could educate the unfortunate children suffering from intellectual disabilities. At that time, however, as reported by Montessori, the method was not really put into practice either in Italy or in the rest of Europe. Many institutes had Séguin’s book, and the teachers used to read it, but they did not seem to trust the method and they ended up employing the traditional methods of education used in normal schools.

By reading the work of Séguin, Traitement Moral, Hygiène et éducation des idiots et des autres enfants arriérés …, Montessori understood that the basis of the physiological method was not only the technique, but also “the spirit”. Educators were often asked to put themselves on the same level as deficient children, and this often depressed the educator. In Seguin’s work, educators were often advised to look after their appearance, to take care of gestures and to modulate the voice. Furthermore,

What is called encouragement, comfort, love, respect, are the levers of the human soul: and the more we work in this sense the more we renew and reinvigorate life around ourselves (Montessori, p. 35).

Montessori also managed to find a later work written by Séguin, written during his stay in New York, that is, the work published in 1866 and entitled Idiocy: and its Treatment by the Physiological Method. In this work, which Montessori had translated in order to read it, Montessori found extraordinary confirmation of what she apparently had independently understood. In other words, Séguin, in the second part of his life, also understood that the “physiological method” was valid and effective even on normal children as well, and it was even more efficient than those in use at that time (Montessori, p. 36). The affinity between disabled and normal children is not so illogical, as both disabled and normal children start from the same basic condition, and exhibit the same behaviors. The difference is to be found in the different speed of learning (Montessori, p. 38).

With the methods developed by Montessori, mentally disabled children managed to reach a level of education similar to that of normal children and they were even able to pass public school exams. The advantages of using those methods on normal children as well seems to have worried Montessori, who feared that if those methods were also used on normal children, disabled children would never reach the same level as normal children (Montessori, p. 35).

Experience in San Lorenzo district (Rome)

Maria Montessori, after her early studies on the disabled children, decided to deepen her notions on pedagogy and, in order to do this, she enrolled in the faculty of philosophy at university. At the end of 1906, the director of the Istituto dei Beni Stabili of Rome asked her to lead the founding of nurseries for normal children in the San Lorenzo (Roma) district. The project was something very innovative for the time, and provided for the establishment of “schools inside the house” (Italian: scuole nella casa). The social background of families living in that district was low; the children’s parents often had unstable and “adventitious” jobs, but this did not seem to negatively affect the children’s educational path. The experience of San Lorenzo is regarded as very positive by Maria Montessori, and she states that such satisfactory results wern’t reached again in the following esperiences. Furthermore, as a true scientist, she lists the conditions that occurred and that could have affected the result. According to Montessori, the lack of influence by the family could have had a positive impact due to their low level of education; furthermore, the teachers themselves had no previous experience or education and thus they were more easily malleable for the tasks required. Schools established in the San Lorenzo district were given the name Casa dei Bambini” (“Children’s House”), and this name was also used by Montessori to refer to the other schools that employed her method (Montessori, pp. 40 and 42).

The experience and results achieved in the San Lorenzo district attracted many people, including foreigners, mostly from the United States, who wanted to admire the results achieved, and Montessori defines San Lorenzo the “Mecca of education”. Other Children’s Houses began to spread since then, penetrating even into wealthy and aristocratic families.

Feminism in Montessori

In the Discorso inaugurale pronunciato in occasione dell’apertura di una Casa dei Bambini nel 1907 (Inaugural speech delivered at the opening of a Children’s House in 1907), published as an appendix to the Italian edition of book The Discovery of the Child, Maria Montessori explains, with great insight, the opportunities, advantages and results achieved by the charitable work carried out by the Instituto dei Beni Stabili, which had started the partial restructuring and enhancement of the crumbling buildings of San Lorenzo district. The strategy employed ensured that the tenants of each condominium competed to keep the building cleaner, with prizes being provided for the cleaner condominium, and each house and entrance hall was kept constantly clean. Cleaning the house also implies better personal hygiene.

In this context, the jewel in the crown of the Istituto dei Beni Stabili is the so-called “Children’s House”. Maria Montessori sees in this new structure an instrument of female emancipation; those that previously seemed to be unattainable goals, considering the irreplaceable role women in dwellings (taking care of children, cooking, caring for the sick, etc.) became possible thanks to the kindergartens and in particular to the Children’s Houses. Maria Montessori also foresaw that the remaining functions attributed to women, such as cooking and caring for the sick would be “socialized” (i.e. provided in common) in the future, for example by providing a common refectory in each condominium or neighborhood, capable of sending meals to each dwelling by a lift (as already tried in the United States) or by opening infirmaries in each condominium or neighborhood in order to isolate the sick and avoid the spread of the disease among relatives.

Maria Montessori repeats that the “socialization” of the traditional functions entrusted to women does not mean distorting the role and functions of women in a family (and in particular, those of mothers); women will continue to play their loving role in a household, even if just in their free time.

Environment and method

The environment

Maria Montessori believes that the environment is able to influence the education of the children. Everything must be “child-friendly” (“a misura di bambino”). The chairs must be small and light, so as to be easily moved and they should be nice and fashionable. The furniture provided by Montessori included tables, chairs, carpets, sideboards and washbasins, all reduced in size, so that they can be eaily used by children (Montessori, p. 51). Furniture, according to Montessori, also must be nice, so as to make the child familiar with beauty and thus inspire him/her to the highest human ideals.

The furniture also includes a portrait of Raphael, the Madonna della seggiola, chosen by Montessori for two reasons at least. The picture represents the progress of humanity, and in particular the emancipation of women. Although the child does not have the ability to understand the meaning of that painting, it will remain imprinted in his memory, inspiring religious feelings in his heart. Furthermore, Montessori thought that, if Children’s Houses spread to the rest of the world, that picture would remind the “country of origin” of her method (Montessori, p. 52).

Regarding the method, Montessori makes it clear that fundamental importance is given to observation but observation alone is not enough to educate the child. The influence of Wilhelm Wundt on Maria Montessori is also evident, in particular when Wundt stated that “the child’s psychology is unknown” and when he stressed the importance of observation (Montessori, p. 45). Montessori, also introduced anthropometric measurement of children, which is only marginal in her method of education, and aimed at knowing the physical characteristics of the child from a medical point of view and providing the doctor with information given by parents.

A fundamental characteristic of Montessori’s environment is the fact that it must be “limited”; in other words, the environment should be neither too small nor too large. An environment that is too small makes the child lack a suitable number of objects, such as plants, or development materials, while an environment that is too large and that contains too many objects, would not allow the child to focus on the same objects for a sufficient time to learn from these.

The development materials

The environment doesn’t include just the the furniture, but also the so-called development materials (“materiale di sviluppo“), which Montessori greatly enriched compared to traditional classes; they include frames for learning to button, tablets with letters of the alphabet, and other material for the education of the senses, similar to those used with “disabled children”. They were developed starting from the teaching materials produced by Itard and Séguin, and they represent their evolution and extension. As theorized by previous authors, the purpose of the development materials is the so-called education of the senses. Montessori understood that children are at a crucial stage of the development of their psychomotor faculties, and any obstacle to their development causes both physical and mental disabilities. In addition, children showed significantly greater assimilation of contents and behaviors compared to adolescents and adults, and she called this form of mind absorbent mind (“mente assorbente“).

The absorbent mind allows children to learn their mother’s language very quickly and to assimilate their constructs and pronunciation almost perfectly. Learning another language as an adult is more difficult and the pronunciation isn’t perfect; this shows how absorbent the mind is in the early years of life (Montessori, p. 102). The force of fixation of the absorbent mind is so strong and indelible that Montessori even goes so far as to state that what was learned in the first years of life remains fixed “not in the memory, but in the living organism, since they become the guide for the formation of the mind, for the character of the individual” (Montessori, p. 103).

In this context, the development materials are aimed at encouraging and facilitating the development of basic faculties of the child, similarly to what Itard and Séguin and Montessori herself did with the “disabled children” (most of Montessori’s achievements are based on the previous works of the two scholars). The development materials are shown to the child, who has to choose independently whether to play with it or not. Its use must not be forced in any way. If they have reached a sufficient age, they can decide which development materials to use, choosing it from the environment (the “Children’s House”).

According to Montessori, the development materials must have some basic features. First of all, each material has to exhibit a series of gradations of a single characteristic (for example, a color, a smell, a shape, temperature, etc.). It is very important that the feature is “isolated”, by keeping the remaining features unchanged. If, for example, an object shows the various gradations of color, the other characteristics such as shape, temperature, material and roughness must remain the same, so as not to confuse the child (Montessori, pp. 77-78).

Other features of the development materials are the so-called error control, that is the presence of some features which allow the children to check if the solution is right or wrong, thus minimizing the feedback from the teacher. The environment itself will correct the pupil. They also should be both nice and capable of absorbing the pupil in an activity; in other words, the child should be able to interact with it, for instance by touching, moving, joining, separating, untying, etc. Development materials that can only be seen without being touched, moved etc. bores the children in the end, while development materials that can be moved and that the child can interact with makes the possible combinations and the games endless, so that the child never gets bored. Another feature of the development materials is its being “limited”, and the same is true of what has been stated above about the environment (Montessori, p. 81-83).

The method

The educational context used at that time was aimed at stifling all the child’s manifestations; the teachers imposed themselves with their discipline on children, and they were always ready to stifle their every movement or gesture. Montessori in her book, reports several examples of this educational method that was not really efficient. Children’s actions, which were often emulations of adult gestures, such as moving a chair or climbing up a chair to be able to see weren’t understood by the teachers. According to Montessori, it is precisely on these spontaneous gestures of the child that the whole education is based, the teacher has the sole task of observing them and limiting his intervention to guarantee safety and to prevent “useless or harmful” actions. Limiting these actions in the first moments of the child’s life means causing him harm, since the early years of life are fundamental in the formation of basic human skills. Even helping the child excessively is harmful because it makes them dependent on someone else, and their innate instinct to self-sufficiency is suppressed.

The teachers that Montessori led and interacted with, had some difficulties in implementing the Montessori method, and they often did not know how to behave, not correcting actions that were useless or harmful, such as example scuffle, put their fingers in their nose, or put their shoes on the tables. Montessori makes it clear that her method does not imply the absence of discipline, but it includes a new concept of discipline, the so-called active discipline (“disciplina attiva“).

Montessori explains that prizes and punishments are not only useless, but also harmful. A prize can only be personal satisfaction, which could be in the form of a sincere appreciation of the teacher or a simple realization the goals achieved. As for the punishments, an effective method used by Montessori consisted in making the student sit separately from the others, and not letting him miss love and attention from the teacher. When Montessori entered the classroom, one of her first actions was to caress, to treat lovingly and to take care of the conditions of the child who had been put aside. This method is regarded by Montessori as very effective: children acquired an unexpected calmness and docility, in response to the kindness and love granted to them (Montessori, pp. 62-63).

The lesson

The more words we can save, the more the lesson gets close to perfection (Montessori, p. 84).

Maria Montessori realized how important the quantity and choice of words was during the class. A teacher, according to Montessori, must intervene as little as possible in the educational process, sometimes without even talking and simply showing how to use the development materials. Séguin already provided valuable details on how a teacher for disabled children should present himself to his unfortunate children, i.e. modulating the voice, taking care of clothing and making himself “more attractive”.

Maria Montessori stressed the importance of the choice of words, and she recommends the use of a language as simple as possible, withou difficult terms. In addition, the lesson must “represent the exact truth” and it should be be direct and “simple to the greatest extent”.

Our children are noticeably different from the children from other schools: they look happy and they have the ease of those who believe they are masters of their own actions (Montessori, p. 99).


  • Maria Montessori, La scoperta del bambino. Pearson Italia, Milano-Torino, 2016 ISBN 978-8839524447B.
  • Maria Montessori, The Discovery of The Child, Madras, Kalakshetra, 1948.

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