The Children’s House-May 10, 2023

As I stepped into the courtyard of the first Montessori school, which opened in San Lorenzo, Rome in 1907, I could almost hear the children conversing with each other and their teachers as they worked inside the Casa dei Bambini, The Children’s House. Perhaps my perceptions had been romanticized by my preconceived notions of what the school was like, where Maria Montessori envisioned a place for children to learn to care for themselves and their environment, where children aged three to six, could engage in purposeful activities and develop their self-esteem and independence. Montessori believed it was important for the children of the Casa dei Bambini to develop their skills by engaging in exercises in daily living. Their teachers were present to guide their learning, observing and documenting the children’s progress as they mastered activities that had been targeted towards each individual child’s developmental trajectory. 

Although the school closed in 2007, Maria Montessori’s name still appears on the exterior wall of the school, along with a plaque honouring Montessori and her influential method. Translated from Italian, the plaque reads: 

In memory of the centenary of the birth of Maria Montessori who, creating the first children's home here on 6 January 1907, began her fruitful work as a great educator at the service of childhood for human freedom.


Montessori did in fact emphasize servitude to the children; the main goal of the teacher was to determine the needs of each child and facilitate their learning process. Children in the first school worked on individualized tasks in an open environment, using manipulative learning materials through guided instruction. 

Many of Montessori’s original ideas and educational philosophies—guided learning, open classrooms, manipulatives—have influenced teaching methods we might find across countries today, in both public and independent schools. Montessori education itself quickly spread across Italy, Europe, and the entire globe. Today, over 96 countries specifically offer Montessori education. To say that Maria Montessori has had an influence on educational theories and teaching methods is almost an understatement. Some might argue that her approach has had just as much of an impact on educational theory as Piaget’s theory of cognitive development or Vygotsky’s socio-constructivist theory (both peers of her time), although credit to Montessori and her methods hasn’t necessarily been on par.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the foundational principles and materials of the Montessori method have remained fairly constant across time and geographical contexts. This consistency was especially true at Scuola Maria Montessori, a Montessori school I was able to visit in Rome, and where I had the privilege of talking to a few teachers and the pedagogical director, Dr. Ester Ruggiero about Montessori education in Italy. 

Upon my arrival to Scuola Maria Montessori, I was met at the front gate by one of the teachers, Arianna, who I was able to talk to again the next morning and who also graciously acted as a translator when I spoke to Dr. Ruggiero during the school tour. Fairly quickly into the visit I was asked to remove my shoes and walk through a sensory garden, a path made of various materials offering different textures—smooth pebbles, rough wooden posts, and artificial grass. This sensorial activity indeed aligns with Montessori’s belief that young children use their senses to help them classify their surroundings. This leads to skills in problem-solving, critical thinking, and exploration. These types of sensory experiences are often accompanied with discussions between the child and teacher, where the child voices their experience using specific language related to what they hear, see, smell, and feel.

During the school tour, Dr. Ruggiero pointed out materials and discussed how the different rooms provided opportunities for the children (aged three to five) to work. Most of the furnishings and materials were wooden, evoking more of a natural environment, and everything, including the cleaning utensils were at a child’s eye level, allowing any interested passerby to engage in work. The idea of work was emphasized several times during my tour and in conversations with the teachers the next morning. The school was a place where the children worked on daily activities, like washing, eating, and cleaning. These were on par with more academic activities, like reading and writing. In early childhood environments in Ontario, we might equate the children’s work with play. However, it was clear that work meant something quite different from play and the definition of play was connected more to free and unstructured play (for a discussion of play-based learning see Dr. Angela Pyle’s play continuum). The children at Scuola Maria Montessori selected activities themselves to work on (autonomy and freedom of choice were foundational to the child’s day), and spent time mastering the activity, which could take several days of revisiting and revising. Dr. Ruggiero emphasized how the environment, materials, and teachers supported each child’s cognitive development, a fundamental idea of Montessori education, and something that has come up in all of my conversations with Montessori teachers, not just the teachers I spoke to in Italy. 


I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to visit the birthplace of the Montessori approach and talk to Montessori teachers in Rome. As I continue to reflect on the patterns of teaching and learning I'm hearing about as they relate to literacy, and more broadly to early childhood education, I’m seeing how foundational elements, like relationship building and community, motivation for literacy, and oral language and vocabulary development, are experienced through carefully planned methods and guided by the teachers’ goals of supporting children’s autonomy, independence, and literacy engagement. I'll have more on this and details related to the conversations I've had with Montessori teachers soon. My next stop in Italy is Reggio Emilia where I will turn my attention to the Reggio approach and how language and literacy is fostered in this context.


The Children’s House-May 10