Her work with mentally disabled children was fundamental in her movement into Early Childhood Education. As part of her work with the University’s psychiatry clinic, she visited asylums in Rome where she observed children with mental disabilities. She worked with the National League where she trained teachers in educating mentally disabled children, and was later named co-director. During her two years at the school, she developed methods and materials which she would later adapt to use with typical children. The children in the model classroom were drawn from ordinary school but considered “uneducable” due to their deficiencies. Some of these children were later able to pass public examinations given to so-called “normal” children. She later went on to explore education and philosophy, studying the works of respected scientists Itard and Sequin. During this time she began adapting her methods of educating mentally disabled children into mainstream education.
In 1906, Montessori was invited to oversee the care and education of a group of children of lower income working parents in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. She saw this as an opportunity to apply her work and methods from mentally challenged children to mentally normal children. The first Casa Dei Bambini opened on January 6, 1907.
In this first classroom, Montessori observed behaviors in these young children which formed the foundation of her educational method. She noted episodes of deep attention and concentration, multiple repetitions of activity, and a sensitivity to order in the environment. Given free choice of activity, the children showed more interest in practical activities and Montessori’s materials than in toys provided for them, and were surprisingly unmotivated by sweets and other rewards. Over time, she saw a spontaneous self-discipline emerge.
Based on her observations, Montessori implemented a number of practices that became hallmarks of her educational philosophy and method. She replaced the heavy furniture with child-sized tables and chairs light enough for the children to move, and placed child-sized materials on low, accessible shelves. She expanded the range of practical activities such as sweeping and personal care to include a wide variety of exercises for care of the environment and the self, including flower arranging, hand washing, gymnastics, care of pets, and cooking. She continued to adapt and refine the materials she had developed earlier, altering or removing exercises which were chosen less frequently by the children. Also based on her observations, Montessori experimented with allowing children free choice of the materials, uninterrupted work, and freedom of movement and activity within the limits set by the environment. She began to see independence as the aim of education, and the role of the teacher as an observer and director of children’s innate psychological development.
Dr. Montessori’s pioneering work created a blueprint for educating children, from the learning disabled to the gifted and for helping children to become self-motivated, independent and life-long learners.