Educationalist Maria Montessori launches Casa dei Bambini
|Maria Montessori in Rome in 1913|
The Casa dei Bambini, in the working class neighbourhood of San Lorenzo, was launched by the physician and educationalist Maria Montessori.
Montessori - the first woman in Italy to qualify as a physician - had enjoyed success with her teaching methods while working with children as a volunteer at Rome University's psychiatric clinic.
She was convinced that the techniques she had used to help children with learning difficulties and more serious mental health issues could be adapted for the benefit of all children.
The Casa dei Bambini came into being after Montessori had been invited to work on a housing project in San Lorenzo, where her responsibility was to oversee the care and education of the project's children while their parents were at work.
Situated in Via dei Marsi, it catered for between 50 and 60 children aged between two and seven. The methods Montessori employed, which included many practical activities as well as more conventional lessons and revolved around allowing children to follow the direction in which their own interests led them, were essentially the same as those that would become the hallmarks of her philosophy.
|Maria Montessori's image featured on Italy's|
1000 lire banknotes prior to the switch to the Euro
It became popular in the United States from about 1911 onwards and by 1913 there were about 100 Montessori schools. Maria Montessori embarked on a number of lecture tours, although the popularity of her methods went into decline from about 1925, largely because of opposition from the educational establishment. It did not gain momentum again until the 1950s.
Nonetheless, at their peak, Montessori schools in the United States numbered around 4,000 out of approximately 7,000 across the world.
Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in the town of Chiaravalle in the province of Ancona in Le Marche. Her parents were well educated middle-class people but were traditional and conservative in their outlook, especially when it came to the role of women in society.
They moved to Florence and then Rome because of her father's work with the Ministry of Finance. This afforded her better educational opportunities, yet she was not encouraged to aim higher than teaching as a career. It was somewhat in defiance of what she perceived as restrictions on her ambition that she first set out to study engineering and then switched to medicine, enrolling at the University of Rome.
It was unheard of for a woman to study medicine at the time and she met with hostility from both professors and fellow students. She had to perform her dissection of cadavers alone in her own time because it was deemed inappropriate for her to attend classes with men in the presence of a naked body, even one preserved in formaldehyde.
|Maria Montessori's name still adorns the wall of the Casa|
dei Bambini in Rome, which is no longer a Montessori school
Afterwards, she remained at Rome University to research into so-called 'phrenasthenic' children - those deemed to be mentally retarded. It was her observation of the behaviour of these children that led her to discover ways of teasing out the intrinsic intelligence she believed existed in all children.
During that time, she had a son, Mario, as a result of an affair with a fellow doctor. Convention at the time dictated that were she to have married the father she would have been expected to abandon her career. She refused to contemplate such a sacrifice and Mario was placed in foster care, although they would be reunited in his teenage years and he would go on to continue his mother's work after her death.
The growth of the Montessori method suffered a setback during the 1930s when Benito Mussolini, the leader of the Italian Fascist government, who had initially embraced Maria Montessori's ideas, began closing Montessori schools if their teachers did not swear loyalty to the state. In Germany, Hitler's Nazi party took a similarly hard line, banning the Montessori method and even burning copies of her books.
Maria fled with her son to India, where she knew her methods were growing in popularity, but once Italy signed a formal alliance with Germany they were both arrested as aliens. Although Maria was spared any restriction on her movement, Mario was incarcerated in a prison camp.
At the end of the war they returned to Europe and Maria based herself in Amsterdam. Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, she died in the Netherlands in 1952 at the age of 81.
|Piazza Mazzini in Chiaravalle, where Maria|
Montessori was born in 1870
Maria Montessori's birthplace in Chiaravalle in Piazza Mazzini is open to the public. It houses a museum containing a collection of the educational materials developed by Montessori and used in the original Casa dei Bambini. It is also the head office of the Montessori Foundation.
The San Lorenzo district adjoins the campus of Rome's Sapienza University and sits just to the north of the main Roma Termini station. Dominated by Via Tiburtina, it is a gritty, somewhat down at heel neighbourhood that has suffered through the decline of industry in the city yet is home to a vibrant youth culture thanks to a large student population.
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Befana - the post-Christmas gift bonus for Italy's children
(Picture credits: Banknotes by Flanker via Wikimedia Commons)