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Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy nurtures preschoolers’ relationship to God

January 23, 2015
Lauri Hill

Since opening her first school, Casa dei Bambini at San Lorenzo, Italy, in 1907, Dr. Maria Montessori’s work has inspired Catholic educators around the world. There are no cultural boundaries within her method for it is the spirit of God – inherent in every child – which is at the heart of her educational philosophy.

Montessori’s Catholic faith is the basis of her philosophy, centering on the relationship between God and the child. She said, “We must take into consideration that from birth the child has a power within him. We must not just see the child, but God in him. We must respect the laws of creation in him.”

Montessori was a remarkable woman, even before she developed her educational philosophy, graduating in 1896 from medical school to become one of Italy’s first female physicians. Today, the American Montessori Society counts more than 22,000 Montessori schools in at least 110 countries worldwide. In the Archdiocese of San Francisco, many of our preschools use educational methods influenced by Montessori.

For more than 100 years, Catholic educators have greatly benefited from Montessori’s teachings, which emphasize the child’s development, the role of the educator and the environment. As Jesus says in the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

As Catholic educators, what exactly is being asked of us? We as parents and teachers know that we must grow and change, but what is it about the child that God is asking us to become? Maria Montessori’s work seeks to answer that question. As adults we must follow the child, keenly observing the way in which he or she learns and grows.

Montessori believed that the child is uniquely driven by an internal spiritual force leading to his or her optimal development. Her interest was in educating the whole child: physically, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically and morally. But her primary emphasis was nurturing the child’s spiritual development.

In most social settings a young child seems to know what is of the essence and seeks necessary encounters for self-fulfillment. There is a power within the child’s soul directing him or her toward a precise goal. A young child filled with wonder, imagination and curiosity will enthusiastically engage in activities meaningful to him or her. The child is not driven by abstract ideas, rather by motivation from within to concretely engage and discover. Thereby he or she develops a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Montessori said, “The use of things shapes man, and man shapes things. This reciprocal shaping is a manifestation of man’s love for his surroundings.” The child, in love with his or her surroundings, seeks knowledge and understanding in and through encounters.

Therein lies the sacred simplicity of childhood, one that is enthusiastic, engaging and loving. The child has a deep and abiding relationship with all life, developing independently while contributing to the growth of the community. As Catholic educators we are asked to recognize the spirit of God working in all our lives, and to nurture that love for the good of the individual, the society, and the church.

As educators we are called to collaborate with the work of God already begun in the child. We do this by drawing out the spirit of God within the child, allowing him or her the freedom to fully engage in a loving environment. We offer children the freedom to grow by providing a rich and supportive environment where their imaginations can flourish and God can be encountered and affirmed. As Montessori said, “It has been said that man’s greatest delight is to possess things. No! Man’s greatest delight is using them! Using them to perfect himself and at the same time to improve his environment.”

Maria Montessori observed the constant interaction between a child and his or her environment and passed on her discoveries to us. When we provide a calm learning environment, promoting concentration, independence, order, and communication, children are then able to joyfully engage in meaningful exploration with deep interest and focus. Montessori believed that concentration is key to self-mastery and central to the child’s sense of self. His or her spiritual need for self-development is satisfied through deep concentration. Given these necessary skills – and understanding ways to implement them – the child can achieve success, and a love for lifelong learning.

Montessori’s Method supports our mission to proclaim the Gospel, build community, and serve one another. When we acknowledge our true identity as children of God, we can better participate in the loving enhancement of all God’s creation.

Lauri Hill founded and is director of St. Pius Preschool in Redwood City, the third of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Montessori inspired preschools she has founded.

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