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Maria Montessori believed that the purpose of education is to be an aid to life and that it should go far beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge in various areas of culture. She further believed that the children on whom this "burden of education" falls have a nature quite different from that of adults. While adults have reached the norm of the species, children are in a constant state of metamorphosis, creating for themselves the individuals they are to be. And the environment in which they evolve will shape them just as surely as their genetic inheritance.

While Sigmund Freud was doing research on the abnormalities of behavior, which have their roots in early childhood, Montessori approached the problem of the child's psyche by suggesting that the ideal environment be prepared for each developing human being, that a child's needs at every stage be studied, and that a way be provided for these needs to be met. The first groups of children whom Montessori undertook to study gave her the opportunity of observing these needs.

Montessori was ideally suited to do this observation because of her background in anthropology and her understanding of the physiology and neurology of the child. Further, she had studied the works of Drs. Seguin and ltard and had added to her research on the child's cognitive processes. However, her early charges must have been a challenge even for Montessori. In The Montessori Method, she describes them as "sixty tearful, frightened children, so shy that it was impossible to get them to speak; with bewildered eyes, as though they had never seen anything in their lives."

These sixty children were given to her along with an untrained aide because the landlord in the tenement where they lived wanted to keep them busy, more or less to keep them from defacing the walls and vandalizing his property. Since she did not have the intention of evolving a pedagogical system, she began with no fixed ideas of what to teach these children. Instead, she observed what they needed to do and learn, and she prepared materials to help with these acquisitions. She observed what obstacles they had to overcome and set about removing them.

What followed seemed incredible even to Dr. Montessori, for these deprived children blossomed under this freedom and under the possibility of doing work suited to their needs. They revealed to her not only their enormous capacity for intellectual accomplishment but a strange character of sweetness and serenity. They displayed a truly uncorrupted spirit, scorning rewards and punishments, and finding their joy in the prodigious work which engaged them. They came from these labors refreshed, as if from a creative experience, and as they worked, they grew in inner discipline and peace.

The sight of these children, who displayed the truly "normal" characteristics of childhood, was the force that motivated Montessori for the remainder of her life. This "secret of childhood" she pursued with all the vitality of the genius who has found her raison d’être, reason for existence, and, from her tireless observations and efforts, she evolved her perception of the child's personality.

As she traveled from country to country, lecturing, training teachers, helping to establish school after school, this same phenomenon was observed wherever conditions promoting its growth were perfectly realized.

Dr. Montessori's insights as to the nature and needs of the child at each stage of development were eminently sound and have now been time-tested by our school as well as many other schools across the nation and around the world.

— Kathleen H. Futrell

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