What Can We Learn From Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook?

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Many teachers and parents have been attracted by the beauty of the skilfully crafted Montessori learning materials. From the sensorial activities to the resources for teaching arithmetic and geometry and literacy, we appreciate the use of wood, sandpaper and beads, and rejoice in the use of colour. The pink tower, the red rods, golden beads and pink and blue sandpaper letters have become synonymous with the key principles which underpin their design.  The graduated cubes or measures of length enable the child to appreciate and focus on their shapes, whilst the beads help to identify the hierarchies of the decimal system and the pink and blue colours sandpaper letter distinguish between vowels and consonants. These qualities are just some of the pedagogical features of the learning materials which children absorb as they engage in the use of the activities.  They also provide an important foundation for later learning – Montessori often refers to them as the indirect preparation for later learning.  Many of us consider the albums, folders or files of activities we prepared as Montessori teacher trainees, to be the comprehensive collection of Montessori activities and expect to find them in the classrooms where we undertake our teaching placements. They are often considered to be the essential part of what is referred to as the authentic Montessori classroom for children from 3 – 6 years of age.

Yet, when we dip into Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, first published in England by Heineman in 1914, one of the two volumes which refer to use of the Montessori learning materials (the other is the Advanced Montessori Method, volume 2 focusing on the elementary materials), we find that these materials did not always look as they do today. My 1920 edition of the book is introduced by Montessori as “I wish to state definitely that the present work, the English translation of which has been authorised and approved by me, is the only authentic manual of the Montessori method”  – however this note is missing from the 1966 edition published in 1966 by Robert Bentley in Cambridge, USA.

In both editions we find that the red rods were described as green rods, one of the illustrations of the pink tower shows that it was presented in the same natural wood colouring as the broad stair, and there are only three sets cylinder blocks illustrated in this edition.  The list of materials for sensory education does not include the taste and smelling jars nor the thermic tablets. The activities for motor education (page 21) include reference to “primary movements of everyday life (walking, rising, sitting, handling objects) as well as care of the person, management of household, gardening, manual work, the gymnasium and rhythmic movements.  The section on language includes reference to knowledge of the world.

I always find it fascinating to learn more about the history and evolution of the Montessori approach and of the materials and activities, and contemplate today’s perception that they are somehow cast in stone.  I believe that it is important to learn about twists and turns of how we arrived at the notion of authentic Montessori classrooms, particularly as I have found the following passage  on page 9 in the Handbook where Montessori describes the “Children’s House”:

“The ‘Children’s House’ is the environment which is offered to the child that he may be given the opportunity of developing his activitiesThis kind of school is not of a fixed type, but may vary according to the financial resources at disposal and the opportunities afforded by the environment. It ought to be a real house; that is to say, a set of rooms with a garden of which the children are the masters. A garden which contains shelters is ideal, because the children can play and sleep under them, and can also bring their tables out to work or dine.  In this way they may live almost entirely in the open air, and are protected at the same time from the rain and sun.”

On the following page I have found a photograph of ‘Cupboard with Apparatus’ – it certainly challenges today’s preoccupation with a pristine layout of the activities on open shelves.  I very much value the reference that the environment offers the child opportunities for developing his activities and the school is described as not of fixed type.  Something to be considered today as we endeavour to introduce the Montessori approach to children who live with disadvantage. Maybe today’s teachers should consider Montessori’s description of the Children’s House and use their knowledge of the principles which underpin the materials in preparing a favourable environment supporting spontaneous learning by our youngest children.

The other fascinating piece of information I have gleaned from my editions of Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook is the dedication to Donna Maria Maraini Marchioness Guerrieri-Gonzaga, whose family were the manufacturers of the Montessori materials in Italy at the time, and who continue to trade under the name of Gonzagareddi to this day. And, of course, the cooperation and collaboration between Albert Nienhuis and Maria Montessori from the late 1920’s to create products which reflected her vision of education.

The reason why I started to ponder this topic has been provoked by Montessori Europe’s sponsorship by both Nienhuis and Gonzagareddi. In their presentations for our 2021 online Congress both companies reflected on their history and current developments.  This coming week Chris Willemsen of Nienhuis, will present some of the historical developments of the materials and will also bring to our attention the new initiatives from the company. He will remind us that the classroom is not a museum, but a dynamic learning environment guided both by structure and change, emphasising that the materials are merely an aid to acquire knowledge and skills.

We hope you will join us at our webinar on Tuesday 30 November at 19.00 (CET) when we welcome Chris to share his view and experience. Register here.


By Barbara Isaacs, President, Montessori Europe