Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Maria Montessori publishes The Secret of Childhood

This year, Maria Montessori, one of the most influential educators of the twentieth century, published a book entitled The Secret of Childhood.

The Secret of Childhood is a passionate account of Maria Montessori’s extensive research and many years of observation of child behaviour.  Montessori considers the child in its entirety, including body, mind and the soul.  A child is a mystery, argues Montessori, and the role of an adult is to facilitate the unfolding of child’s true self.  By understanding children’s inner mysteries, notes Montessori, adults will be better equipped to facilitate a child’s psychic development.   

In her book, Montessori proposes a new way of approaching child education which aims at liberating the child’s hidden characteristics through observation of the child’s sensitive periods, preparing an obstacle-free environment, and designing proper teacher training programs.  

Montessori refers to a child as a spiritual embryo – a hidden living being, who must be liberated.  Montessori believes that psychic development does not come about haphazardly and it does not originate as the result of stimuli from the outside world, but is guided by transient sensibilities and temporary instincts connected with the acquisition of certain characteristics.  Therefore, the first task of this new education is liberation through knowledge and discovery of the unknown in a child through observing the child’s sensibilities or sensitive periods.  These sensibilities enable a child to orient itself in his environment and to move.  If the child has not been able to work in harmony with his sensitive period, “it has lost its chance of a natural conquest, and has lost it for ever” (Montessori, 1978, p. 40).   

In their ignorance, adults fail to see the miracle of a child’s growth – “the miracle of creation from almost nothing” (Montessori, 1978, p. 14), and because of it they cannot help a baby.  This, Montessori argues, calls for a new way of caring for children where adults must consider not only what exists (the physical body) but what is still to come (psychic potential) by observing early developments and encouraging the positive. For Montessori, the human personality forms itself by itself, like the embryo” (p. 32), and then the child then becomes creator and parent.  

Central to Montessori’s theory of education is the environment.  A child - the ‘spiritual embryo’ – is like the physical embryo, which needs a living environment in which to develop.  It is necessary, Montessori believes, to establish an obstacle-free environment for the child and right environment to stimulate the liberation of a child’s hidden characteristics.  This is achieved by establishing a proper environment in which a child can flourish.  In such environment, adults must take second place, doing everything possible to learn about the children, supporting and helping in the development of their lives.   

The physical environment, Montessori recommends, should be pleasant.  It should be in proportion to the size of a child, including low little windows, small furniture, little tables, and armchairs, and low cupboards that are within the child’s reach.

Montessori instructors are somewhat ‘passive teachers’ who hold back their activities in order to allow the children to act for themselves.  Like other progressive educators, Montessori argued that children should be at the centre of all activities, learning by themselves, free to select any activity they want.  The teachers are initiated to their “inner preparation” and is asked to correct any inner dispositions which are thought to be damaging to the child. Teacher must prepare themselves inwardly by seeking out their own faults, such as anger and pride, which may become obstacles in the education of the children.   These obstacles need to be corrected by embracing humility, charity and respect for the child.   

In The Secret of Childhood, Montessori showed a genuine care for the well-being and proper development of a child.  She firmly believed that key to a new epoch in children’s education was the observation of children’s inner sensibilities and their environment, the passive role of a teacher, and most of all a respect for the child’s individual personality.  She goes as far as to say that a mind denied of proper development is a ‘darkened mind’, undeveloped and incapable of true expression.  Should the child loose the opportunity to develop according to his or her own nature, he or she can be compared to a person who has landed from a balloon in a desert, and who all at once sees the balloon carried away by the wind and is not be able to do anything to guide it (p. 95). In retrospect, The Secret of Childhood was a valuable contribution to the progressive education movement, and provided a good summary of Montessori’s philosophical and pedagogical approaches.  


Montessori, Maria (1978:1936).  The Secret of Childhood.  India: Orient Longman Ltd. 

Prepared by Magdalena Rydzy (OISE/University of Toronto), 2002

Citation: Author (2002). Title. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available: (date accessed).

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