“Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.”
Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori discovered through systematic and scientific observation of children that “education is not something which the teacher does, but it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment.”
How is it possible in the education of 3- to 6-year-old children that a teacher does not teach through words? How can an “environment” be created for children only? This visionary kind of education is possible; it is the Montessori method, which has been put into practice in Costa Rica since 1925.
The Montessori Philosophy
Maria Montessori, born in 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy, observed that children, when placed at the center of their own educational setting, or culture, can in essence “self-educate” as a result of critical sensitive periods and their naturally emerging absorbent minds. The Montessori guide serves to create a child-centered culture by providing a series of materials that allow children to concentrate and work with a specific purpose. The guide also provides space for children to discover their own errors, through their senses and completion of meaningful real-life tasks. Children in a Montessori setting work on their own, often in silence, with the adult guide observing the children in their individual stages of growth to recommend and guide them to the next stages of learning.
Maria Montessori came to these profound and revolutionary conclusions about the possibility of early childhood education through a process of observation and experimentation with children at the first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) in an impoverished district of Rome in 1907, writes Tim Seldin, president of the Montessori Foundation and chair of the International Montessori Council, on the Montessori Foundation’s website. Montessori observed that children had long periods of concentration, were fascinated by numbers, enjoyed participating in daily tasks with a purpose, such as cooking and cleaning, and needed an environment where all tables, chairs and workstations were at their own levels, Seldin adds.
Gabriela Muñante, director of Growing Minds Montessori in the western San José suburb of Escazú and one of the founders of the Montessori Association of Costa Rica, describes the way in which an authentic Montessori school uses materials, and the role of the guide: “You will not see an adult desk at a Montessori, but rather an adult who is observing and taking notes while children work with materials. The materials are always placed at the children’s eye level. Materials work from left to right, from top to bottom, and from easy to difficult, in order to prepare children for reading and writing.
“There should be a three-hour period for children to work in a multi-age group, from 3 to 6, where bigger children help the smaller children. The guide’s role is to prepare an environment where children can grow on their own timeline and where they learn self-confidence and self-control by working independently.”
Upon entering a Montessori school, observers are often amazed that silence, order and respect make up the culture that emerges from the children themselves, when they are given the necessary materials and guidance, Muñante adds.
Montessori in Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s first Montessori guide and pioneer was María Isabel Carvajal, better known as Carmen Lyra, the famous Costa Rican author, educator and politician. She traveled to France, Italy and Belgium and learned the Montessori method, then brought back her knowledge and resources to open Costa Rica’s first Montessori school in 1925 at San José’s Escuela Metálica, which had 100 students.
The Montessori Association of Costa Rica was founded in 1984, and a push to train Montessori guides gained ground with the University of Costa Rica and the Health Ministry. From 1997-2000, the Montessori method was implemented in Cristo Rey, an impoverished community in Alajuela, northwest of the capital. The program was run through the community’s CEN-CINAI, or state education and nutrition center. This was an important phase for implementation of Montessori education as part of a national institution and with children from low-income backgrounds.
Since then, Montessori education has been steadily gaining ground in Costa Rica. While many preschools around the country have adapted elements of the Montessori philosophy and use the Montessori name, some of the longest-running and purest Montessori schools still adhere to the philosophy and use the original materials.
The number of Montessori guides, and people who want to train to be guides, is also on the rise. La Salle University in western San José has offered several 40-hour introductory courses to the Montessori method. Training is also offered through the Pan American Montessori Society at Escazú’s Home Two Montessori, where the principal emphasis is on the materials rather than the philosophy.
Asked about the future of Montessori education in Costa Rica, Muñante says, “Hopefully, more Montessori schools will emerge that work for children, not just to sell for parents.”
She adds that some so-called Montessori programs offer computer or karate classes and use materials like Mickey Mouse or stuffed animals wearing clothes, none of which are aspects of the Montessori philosophy.
“We need to show children reality. The basic tool for creation is knowing what’s real,” Muñante says. “That is why the elements of practical life are so important. They vary from country to country; for example, here, children make tortillas. They learn the reality of their own culture.”
‘The Great Equalizer’
Muñante and other Montessori advocates stress the importance of expanding access to Montessori education for disadvantaged children, which is the population Maria Montessori back in 1907 observed and learned from to develop the methodology used today.
Dr. Steven Hughes, a pediatric neuro-psychologist from the University of Minnesota in the U.S., cites the benefits of Montessori programs in impoverished communities, saying they have the potential to be “the great equalizer” to end the cycle of poverty. Hughes describes the barriers poor families face in early childhood education and the ways in which traditional educational settings place poor children at great disadvantage, whereas in a Montessori setting children learn the tools to become independent and self-confident. They learn mathematical concepts through their own discovery, and working from left to right prepares children to have the structure in place for reading and writing. The way in which Montessori education is individualized, with the guide’s role of observing and understanding each child’s needs, allows children to learn at their own pace, build upon their strengths and focus on areas of weakness.
Montessori education allows all children to succeed, proponents say, offering a potential solution for a more egalitarian education system.
Some Montessori schools in Costa Rica that adhere to the original philosophy/materials:
Casa de los Niños Montessori
El Carmen, Cartago, 2592-2580,
Guide: Olga Arguedas
Casa de los Niños Montessori Getsemaní
Heredia, 2237-4915, email@example.com
Guide: Ana Patricia Arguedas
Casa de Niños San Lorenzo
Guide: Flor Jiménez
Growing Minds Montessori
Escazú, 2288-2036, firstname.lastname@example.org
Guide: Gabriela Muñante
Jardín de Niños Montessori
Heredia, 2237-4346, www.montessori-costarica.com
Guide: Lilliana Camacho
Kinder Niños y Niñas Montessori
Guide: Nadia Márquez
Prodigy Kids Academy
Escazú, 2289-6012, www.pka.cr
Guide: Ruth Lehman
UCR Centro Infantil Laboratorio
San Pedro, 2511-5272
Guide: Marcela Hío