Dr. Elizabeth Caspari and
Dr. Maria Montessori
An interview with Madam Caspari
Madame Caspari, the world's foremost authority on the Montessori Method of Education passed away a few years ago at 101 years of age. During World War II, she trained and worked side by side with Dr. Maria Montessori in Madras, India. She eventually moved to the United States, where she founded many Montessori schools and teacher training programs. At the age of 97, Madame Caspari still trained Montessori teachers from her home.
ED: When and where did you first meet Maria Montessori?
MC: It was in 1942. I was a music teacher at the time and had a flourishing music school in Switzerland. I took a sabbatical with my husband to visit Tibet. When the war broke out we couldn't go home. There were no boats or planes everything was reserved for the military. My husband and I were forced to stay in Madras, at Audrey. We were soon hired by a resort for missionary children to teach music and foreign languages. That was how I came to meet Maria Montessori. She was spared from going to a concentration camp like her fellow Italians who had become the enemy, because she was a world-renowned educator. Instead, she was sent to the resort where my husband and I were working. I had already heard of Maria Montessori's reputation and was very interested in working with her.
ED: What happened next?
MC: I spent the next four months undergoing a very rigorous training program. I learned everything preschool and grade school work. At the end of the course, I was given the opportunity to work on a book with Dr. Montessori. We became close friends and worked side by side for four years.
ED: How did you come to America?
MC: After the war, I was planning to return to my music school in Switzerland, but destiny had it otherwise. My husband and I came to America to escort our missionary students home. When I got here, the interest in Montessori education was so great that I opened a music school with a teacher training center on an island near Savannah, Georgia. The center flourished. After several years, I decided to go to Kansas City, Missouri to visit a music teacher renowned for creating sensational childrens orchestras. My husband and I ended up staying there and opened another music school and teacher training program. At the time, we were very active in the Unity School of Christianity and all of the Unity members would bring their children to our school. As the years went by, I was invited to California and many other places, where I started new schools and training programs.
ED: Do you think youll go anywhere else?
MC: (laughing): I would love to go to South America. They don't have Montessori schools there. I'm learning Spanish with tapes. I never want to retire. There is such a demand for Montessori education more than we can meet.
ED: How many schools have you founded in total?
MC: I don't remember. I'm not interested in numbers, only children. I'm known as the Montessori gypsy. (laughter) I have been everywhere.
ED: Have you taken this method abroad?
MC: I was invited to India, Europe, and Australia, but I never stayed. I gave conferences and came back to America. Montessori education is also highly valued abroad and in high demand. Children create this demand. We don't need brochures. Children are our brochures. The incredible results speak for themselves. In most schools, children begin learning the alphabet at age six. With Montessori, they are reading fluently before they enter first grade.
ED: Can you explain how this works?
MC: Montessori's principles are very precise. There is a perfect window of opportunity for learning various skills and concepts. By teaching a child skills at the optimal time, you help them make the most of their natural development. Schools today for example, think children should learn to read in third grade. That's a formula for failure. It's much too late because the developmental stage for reading happens at an earlier age. Dr. Montessori also stressed the concept of the absorbent mind. Children learn by absorbing everything they see and hear, especially in the first six years. Those years are very delicate. Parents and teachers must pay very careful attention to what a child is exposed to. Maria Montessori always said that there is no eraser that what has been absorbed has become part of the child, for better or for worse.
ED: When is the best time to start teaching children? MC: We take students as young as two and a half years, if they are ready. It's important to take notice of when the child is ready. You don't want to push, nor do you want to hold them back. Learning, however, starts at conception. Montessori discovered that learning begins nine months before the child is born and never stops after that. The first three years, however, are the most critical, and after that, through age six.
ED: There is an explosion of Montessori schools everywhere. How do you feel about this?
MC: Most so-called Montessori schools don't follow Maria Montessori's principles precisely, even if they have the material, and so they don't get the results. With Montessori, you never have a classroom, only a child. If you follow her principles, you can never fail. They have worked on children everywhere, from the most affluent children of New York City to the poorest children of India. Montessori is for all children. Her method is not based on ever-changing theories but on eternal principles. That's her secret.
ED: Can you tell us more about her method?
MC: Maria Montessori's method is individual and addresses the total child body, mind and soul. It helps all children, regardless of their abilities or circumstances. Dr. Montessori was an intellectual giant with a big heart. She held diplomas in medicine, psychology and philosophy and taught anthropology at the University of Rome. Even though she traveled worldwide as a great authority, her only desire was to help children reach their full potential. Maria Montessori had a passion. She wanted to unlock the secrets of childhood how an infant in a crib could become a world statesman one day. By observing children, she developed this method of education that corresponds to a child's development. Her desire was to help life, and her motto "Mind in the making! - what can we do to help?". She understood children. Her method answers each child's plea: "Help me to do this, all by myself".
ED: How can we learn more about Maria Montessori?
MC: Many books are available today. They have been reprinted because they were bought off the shelf! I recommend a book by E. M. Standing, called Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work. He followed her everywhere and truly captures her flame and her legacy.
Questions and Answers for parents
with Madam Caspari
At what age can I start teaching my child?
Learning begins in the womb. Maria Montessori used to say that all learning begins nine months before birth. Starting in the womb, you can teach children by singing and reading to them, and by playing classical music. It is also very important for Mother and baby to have a healthy diet.
What is most important for my child after he or she is born?
The most important thing is order. Children must have order around them from the very beginning. It gives them a sense of security and helps form their mind. They not only need order in their physical environment. They need a very regular schedule, from sleep to feeding to everything they do. The biggest mistake parents make is to expect their baby to adapt to their schedules, lugging them from place to place. It has to be the other way around. Parents need to make room for their child's schedule and not push them into an adult life.
How can I discipline my child?
A child who has an orderly life will not be as easily disturbed or require discipline. When people asked Maria Montessori about discipline, she would say, "I don't have discipline problems with children. I give them work that they like to do."
How important is exercise?
Exercise is very important. What is most important is coordination of movement. Babies and children need to learn how to coordinate movement. In Montessori schools, we have them march on a line, for instance. Many children today are dyslexic. That comes from the lack of proper movement early in life. Proper movement, along with correct rhythm helps develop both hemispheres of the brain at a critical development stage. That is a reason why children like to march and to sing while they walk.
Maria Montessori also would stress the importance of long instructive walks at a child's pace. During these walks, children observe things around them and learn about nature. They need to literally stop to smell the flowers and to touch things.
What can I do at home with my children?
Someone once came up with the idea of "kindergarten in the kitchen." Children love to copy adults. They want to do all the things you do. They especially like simple tasks like moping and dusting, when they are not forced. Because children are copying adults all the time, it is very important for adults to slow down, to move more slowly, to speak more slowly and very distinctly.
How important are a child's early years?
The early years are the most important. Maria Montessori called the first six years of a child's life the period of the "absorbent mind." Young children don't learn like adults. They absorb everything. That's why their environment needs to be harmonious and orderly with "a place for everything and everything in its place." We call this a "prepared environment." Maria Montessori used to say that everything that is absorbed until age six is absorbed for good. It can never be erased. When I look at how young children today spend so much time in front of the television set, it makes me shudder. Everything is directly and permanently absorbed. When they absorb violence for example, violence becomes a part of them. Because the first six years predetermine the quality of a person's entire life, Maria Montessori would urge parents not to sacrifice that time. She would say, "Six years is such a short time. Give them to your child."
What is the role of the father?
The father plays a very important role as he supports the mother. Children need their father. They need for him to take time with them and teach them. Fathers provide stability and a sense of protection. A mother cannot give what a father does, that masculine part of life that goes directly into the subconscious or even the unconscious.
For more information on Maria Montessori's work, Dr. Caspari recommends the following books by Maria Montessori:
Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook
The Absorbent Mind
The Secret of Childhood.
Link to other Montessori articles
The Montessori Method
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