Dr Maria Montessori was one of the most influential pioneers in early childhood education in the 20th century. Her ideas have become known and recognised throughout the world over a period of more than ninety years and yet still seems fresh, modern and child-centred when encountered for the first time. It is no surprise that they have also been incorporated into good practice in mainstream education.

Dr Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. Her original interest was in medicine; she was the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome Medical School and gradually became interested in education through her work as a doctor, treating what are known today as children with 'special needs'. Because of her medical background she approached education not as an educator or a philosopher but as a scientist. Working with some of the poorest and most disadvantaged children of working parents in Rome she used the classroom as a laboratory for observing them and for developing ideas and materials which would help them to achieve their full potential. There was nothing cold or clinical about her theories: they were tailored to the needs of the growing child but sprang from Montessori's intense love and respect for all children.

So great was the success of her Montessori method that she travelled the world, establishing schools and lecturing about her discoveries. She wrote numerous books and many articles right up until her death in 1952 at the age of 82.

She left to the world the legacy of a method of education which combines a practical approach based on a carefully planned learning environment with a philosophy centred on the idea of freedom for the child. All children, says Montessori, are intrinsically motivated to learn and they absorb knowledge without effort when provided with the right kind of activities at the right time in their development.