Montessori and Occupational Therapy

While reading up on Practical Life information, and trying to summarize the book “The Secret of Childhood” for my course, I was also reading “The Out-of-Sync Child“, and was struck by the strong correlation between many of the ideas presented in Maria Montessori’s philosophy and the goals of both modern SI Occupational Therapy and child-directed play therapy for children. I explored this a little in one of the essays I had to hand in in the first term, and am reproducing it here because I thought it was really interesting.

One of the main ideas behind the Montessori Method is that children have a deep instinct to “work”. Work in this sense is defined as purposeful activity on the environment. In other words, intelligent, goal-directed activities.  Children work in order to develop and grow as they carry out their instinctive drive to gain independence, and to develop themselves physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

According to Maria Montessori, children who do not feel an attraction for their environment, or for whom the environment appears hostile and threatening, will not develop independence as they should. They will withdraw from interacting with the environment, and seek others to wait on them. These children must be helped by providing them with the best possible environment, in order to reawaken their natural interest (in it). Engaging activities that encourage the child to become actively involved in exploring the environment can assist the child.

That this is still a valid approach to helping children who perceive their surroundings as threatening can be seen in the modern example of Occupational Therapy for sensory defensive children, or children with certain types of Sensory Processing Dysfunction. Such children struggle to make sense of the sensory impressions they receive in daily life, and must use much of their energy defending themselves from a sensory onslaught that can, on occasion, feel life-threatening. They may resort to very rigid behaviour, and often avoid new experiences. In order to experience less fear and more independence, such children must develop the ability to respond actively and purposefully to new circumstances (a skill known as adaptive behaviour). One description of the effects of occupational therapy is as follows:
“When the child actively engages in meaningful activities that provide the intensity, duration, and quality of sensation his central nervous system craves, his adaptive behaviour improves. Adaptive behaviour leads to better sensory integration. As a result, perceptions, learning, competence and self-confidence improve.” (The Out-of-Sync Child, pg 34).

This description of occupation therapy tallies with the Montessori practise of allowing children (within certain limits) to choose a meaningful, or purposeful task to work on, and then respecting their need to carry out that task for as long as is necessary for that particular child. Maria Montessori speaks of the power of such exercises in facilitating the child’s development when she says that “activity concentrated on some task that requires movement of the hands guided by the intellect” is like a “magic wand for opening the gate to the normal expression of a child’s natural gifts.” (The Secret of Childhood). With regards to the power of purposeful activity to improve behaviour and functioning, she says: “From inertia to work! This is the path of cure”. (Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind).

The link to some of the goals of child-directed play therapy comes from the Montessori practise of “following the child”. In other words,  while children are guided towards the work that the teacher (directress) feels that they are ready for, children are basically free to choose the activities that they want to work on. The idea (in Montessori), is that children have an inner guide that allows them to choose the activities best suited to their level and area of development, and that they will naturally choose work that enhances their development.  When my daughter was in play therapy, I did a course on providing filial therapy at home, and one of the points that was emphasized to us was that we have to trust that the child will choose to play in a way that allows them to overcome their emotional difficulties and to regain their natural balance.

I find it fascinating that we are “rediscovering” these principles in the modern context of helping children with physical, sensory or emotional problems, and yet they were elucidated (perhaps with not as much rigid science and controlled experiment) at the beginning of the 20th Century. It fascinates me that the Montessori Philosophy seems to have so many points of contact with modern child development theory, and yet seems to still be ensconced in this little box labelled “alternative”.


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15 Responses to “Montessori and Occupational Therapy”

  1. JJ Says:

    I found this article. I am not sure when you wrote this, or if you are an OT, but I wanted to let you know that I wrote a master’s thesis on the historical link between the Montessori method and occupational therapy. I wrote this in 2003, when I graduated from USC. Please let me know if you are interested in reading it! Regards, Julee

    • halfwork Says:

      Hi, not an OT but a mom with two children with SPD so I’ve had quite a bit of contact with OT’s over the past few years. I would really love to read your thesis – I’ll email you my address. Thanks!

    • Verity Says:

      I am an OT who is not currently practising but i have been approached by a Montessori school asking me to work. I am exploring whether working as a Montessori teacher would ‘qualify’ me as practising as an OT in terms of re-registering. I would love to read your thesis Julee to explore this further and learn more of the historical links.

    • Mary Says:

      Hi Julee I am very interested in reading your thesis. I am a grad student in OT.

    • bonnie kirkman Says:

      JJ I would love to read your thesis. I am currently applying to study OT in the UK/ and have my kids in Montessori school.. just made the connection whilst writing my personal statement and Google brought me here!

    • Kay Robbins Says:

      I am an OT working at a Montessori school and would love to read your thesis. I am also adjunct faculty at an OT school. Your work might be useful there as well.

    • caradoud Says:

      I am a Montessori trained teacher working on my prereq’s for OT school. I would love to read your thesis!

    • caradoud Says:

      I am a Montessori trained teacher working on my prereqs for OT school. I would love to read your thesis!

    • David Corbally Says:

      Hi, I am a new grad OT. I would like to read your thesis if you are amenable
      Kind regards

  2. Jill Says:

    Occupational therapists go through a rigourous training program with certification and are required to be licensed in their states. Look into the programs at your local university. Some community colleges also provide training programs for certified occupational therapy assistants. Your background as a montessori teacher will be useful toward your work as an OT. There are many ways to practice – in schools, home health care (what about children who are too ill to go to school?) hospitals, outpatient clinics, and all sorts of senior facilities. There is a growing body of research for using Montessori methods are applied in work with older adults, especially those with Alzheimer’s Disease.

  3. Natalie Says:

    Hi Julee, I’m getting my Master’s in Occupational Therapy from Xavier University. I’d love to read your thesis if you could email it to me. Thanks!

  4. Ashley Podnar Says:

    Hi, I’m studying occupational therapy at UW Milwaukee and am interested in Montessori schools. Could you send me your thesis too? Thanx!

  5. renaemuriel Says:

    Hello, I’m currently studying occupational therapy. I have recently discovered and become very interested in Montessori education. As I was reading more about Montessori, I started to think that its philosophies are similar to OT’s in some ways. I would love to read your thesis!

  6. rebeccarath Says:

    I love this. I knew I would find this literature and I am glad I finally took the time to see that other therapists saw the connection too. Clearly Jean Ayers saw the connection. I would love to see your thesis.

  7. montessorimusing Says:

    I have tried to contact Julee to let her know how many people are interested in her thesis – but got no response. Sorry all :(.

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