Nurturing Spirituality in a Montessori Classroom

Nurturing Spirituality in a Montessori Classroom
Sue Mooney

Maria Montessori often spoke and wrote about the child's spirit and spiritual development. But what exactly do “spirit and spirituality” mean?  

In her book, Nurturing the Spirit in Non-Sectarian Classrooms, Aline D. Wolf, interprets Montessori's understanding of a child’s spirit, their “unknown powers and hidden possibilities,” in a non-religious sense. She defines the spirituality of the child as the following:

1. the capacity for "awe and wonder characterized by a reverence for the earth and all its creatures and a desire to live in harmony with all of nature,"

2. an "openness to an existence that is beyond our sensory and intellectual experience,”

3. a "profound humility" that "invites us to lead a more reflective existence and to contemplate the unfathomable questions,” and  

4. a "sacred connection with all of life and a oneness with the universe."

A child's spirituality is nurtured in a Montessori setting by practicing a deep respect for children's inner life and encouraging their intrinsic motivation. It is also nurtured through the creation of quiet spaces and activities and the installation of peace education, care for the environment, outdoor learning and play, artistic expression, and the elementary cosmic education. Aline Wolf supports teaching as an extension of the “Golden Rule” and the virtues that spring from it, which are common to major religions: love, compassion, forgiveness, honesty, truthfulness, and kindness. 

Montessori education is part of the holistic education tradition with roots in the theories of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Johann Pestalozzi, and Friedrich Froebel, 18th century pedagogues. This tradition of thinkers and educational systems, which include Waldorf and Quaker schools, are as concerned about a child's spiritual needs as they are for physical, emotional, social, and intellectual needs. As an extension to that notion, Maria Montessori believed that serving a child's spiritual growth could transform the world. In 1948, a few years before her death, she wrote in The Absorbent Mind, "If education is always to be conceived (as) a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man's future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual's total development lags behind? … The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities" (3-4). 

When Maria Montessori opened her first school, Casa Dei Bambini, she viewed the roughly 50 poor and undisciplined children as a fertile field and herself as peasant farmer about to plant the field with her good seeds. However, she quickly discovered she was wrong, as explained in The Secret of Childhood: "I had hardly turned over the clods of my field when I found gold … the clods concealed a precious treasure. I was not the peasant, I had thought myself. Rather, I was like the foolish Aladdin, who, without knowing it, had in his hand a key that would open hidden treasures" (128-129).

Aline Wolf explains that instead of the environment adding to the spirituality of the child, the environment revealed it. As adults, we don't need to create spirituality in children—it is already there. Our focus should remain on protecting and nurturing it. Wolf warns, "If spiritual nurturing is neglected, the child may become an adult who sees no meaning in life, is bored with life, careless with life, or an adult who is determined to have power, prestige and possessions, without the regard for care of the earth, the animal kingdom and/or the welfare of other human beings."

So with that “profound humility,” a true Montessori moment evoked when, one day during lunch, a kindergartener proclaimed, "We're alive!" Some friends laughed and replied, "Of course we are." With an existential openness, she responded, "No, you don't understand. Don’t you see, we’re alive. We're alive right now!" And it’s within an exchange such as this that meaning beyond just the sensorial and intellectual awakens. 

  • elementary
  • peace education
  • primary
  • spirituality