A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter IX." by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), translated by Anne Everett George (1882-)
From: The Montessori Method (1912) by Maria Montessori, translated by Anne Everett George. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912. pp. 137-148.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 137] 



THE generally accepted idea of gymnastics is, I consider, very inadequate. In the common schools we are accustomed to describe as gymnastics a species of collective muscular discipline which has as its aim that children shall learn to follow definite ordered movements given in the form of commands. The guiding spirit in such gymnastics is coercion, and I feel that such exercises repress spontaneous movements and impose others in their place. I do not know what the psychological authority for the selection of these imposed movements is. Similar movements are used in medical gymnastics in order to restore a normal movement to a torpid muscle or to give back a normal movement to a paralysed muscle. A number of chest movements which are given in the school are advised, for example, in medicine for those who suffer from intestinal torpidity, but truly I do not well understand what office such exercises can fulfil when they are followed by squadrons of normal children. In addition to these formal gymnastics we have those which are carried on in a gymnasium, and which are very like the first steps in the training of an acrobat. However, this is not the place for criticism of the gymnastics used in our common schools. Certainly in our case we are not considering such gymnastics. Indeed, many who hear me speak of gymnastics for infant schools very plainly show disap- [Page 138]  probation and they will disapprove more heartily when they hear me speak of a gymnasium for little children. Indeed, if the gymnastic exercises and the gymnasium were those of the common schools, no one would agree more heartily than I in the disapproval expressed by these critics.

We must understand by gymnastics and in general by muscular education a series of exercises tending to aid the normal development of physiological movements (such as walking, breathing, speech), to protect this development, when the child shows himself backward or abnormal in any way, and to encourage in the children those movements which are useful in the achievement of the most ordinary acts of life; such as dressing, undressing, buttoning their clothes and lacing their shoes, carrying such objects as balls, cubes, etc. If there exists an age in which it is necessary to protect a child by means of a series of gymnastic exercises, between three and six years is undoubtedly the age. The special gymnastics necessary, or, better still, hygienic, in this period of life, refer chiefly to walking. A child in the general morphological growth of his body is characterised by having a torso greatly developed in comparison with the lower limbs. In the new-born child the length of the torso, from the top of the head to the curve of the groin, is equal to 68 per cent of the total length of the body. The limbs then arc barely 32 per cent of the stature. During growth these relative proportions change in a most noticeable way; thus, for example, in the adult the torso is fully half of the entire stature and, according to the individual, corresponds to 51 or 52 per cent of it.

This morphological difference between the new-born child and the adult is bridged so slowly during growth [Page 139]  that in the first years of the child's life the torso still remains tremendously developed as compared with the limbs. In one year the height of the torso corresponds to 65 per cent of the total stature, in two years to 63, in three years to 62.

At the age when a child enters the infant school his limbs are still very short as compared with his torso; that is, the length of his limbs barely corresponds to 38 per cent of the stature. Between the years of six and seven the proportion of the torso to the stature is from 57 to 56 per cent. In such a period therefore the child not only makes a noticeable growth in height, (he measures indeed at the age of three years about 0.85 metre and at six years 1.05 metres) but, changing so greatly the relative proportions between the torso and the limbs, the latter make a most decided growth. This growth is related to the layers of cartilage which still exist at the extremity of the long bones and is related in general to the still incomplete ossification of the entire skeleton. The tender bones of the limbs must therefore sustain the weight of the torso which is then disproportionately large. We cannot, if we consider all these things, judge the manner of walking in little children by the standard set for our own equilibrium. If a child is not strong, the erect posture and walking are really sources of fatigue for him, and the long bones of the lower limbs, yielding to the weight of the body, easily become deformed and usually bowed. This is particularly the case among the badly nourished children of the poor, or among those in whom the skeleton structure, while not actually showing the presence of rickets, still seems to be slow in attaining normal ossification.

We are wrong then if we consider little children from [Page 140]  this physical point of view as little men. They have, instead, characteristics and proportions that are entirely special to their age. The tendency of the child to stretch out on his back and kick his legs in the air is an expression of physical needs related to the proportions of his body. The baby loves to walk on all fours just because, like the quadruped animals, his limbs are short in comparison with his body. Instead of this, we divert these natural manifestations by foolish habits which we impose on the child. We hinder him from throwing himself on the earth, from stretching, etc., and we oblige him to walk with grown people and to keep up with them; and excuse ourselves by saying that we don't want him to become capricious and think he can do as he pleases! It is indeed a fatal error and one which has made bow-legs common among little children. It is well to enlighten the mothers on these important particulars of infant hygiene. Now we, with the gymnastics, can, and, indeed, should, help the child in his development by making our exercises correspond to the movement which he needs to make, and in this way save his limbs from fatigue.

One very simple means for helping the child in his activity was suggested to me by my observation of the children themselves. The teacher was having the children march, leading them about the courtyard between the walls of the house and the central garden. This garden was protected by a little fence made of strong wires which were stretched in parallel lines, and were supported at intervals by wooden palings driven into the ground. Along the fence, ran a little ledge on which the children were in the habit of sitting down when they were tired of marching. In addition to this, I always brought out little chairs, which I placed against the wall. [Page 141]  Every now and then, the little ones of two and one half and three years would drop out from the marching line, evidently being tired; but instead of sitting down on the ground or on the chairs, they would run to the little fence and catching hold of the upper line of wire they would walk along sideways, resting their feet on the wire which was nearest the ground. That this gave them a great deal of pleasure, was evident from the way in which they laughed as, with bright eyes, they watched their larger companions who were marching about. The truth was that these little ones had solved one of my problems in a very practical way. They moved themselves along on the wires, pulling their bodies sideways. In this way, they moved their limbs without throwing upon them the weight of the body. Such an apparatus placed in the gymnasium for little children, will enable them to fulfil the need which they feel of throwing themselves on the floor and kicking their legs in the air; for the movements they make on the little fence correspond even more correctly to the same physical needs. Therefore, I advise the manufacture of this little fence for use in children's playrooms. It can be constructed of parallel bars supported by upright poles firmly fixed on to the heavy base. The children, while playing upon this little fence, will be able to look out and see with great pleasure what the other children are doing in the room.

Other pieces of gymnasium apparatus can be constructed upon the same plan, that is, having as their aim the furnishing of the child with a proper outlet for his individual activities. One of the things invented by Séguin to develop the lower limbs, and especially to strengthen the articulation of the knee in weak children, is the trampolino. [Page 142] 

This is a kind of swing, having a very wide seat, so wide, indeed, that the limbs of the child stretched out in front of him are entirely supported by this broad seat. This little chair is hung from strong cords and is left swinging. The wall in front of it is reinforced by a strong smooth board against which the children press their feet in pushing themselves back and forth in the swing. The child seated in this swing exercises his limbs, pressing his feet against the board each time that he swings toward the wall. The board against which he swings may be erected at some distance from the wall, and may be so low that the child can see over the top of it. As he swings in this chair, he strengthens his limbs through the species of gymnastics limited to the lower limbs, and this he does without resting the weight of his body upon his legs. Other pieces of gymnastic apparatus, less important from the hygienic standpoint, but very amusing to the children, may be described briefly. "The Pendulum," a game which may be played by one child or by several, consists of rubber balls hung on a cord. The children seated in their little armchairs strike the ball, sending it from one to another. It is an exercise for the arms and for the spinal column, and is at the same time an exercise in which the eye gauges the distance of bodies in motion. Another game, called "The Cord," consists of a line, drawn on the earth with chalk, along which the children walk. This helps to order and to direct their free movements in a given direction. A game like this is very pretty, indeed, after a snowfall, when the little path made by the children shows the regularity of the line they have traced, and encourages a pleasant war among them in which each one tries to make his line in the snow the most regular. [Page 143] 

The little round stair is another game, in which a little wooden stairway, built on the plan of the spiral, is used. This little stair is enclosed on one side by a balustrade on which the children can rest their hands. The other side is open and circular. This serves to habituate the children to climbing and descending stairs without holding on to the balustrade, and teaches them to move up and down with movements that are poised and self-controlled. The steps must be very low and very shallow. Going up and down on this little stair, the very smallest children can learn movements which they cannot follow properly in climbing ordinary stairways in their homes, in which the proportions are arranged for adults.

Another piece of gymnasium apparatus, adapted for the broad-jump, consists of a low wooden platform painted with various lines, by means of which the distance jumped may be gauged. There is a small flight of stairs which may be used in connection with this plane, making it possible to practise and to measure the high-jump.

I also believe that rope-ladders may be so adapted as to be suitable for use in schools for little children. Used in pairs, these would, it seems to me, help to perfect a great variety of movements, such as kneeling, rising, bending forward and backward, etc.; movements which the child, without the help of the ladder, could not make without losing his equilibrium. All of these movements are useful in that they help the child to acquire, first, equilibrium, then that co-ordination of the muscular movements necessary to him. They are, moreover, helpful in that they increase the chest expansion. Besides all this, such movements as I have described, reinforce the hand in its most primitive and essential action, prehension; –the movement which necessarily precedes all the finer move- [Page 144]  ments of the hand itself. Such apparatus was successfully used by Séguin to develop the general strength and the movement of prehension in his idiotic children.

The gymnasium, therefore, offers a field for the most varied exercises, tending to establish the co-ordination of the movements common in life, such as walking, throwing objects, going up and down stairs, kneeling, rising, jumping, etc.


By free gymnastics I mean those which are given without any apparatus. Such gymnastics are divided into two classes: directed and required exercises, and free games. In the first class, I recommend the march, the object of which should be not rhythm, but poise only. When the march is introduced, it is well to accompany it with the singing of little songs, because this furnishes a breathing exercise very helpful in strengthening the lungs. Besides the march, many of the games of Froebel which are accompanied by songs, very similar to those which the children constantly play among themselves, may be used. In the free games, we furnish the children with balls, hoops, bean bags and kites. The trees readily offer themselves to the game of "Pussy wants a corner," and many simple games of tag.


Under the name of educational gymnastics, we include two series of exercises which really form a part of other school work, as, for instance, the cultivation of the earth, the care of plants and animals (watering and pruning the plants, carrying the grain to the chickens, etc.). These activities call for various co-ordinated movements, as, for

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[Page 145]  example, in hoeing, in getting down to plant things, and in rising; the trips which children make in carrying objects to some definite place, and in making a definite practical use of these objects, offer a field for very valuable gymnastic exercises. The scattering of minute objects, such as corn and oats, is valuable, and also the exercise of opening and closing the gates to the garden and to the chicken yard. All of these exercises are the more valuable in that they are carried on in the open air. Among our educational gymnastics we have exercises to develop co-ordinated movements of the fingers, and these prepare the children for the exercises of practical life, such as dressing and undressing themselves. The didactic material which forms the basis of these last named gymnastics is very simple, consisting of wooden frames, each mounted with two pieces of cloth, or leather, to be fastened and unfastened by means of the buttons and buttonholes, books and eyes, eyelets and lacings, or automatic fastenings.

In our "Children's Houses" we use ten of these frames, so constructed that each one of them illustrates a different process in dressing or undressing.

One: mounted with heavy pieces of wool which are to be fastened by means of large bone buttons–corresponds to children's dresses.

Two: mounted with pieces of linen to be fastened with pearl buttons–corresponds to a child's underwear.

Three: leather pieces mounted with shoe buttons–in fastening these leather pieces the children make use of the button-hook–corresponds to a child's shoes.

Four: pieces of leather which are laced together by means of eyelets and shoe laces.

Five: two pieces of cloth to be laced together. (These [Page 146]  pieces are boned and therefore correspond to the little bodices worn by the peasants in Italy.)

Six: two pieces of stuff to be fastened by means of large hooks and eyes.

Seven: two pieces of linen to be fastened by means of small hooks and worked eyelets.

Eight: two pieces of cloth to be fastened by means of broad coloured ribbon, which is to be tied into bows.

Nine: pieces of cloth laced together with round cord, on the same order as the fastenings on many of the children's underclothes.

Ten: two pieces to be fastened together by means of the modern automatic fasteners.

Through the use of such toys, the children can practically analyse the movements necessary in dressing and undressing themselves, and can prepare themselves separately for these movements by means of repeated exercises. We succeed in teaching the child to dress himself without his really being aware of it, that is, without any direct or arbitrary command we have led him to this mastery. As soon as he knows how to do it, he begins to wish to make a practical application of his ability, and very soon he will be proud of being sufficient unto himself, and will take delight in an ability which makes his body free from the hands of others, and which leads him the sooner to that modesty and activity which develops far too late in those children of today who are deprived of this most practical form of education. The fastening games are very pleasing to the little ones, and often when ten of them are using the frames at the same time, seated around the little tables, quiet and serious, they give the impression of a workroom filled with tiny workers. [Page 147] 


The purpose of these gymnastics is to regulate the respiratory movements: in other words, to teach the art of breathing. They also help greatly the correct formation of the child's speech habits. The exercises which we use were introduced into school literature by Professor Sala. We have chosen the simple exercises described by him in his treatise, "Cura della Balbuzie." * These include a number of respiratory gymnastic exercises with which are co-ordinated muscular exercises. I give here an example:

Mouth wide open, tongue held flat, hands on hips.

Breathe deeply, lift the shoulders rapidly, lowering the diaphragm.

Expel breath slowly, lowering shoulders slowly, returning to normal position.

The directress should select or devise simple breathing exercises, to be accompanied with arm movements, etc.

Exercises for proper use of lips, tongue, and teeth. These exercises teach the movements of the lips and tongue in the pronunciation of certain fundamental consonant sounds, reinforcing the muscles, and making them ready for these movements. These gymnastics prepare the organs used in the formation of language.

In presenting such exercises we begin with the entire class, but finish by testing the children individually. We ask the child to pronounce, aloud and with force, the first syllable of a word. When all are intent upon putting the greatest possible force into this, we call each child separately, and have him repeat the word. If he pronounces [Page 148]  it correctly, we send him to the right, if badly, to the left. Those who have difficulty with the word, are then encouraged to repeat it several times. The teacher takes note of the age of the child, and of the particular defects in the movements of the muscles used in articulating. She may then touch the muscles which should be used, tapping for example, the curve of the lips, or even taking hold of the child's tongue and placing it against the dental arch, or showing him clearly the movements which she herself makes when pronouncing the syllable. She must seek in every way to aid the normal development of the movements necessary to the exact articulation of the word.

As the basis for these gymnastics we have the children pronounce the words: pane–fame–tana–zina–stella–rana–gatto.

In the pronunciation of pane, the child should repeat with much force, pa, pa, pa, thus exercising the muscles producing orbicular contraction of the lips.

In fame repeating fa, fa, fa, the child exercises the movements of the lower lip against the upper dental arch.

In tana, having him repeat ta, ta, ta, we cause him to exercise the movement of the tongue against the upper dental arch.

In zina, we provoke the contact of the upper and lower dental arches.

With stella we have him repeat the whole word, bringing the teeth together, and holding the tongue (which has a tendency to protrude) close against the upper teeth.

In rana we have him repeat r, r, r, thus exercising the tongue in the vibratory movements. In gatto we hold the voice upon the guttural g.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


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* "Cura della Balbuzie e dei Difetti di Pronunzia." Sala. Ulrico Hoepli, publisher, Milan, Italy.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom