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Art Appreciation: Child-Size Masterpieces

"What a simple, delightful system!... What a pleasant way
to take a voyage of artistic discovery."

—John H. Brooks, Associate Director, Sterling and Francine Art Institute

Girl Matching PicturesDiscover the joy of introducing art appreciation to children in your classroom. Developed by Aline Wolf and used in hundreds of Montessori classrooms, the Child-Size Masterpieces program includes activities for children of all ages. You, too, can embark on the delightful voyage of introducing beautiful paintings to your students.

An Easy-to-Implement Program

Teachers often feel unsure about how to present fine art to children. The activities in this easy-to-implement program follow the pattern of Montessori lessons and make the process both simple and engaging. Beginning with matching the postcard-size paintings, the exercises gradually increase in difficulty. Children learn to recognize the styles of artists such as Michelangelo, Chagall, Audubon, and Rembrandt, among others, as they work with these reproductions.

In a 2014 interview, Aline Wolf explained how much her children enjoyed sorting her husband's collection of postcards from art museums. They placed paintings of boats in one pile, mothers with children in another. Occasionally they asked the name of the artist.

    "At first I didn't realize how much they were learning. Then one day our five-year-old asked if she could help open the mail. She pulled out a beautiful painting on a notecard and her eyes became very wide. "Mommy," she said, "it's from Renoir!" Well, it wasn't from Renoir, but it was a Renoir painting! I realized all that children could learn from activities using art postcards." —Aline Wolf's Montessori Journey

The Importance of Art Appreciation

Art expresses our humanity. When children learn how to look at art, they gain far greater appreciation for it and recognize its intrinsic value. The usual approach to fine art is to admonish children: "Don't touch!" In the Child-Size Masterpieces program, children get to experience a hands-on appreciation of art with paintings chosen especially to appeal to them.

Working with the cards, children develop their visual discrimination. They absorb world culture and scenery, including how people in other eras dressed, ate, worked, and played. I recently overheard children who were working with these cards debate whether an 18th century painting by Goya could really be a boy, because the child's lace collar and long hair surprised them. While most of the paintings are from European masters, examples of art from America, China, and Mexico are also included. One set of reproductions highlights the beauty and dignity of African-American heritage.

Activities for Three- to Six-Year-Olds

The program has cards for:

  • matching identical paintings (Step 1)
  • pairing two similar paintings by the same artist (Step 2)
  • grouping four paintings by the same artist (Step 3)
  • learning the names of artists (Step 4)
  • learning the names of famous paintings (Step 5)

These art cards provide endless opportunities for discussion. I recently presented the matching game to a group of four-year-olds. I asked what they saw in a painting by Mondrian, composed of lines and rectangles. One child exclaimed, "It looks like a window floating in the air!"

The title of the painting and name of the artist are imprinted on the back of the cards. Children who read can check their own work. The handbook for teachers, How to Use Child-Size Masterpieces, outlines the comprehensive program and can be consulted as children progress to more challenging levels and activities. It also provides teachers with a short course in art history.

Activities for Five- to Twelve-Year-Olds

Older children also enjoy steps 1-5 (above). Intermediate and advanced level cards are available for steps 1-3, where the differences and similarities between paintings become increasingly difficult to discern.

Elementary-age children can also:

  • learn about schools of art (Step 6)
  • group paintings from the same school (Step 7)
  • make timelines (Step 8)

Timelines are a fundamental part of the elementary curriculum. The Child-Size Masterpieces series includes a set of art cards for the timeline of transportation in America (from dugout canoes to the space shuttle). Aline Wolf spoke about her experience showing children a timeline of Picasso's work:

    "He changed styles so many times that Picasso's paintings make a very interesting timeline. When he was 14, he did beautiful portraits. Then he worked in many other styles, and in his final years he painted images with very distorted faces. This little fellow [in the class] put up his hand and said, "I think this is backwards. Picasso was just learning at this end (pointing to the distorted faces), but by the time he got to these pictures (painted at age 14) he could do it right." —Aline Wolf's Montessori Journey

Elementary teachers can:

  • add postcards from local museums to augment this program, which may inspire students to organize a "going out" trip to view the original artwork.
  • help students create a timeline of art from prehistoric to modern times (See How to Use Child-Size Masterpieces).
  • include reproductions of cave paintings for follow-up contemplation after the Third Great Lesson ("The Coming of Humans").

From the young child learning to match identical paintings, to older children creating timelines and studying art history, the Child-Size Masterpieces program provides an opportunity for children (and teachers) to experience awe and wonder as they work with these beautiful paintings from around the world and across the ages. Sister Wendy Beckett, who spends hours each day looking at art postcards like the ones in this program, says it best: "The story of painting is one that is immensely rich in meaning... Surrender to the wonder of the story." (The Story of Painting)

—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 15 years, she has served as a Montessori teacher-trainer for both primary and elementary levels and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS national conferences. Her work with both students and teachers is infused with the knowledge she has gained from her passions: history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, nature, meditation, music, and poetry.

—Originally Published 2016

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