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Art in the Montessori Environment

"If we try to think back to the dim and distant past... what is it that helps us reconstruct those times, and to picture the lives of those who lived in them? It is their art... It is thanks to the hand, the companion of the mind, that civilization has arisen."
—Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

Art is one of the many ways children express themselves. Art is a way for children to communicate their feelings. It is through art that children develop their fine motor skills. In the Montessori environment, we provide open-ended art activities that help children explore and use their creativity.

When it comes to art, it is the process not the product that is important to the child. As adults, our goal is to produce a product. The child interacts with the world differently. The child works to develop self. The focus is on the process not the product. Once a child creates something, he does not feel the need to keep the product. It is the process that gives him satisfaction and inner joy.

Getting this point across to parents may be a challenge. "Make something for me today," is a phrase we often hear parents say at the beginning of the school year. An explanation and then a friendly reminder will help them change their mind set: "It's the process, not the product."

Like many teachers, I have received artistic "gifts" from children. Have you ever suspected such gifts were given because the children didn't "need" the finished product... and because they wanted to move on to the next painting without the interruption of walking to the drying rack?

Preparing the Environment: Remember the Art Area

Art, along with all areas of the classroom, gives children a solid foundation for future growth. Through art, they are exploring, creating, expressing, and developing self. Provide a rich art area in the classroom. Give children a chance to choose their medium: paints, pastels, clay, pencils, crayons.

Do they have supplies for gluing? Cutting with scissors? Tearing paper? Sculpting in three dimensions? Are there a variety of choices for drawing self-portraits or landscapes? Opportunities for abstract art? Is the collage tray stocked and waiting? The possibilities are endless and up to the child.

I'm No Picasso!

You might be thinking, "I'm not an artist.", "I don't have endless amounts of classroom prep time." or "My budget is limited." Have no fear. You can include art in your classroom with minimal effort. Start slowly.

Here's an easy idea. Make room on a shelf for a box full of recycled items:

  • paper towel rolls
  • empty cartons (milk, eggs, oatmeal)
  • clean plastic containers (yogurt, margarine)
  • boxes (tissue, baking soda, cereal).

You get the idea... Ask parents for donations, stash them in your supply room, and you'll be set to replenish as needed. Place a supply of glue on the shelf and your prep is finished.

The recycled materials were a big hit in my classroom. Each day, I'd add different items. The children were thrilled, especially one friend, Brandon. As we approached the end of our pre-work-time circle, Brandon's excitement over the addition of an extra large egg carton or a cereal box was written all over his face. I knew he wanted to be dismissed from circle first, in order to get to work on his latest sculpture. He'd look through the box, as if it were a treasure chest! He'd find just the right pieces for his creations. His enthusiasm was contagious and his creations were inspiring!

Make Art Connections Throughout the Classroom

Incorporate art and literature. When I read Harry the Dirty Dog, I set up an art activity and children created their own Harry (black dog with white spots). A colleague created an activity around Harold and the Purple Crayon: paper, a purple crayon, along with the classic book by Crockett Johnson. Eric Carle is another wonderful source for inspiration. These art activities are placed on the shelf, and the children are free to choose (or not to choose) and to work at their own pace.

In addition to having an "art" area in the classroom, we prepare children for both writing and expressive drawing by providing materials they can freely choose throughout the entire classroom. Children are encouraged to explore outline and color with the Metal Insets. Children spontaneously decorate the borders of their papers (in Math, Language, Sensorial). When children write in their journals, they often illustrate the story. When they do research, children draw a picture of their subject.

We can incorporate art into our continent studies. Who are the artists? How are utensils made and decorated (straw baskets, clay pots)? What museums are located there? Children love to draw and then paint the continent puzzle maps.

Art Appreciation and Art Ideas:

  • Artist of the Month. Choose artists that relate to your continent studies. Studying North America? Why not incorporate a famous artist? Perhaps Mary Cassatt's Children Playing on the Beach. Studying Europe? Think Van Gogh's The Starry Night or Sunflowers.
  • Think creatively. For example, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Jolene Tollett presented this idea for introducing Michelangelo at the March 2011 AMS conference in Chicago. After talking about the artist, she lets the children experience what Michelangelo did — painting while on his back! Tape a large sheet of paper to the bottom of a desk or table. The child will go to the supply shelf, bring his supplies (paints, brushes, and water) to the table, place them under the table, lie down, and begin painting. What a great experience! Of course, the children are not suspended above the room, but they get the idea.
  • Connect with local artists. If parents in your school community are artists, perhaps arrange for them to visit the classroom. A field trip to an artist's studio would be a valuable experience for the children. How do artists set up their studios? How do artists care for their art materials?
  • Explore a local art museum. Is there an art museum in your area? Before you visit the museum, look at the catalog or a book and show the students the works of art they will see when they visit the museum. Talk about museum etiquette before you visit.
  • Give children words. Art appreciation is full of new vocabulary: Impressionism, Cubism, Pointillism; Realism; foreground, background; palette; fresco; bronze; mobile; statue
  • Talk about inspiration. Discuss who or what inspired the artist (a child? a dog? the ocean?).
  • Discover mood. What mood/emotions does the painting evoke? (sad? happy? calm? silly? tired? angry?).
  • Play with color. What color palette did the artist use?
  • Notice the details in a painting (brushstrokes; clothing the subjects are wearing); look at the painting from far away, and then close up. GoogleArtProject.com allows children to see hundreds of artworks from a dozen international fine art museums at incredible zoom levels.
  • Do self-portraits. Talk about what portraits and self-portraits are. Set up a work with a mirror, paper, and colored pencils.
  • Clay: Make pinch pots. Talk about firing and glazing. Do you have a kiln at your school? Discuss different types of pottery and their uses (decorative, utilitarian).

Final Words of Wisdom from Dr. Montessori

"The human hand, so delicate and so complicated, not only allows the mind to reveal itself but it enables the whole being to enter into special relationships with its environment... man 'takes possession of his environment with his hands.' His hands, under the guidance of his intellect transform this environment and thus enable him to fulfill his mission in the world."
—Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child

—by Pamela Personette, M.Ed., Montessori Educational Consultant, for Montessori Services. Fully committed to Montessori education, Pamela earned an AMS Montessori Primary Credential and a Master's of Education in Early Childhood, Montessori Education, from Notre Dame de Namur University. Pam's passion for Montessori has taken her from head teacher for more than a decade to a unique consulting business that uses Montessori principles to teach the art of superior customer service to adults in the retail trade. Pamela continues to serve children by teaching at Montessori schools.

—Originally Published 2011

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