My new year’s resolution was to set up a Montessori-inspired art space for my children. Here are some Montessori principles for art, a look at my art shelves in our Montessori home, and how to encourage children’s artistic inclinations.
1. Principles for Art
In Montessori, art has a larger purpose than making products or even just understanding art processes. Art is one key way that the young child constructs himself. In Creativity, Self and Environment, David Kahn wrote: “When reading Montessori’s works, one can appreciate her avoidance of the term creativity. Montessori understood creativity essentially [and] traces the most significant of creative endeavours; namely, the making of the personality, the construction of oneself.”
When I was doing my observations in a Children’s House run by AMI, I saw art everywhere. Not just at the easel (which by the way always had a queue waiting to use it!). This enlightening article debunks the misconception that art is rare in the Montessori classroom, and lists several Montessori materials that demonstrate artistry, showing that art is inherent and occurs organically in the Montessori environment. One instance: the Golden Beads is a classic material for Math, but is based on elements of art like color, line and texture.
Montessori education seeks to lay these foundations for creativity:
- MIND: the children learn through adult demonstration, how to use a wide variety of art tools and media e.g. how to hold scissors or work with clay
- HAND: the hand muscles are developed and the child is able to sit or stand unassisted
- EYE: the children have opportunities to refine their visual perception e.g through discriminating shades of color, or studies of artists/ genres
With these foundations, “like the game of chess which generates infinite moves from a set of rules for the player, the Montessori materials lead to exciting sequences of discovery for the child” (Kahn). Montessori tries to offer raw art experiences rather than pre-made kits or cartoons because an adult-created version of say, a house, may not be the child’s version of a house. By preparing the child’s mind, hands and eyes, and grounding them in the real, the child is free to realise his spontaneous creative impulses.
After four months of homeschooling, Dylan has started at a Montessori school in London. He loves scribbling and drawing. I thought setting up art shelves, with its opportunities for relaxation and processing each day’s happenings, would best support his transition into school without duplicating it.
2. Art shelves in our home
The top surface holds (left to right, top to bottom):
- art smock (actually a to-be-modified poncho) on 3M hook
- Van Gogh oil pastels done by a 6yo and her talented mother, in a frame with one open side that makes interchanging art easy and stores up to 50 sheets of paper
- container of paintbrushes
- Van Gogh art cards from Learnthru’play on mini easel (a Reggio use of these art cards here)
- stationery in an organiser we formerly used for the children’s lotions and creams (including chunky color pencils , sharpener, crayons, soy-based crayon rocks, stamp markers, markers, candle, glitter glue, glue stick, chalk, liquid chalk)
- tray of watercolor and acrylic paints, and two chopstick rests (you’ll find out why later)
- coloured and white paper
The Van Gogh painting and art card are there to encourage art appreciation.
I bought much of this in a discount pack when I was a new mother and hadn’t discovered the highly-pigmented specialty art materials like Stockmar, hence almost everything is Crayola washable or Daiso.
I’m using Japanese takeaway containers as trays because sushi is awesome… err, I mean, so that I won’t feel heartache if paint gets on them.
You may notice that I did not display any of my children’s art. What I learnt about art from my AMI course is that display is a decision, a value judgment made by the adult (such critical thinking question for kids visiting museums here). Art is personal; the child may not want his work displayed. Instead, I will ask my children what they want me to do with their pictures (hang? file? recycle?), and have a designated wall / fridge where children may choose to display their artwork.
On our art shelves:
Color blending activity with an eye dropper
To gradate dark, medium and light blue using an eye dropper. I half-filled two glasses, so that even if the child were to pour/ drop everything into one glass, it would not overflow. (A variant, using eye droppers to dye rainbow yarn, here.)
Blending colours via dropping is harder than it looks, almost mathematical in its precision and hand-eye coordination. Dylan worked out a systematic way to alternate dropping blue water and clear water into the middle shot glass to get a medium shade.
I saved this candy-patterned packaging, as it was the perfect size for cutting strips. I didn’t even need to trim them! I just drew different designs with a marker. The little metal tin is to hold the cut bits. (Another music-themed cutting activity here.)
Art on the go
These three are for us to grab and go if we are heading out. I saved these large plastic baubles from a slot machine, and color-coordinated the materials within each. A bead tweezing work for the pink bauble, and a dough and cookie cutter work for the yellow. (And would you think me nuts if I said I once made 21 busy bags for road trips/ waiting at restaurants?)
The name card holder stores paint swatches for a color gradation work. My Montessori color boxes would complement them perfectly but they are back in Singapore.
Gluing and decoupage tray
A jam jar containing glue paste and a brush on a stand. This glue offers a different kind of tactility than regular glue stick. I was inspired by the Pink Tower so I cut up squares of paper increasing by 1cm each that the children can glue (more Pink Tower extensions here).
Inspired by the Metal Insets, I grabbed some wooden tangrams from a set Emmy got for Christmas, and offered a black pencil for tracing and colouring within the lines.
Here is Dylan working within an IKEA tray. It’s A3 so will hold even larger drawing block, and also serves to delineate his work. His sister may observe but may not cross the boundaries defined by the tray.
Much has been said about the physiological benefits of working on a vertical surface, but I didn’t want to buy a standing easel yet I heard that tabletop easels slide about, making it hard for the child to paint. So I made a tabletop easel from a cardboard box by folding it in thirds, taped paper on it, and then taped all four corners down on the table. It’s pretty stable!
And the chopstick rest? That is for laying the marker, or more usefully, a wet paintbrush, to reduce smearing of the tabletop.
Art hanging rack.
Some schools use a laundry rack for clipping multiple pieces of art, but with only two children, I thought one hook would suffice. The children can bulldog clip their art and hang it up to dry, just next to our DIY child coat rack (house tour here).
3. How to encourage your child’s artistic inclinations
Lastly, if your child struggles with art (or if you are mess-averse like me) but you still want to encourage artistic expression, instead of reminding the child (for what use is that?), relook the environment and tools:
- Might you need to replace the thin crayons with chunky ones to facilitate his tripod grip?
- If paint is spilling beyond the borders of the paper, could you provide a larger piece of paper?
- If he is mixing all the paint colours into a homogenous murky brown, how about offering only one or two colours for the younger toddler, or sticking one paintbrush into every pot (this post was really helpful and I particularly liked the video of the toddler’s outdoor painting setup)?
- Some mess is inevitable. Does he have tools available to clean up these messes?
- Needing renewal in your art space? Introduce art from your culture or other cultures. We’ve done Indonesian batik painting, vanishing Chinese calligraphy and Japanese origami.