I have always loved art. Maybe because I was introduced to fine art at a very young age, or maybe because it was a natural inclination. Whichever it was, having my love of art supported as a young child definitely nurtured, developed, and deepened that love.
This is why I am so excited to talk more about art and the young child today. I get to combine two of my great passions, Art and Education.
The Montessori approach to art is met on two fronts: exploration and refinement of senses.
Let’s look at exploration first.
Art has a direct purpose similar to Practical Life in that it helps children develop their control of movement, concentration, and independence. It also has the indirect purpose of fine-tuning the eye for aesthetics. In my experience, I find children spend a lot of time working with art through the work cycle, likely because the art activities call to those developmental needs. As the children grow older, their ability for self-expression becomes another draw for them to work long and hard with the art activities, telling stories and communicating through the images they have grown to be able to represent.
The art activities on the art shelves are not focused on a particular art style or artist, but rather an exploration of a variety of art materials to give them an experience with many different tools and mediums. In the Montessori environment, the children are introduced to the art activities in much the same way as Practical Life: they are presented with how to arrange their materials for ease of use, and how to manipulate the tools that are provided in the activity (for example, crayons for drawing).
The art area in the Montessori environment will generally consist of one to two shelves, arranged with a variety of trays, all self-contained activities, providing the child with all they will need of a given activity in that one tray. These trays are designed to allow the child to explore with the medium it contains. The most common activities arranged for the children are drawing (often with crayons), cutting, gluing, clay, and painting. I have seen some other wonderful setups as well, card making, ink painting, sewing (there is a whole progression for this activity!), and bracelet making, to name a few. One thing all these activities have in common is that they are repeatable. They are available every day for the child to return to as desired.
What I most love about the art activities is that they are there simply to allow the child to get to know how the given medium feels, how it interacts with the paper or fabric, or hands, and to create an experience. The activities allow the child to watch their hands and see what happens to the materials. They allow the child to get completely immersed in watching and feeling their fingers, hands, and arms move, allowing them to connect with that feeling of deep concentration. As for independence, especially with art, I have noticed that as long as the child keeps the materials where there are “supposed” to be, on the paper, table or tray, they are largely left alone. What an amazing feeling of independence! To do as one wishes, within the limits of respect, and be left to see what happens!
On that note, I also wonder if there might be a strong connection to art for young children in that it is one of the few things children can do without adults correcting their attempts. I have often seen many parents so excited about the art their young children produce, often giving out praise as to how much they love it and how wonderful it is. In so many other areas of children’s lives, they are constantly being told to be careful, do it this way, not too much, etc. I find that when a child is interacting with art materials, they are generally left alone to create what the wish, in the manner they wish, with little adult interference.
But, we will have to explore that topic more in another post!
Let’s look more into the indirect purpose of the Art activities.
Refinement of the Senses
The indirect purposes of Montessori activities are skills or lessons the children are learning in the background. They are not the intention of the activity, but they have been gained anyway as a result of the use of the given activity. With the Art activities, indirectly children are picking up on lessons such as composition, color theory, design, and how the medium itself functions. These are not anything the child will be able to point out or use with intention while they are still in the first plane (0 - 6 years-old), but they are developing their particular preferences for aesthetics, and these will all come in use when they are older. What the children are exposed to in this very sensitive time will inform their core likes and dislikes throughout their lives.
The exposure to fine art and artists is more in line with the sensorial area. The children are using their senses (seeing, feeling, and hearing) to explore this aspect of our culture. Many Montessori guides meet this challenge by providing fine art scattered throughout the room, artist matching activities on the shelves of the Art area, or some device for the children to listen to music. By making available many different styles and genres of art available to the children, they can further explore these offerings, developing their likes and dislikes for color combinations, forms, musical instruments, etc.
A final thought about Art and the young child
As I mentioned earlier, adults often praise children for the art they produce. I believe this comes from a genuine desire to show our children that we support them and our encouragement of them. However, there are some things to consider before you jump in there and start telling a child their artwork is beautiful and amazing.
We don’t know the child's feelings about their artwork. Maybe they are working on something and they don’t like it so much, and an adult comes along and praises it. While we may think this is encouraging and showing our unconditional love for them, it undermines the child’s thoughts. It’s best to approach a child's work with open-ended questions and general statements.
What do you want to tell me about your artwork?
What can you tell me about the colors you chose?
I noticed you have been concentrating on your artwork.
Allow your child to lead the emotional communication.
If they are happy, celebrate with them “Wow, you are really excited about your artwork! What do you want to tell me about it?”
If they are indifferent about it, ask them “what would like to do with your artwork?” get to the root of why: were they just passing time, were they doodling while thinking of other things?
If they are disappointed or frustrated, find out why so you know how to best support them.
If your child needs guidance in self-correction, you can give them some options
Did they use the wrong colors, encourage them to do the same drawing, and change up the colors! “I often see you drawing. Maybe you could draw it again and use other colors this time.
Does it look different from what they want it to look like? Encourage them to try again! If you have a chalkboard, show them how they can try many times, erase what they don’t like, until they get it looking the way they want!
Having these basic tools for discussing your child’s artwork will aid your child in the development of their internal guide for their own artwork and other’s. Not only will using this approach help them internalize the navigation of the feelings of their creative output, but it can also create an internalization of how to engage with others. How we interact with our children is mirrored by them in their friendships and relationships out in the world. Not only are we supporting our children, but we are also supporting them to support their social circle! Many times while working with young children, I have overheard one giving another emotional support using the exact phrases I have used with them at one time!
And that is one of the many reasons I Montessori: to see all the effort of guiding one child, exponentially grow by having children guide one another!
Supporting your child’s development through art is something that can be easily done using the Montessori approach at home! All you need is paper, crayons, and the readiness to discuss your child’s explorations! How do you create an environment open to exploration with art materials at home? What kinds of conversations around art have you had with your child? Do you want to know more about Montessori and Art? Share your experiences and questions in the comments!