Art in the Montessori Classroom
An Essential Part of the Child’s Work
Written by Michelle Dickson-Feeney, Art Enrichment Guide
rt is an essential component of learning in Montessori classrooms. In each classroom there are dedicated art shelves ensuring students always have access to art materials for creative expression. We are focused on providing our students with the skills, materials, and exposure to art that they need in order to express their creativity at their own pace and level. From Toddlers to Adolescents, you will see students naturally turning to art in response to what they are learning and studying in other lessons. For example, a student in Children’s House learning about the parts of a plant may want to make a painting about it, while a Lower Elementary student studying France may spend weeks in Open Studio building an intricate model of the Palace of Versailles.
In the Toddler and Children’s House classrooms, art plays an important role in developing fine motor skills, hand strength, and coordination. Cutting, gluing, modeling, crayoning, and painting are five foundational skills that prepare students for the next phase in their creative journeys. Once students master basic lessons in these areas they move on to activities which involve more steps, colors, and materials.
Supporting your child’s creative process
In these lessons, the process is about the focus, not the product. Toddlers and younger Children’s House students often won’t even want to keep their artwork. For them it is entirely about the process—the act of cutting, gluing, or painting. It’s our job as guides and parents to respect this and not force our feelings onto the child. Of course we’re proud of their accomplishments and want to say, “Good job!” but this creates a cycle where the child begins to make art to elicit that “approval” reaction from us, instead of satisfying herself.
A more appropriate guideline to go by is to match the child’s response to her work. If a toddler has made a painting and abandoned it on the table, resist the urge to bring it to her and praise it. That doesn’t mean you have to throw it away—you can keep it for yourself! Remember, we are working towards reflecting children’s feelings about their art, not our own.
If a child is excited about what she has made and brings it to you with the question ”Do you like it?” now is the perfect time to celebrate her accomplishment and engage in a discussion about the work. Match her excitement, but try to direct the conversation back to the art itself. Ask her to tell you about it, or ask what she likes about it, or make an observation about something you see. Be genuine and encouraging—never judgmental. Just telling a child that you like it is certainly easier, but it often ends the conversation and again, it makes it about us and our approval—not the child. Responding instead with real questions and observations shows the child that you see what they’ve made and you are interested.
Responding to a child’s disappointment
In the situation where a child comes to you with art she is not happy with, accept this as a valid emotion. Tell her that artists don’t like everything they make (as a working artist I can definitely vouch for that!) and maybe share an experience you have had. Resist the urge to reassure her that her artwork is good and that you like it. This often will frustrate the child further. Instead, ask them what they don’t like about it and brainstorm how to make it better if they’re interested. It’s also fine for them to throw it away. Is there a part they do like? Maybe they can cut it out and use it to start a new piece.
When I began teaching at Greenspring Montessori School I was unfamiliar with this approach to art education. At first I was worried that my students wouldn’t develop art skills if I didn’t teach a project based lesson where everyone made different versions of the same thing. It was really hard (and still is at times!) for me to stop saying “Good job!” and “I like it!” But the more I read about it and observed in the classrooms, the more I came to believe that this is the best way to teach art. I see my students taking real ownership over their art, because it is truly theirs.
Students retain skills better because it’s something they care deeply about, rather than something they were told to do. At Greenspring Montessori, students become creative problem-solvers as they figure out what materials they need and how to use them to bring their ideas to life.