One of the activities I felt was lacking in my child’s previous Montessori experience was the use of extensions. No, I’m not talking about artificial hair pieces! Extensions are activities that are introduced after the initial presentation with a material, in order to encourage the child to re-visit the material and solidify the skills and/or concepts it’s designed to provide.
Yesterday, my son came out of his new school with a huge smile, holding this painting:
This is a perfect example of an extension. In his classroom, there’s a tree puzzle (aff link), used to give three-year olds the names of the parts of a tree. Once the child has mastered the puzzle (which Zach probably did at his old school), there’s not much he’ll spontaneously do with it. And most children won’t voluntarily re-visit a material once they’ve figured it out.
Zachary’s new teacher invited Zachary to build the puzzle on top of a white sheet of paper, and trace the outline. Then, she showed him how to use finger paints to create all the different parts of the tree. This forced Zachary to slow down and really analyze the shapes of the tree parts and the relationship between them.
When I asked him to tell me about his painting, he pointed out the roots, trunk, branches and leaves. Through this enjoyable activity (which probably kept him focused for a while), he learned new words and became aware of the relationship between the parts, while enjoying some fun finger painting!
A common misconception among Montessori skeptics is that there isn’t enough emphasis on teaching art in the Montessori classroom. If their definition of teaching art includes 25 children sitting together, making paintings that look almost exactly the same, based on the teacher’s original idea, then they are absolutely right: you will NEVER find this type of art instruction in a genuine Montessori environment.
(As one friend says: “In conventional school art classes, the teacher has to write down each child’s name on the paper because nobody has a clue which painting belongs to whom – they’re identical.”)
Art activities in the Montessori classroom are not meant to impress parents. Montessori artwork might never be featured on the wall of your local supermarket. Montessori art has a higher purpose: to support the child’s creative development. He can take as much time as he needs, incorporate skills from previous lessons, collaborate with others, and take risks. He’ll develop concentration through repetition, and will refine his motor skills. His artwork will never be graded, compared, or critiqued by the adults in the classroom.
As with all Montessori materials, Montessori art activities are introduced as individual presentations in Primary and in small group lessons in Elementary. Emphasis is made on learning new techniques and working with care and precision; a specific end product is almost never highlighted (especially not in Primary). After the lesson is over, if the child doesn’t want to work with the material immediately, he’ll return it to the shelf, where it can be accessed at any time by any child who has had the presentation.
You can bring the Montessori approach to artwork into your home by following some simple tenets:
Set up all the necessary tools and materials on a tray, including containers and clean-up items.
Choose a place where the tray will be stored, which is accessible to your child.
When you present the activity to your child, set out two pieces of paper: one for you (set up between you and the child) and another for the child, placed off to one corner of the work area to inspire him to begin working once the lesson is over. Point out that you’re going to have a turn first and when you’re finished, it’s his turn.
Limit how much you talk and keep your movements slow and deliberate. Don’t talk as you are manipulating the materials, because the child might turn to look at you instead of your hands. If you need to explain something, do it before or after each step of the process.
Keep techniques open-ended and don’t feel you need to show EVERY variation available. For example, if using clay, you can say: “This is one way of rolling a ball”. Let your child discover other ways when it’s his turn.
Focus on introducing skills and techniques (“This is one way of gluing cotton onto paper.”) instead of trying to make something your child can identify (“I’m making a snowman.”), because his potential desire to copy your snowman will limit his creative experience.
When you finish the lesson, decide if you’ll invite your child to work with it right away (best for young children) or whether you’ll show him how to clean up (suggested for some older children). Always remember to come back to show your child how to clean up!
When you’re done with your artwork, take it with you. Leaving your version in front of your child limits his creativity and can make him feel discouraged if he decides his version is not as “good” as yours.
Let your child work by himself, but keep an eye on him to make sure he’s not misusing the materials. Gentle reminders with positive phrasing are usually all that’s needed to get a child back on track: “Glitter goes on the paper, not on the dog.”
When he finishes, if he seems interested in discussing his work, use descriptive language (“You really enjoyed making circles with the red crayon!”) instead of offering generic praise (“Good job!” or “That’s beautiful!”). For older children, you can also ask questions about their creative process (“What did you learn when you started mixing colors?”).
Respect what the child wishes to do with his artwork once he’s done. He might want to give it away, feature it on the fridge, or even throw it away. There are no bad choices here (other than feeding it to the dog…).
Don’t feel bad if your child doesn’t want to work with the material again. If you want to encourage further use of the activity, you can provide variations (different colors or types of paper/paints/objects for gluing, etc.)