Developing a Montessori Art Program

Pablo Picasso's Child with a Dove, 1901

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain one after he grows up.”

-Pablo Picasso

This year I’ve been working with Rebecca Tobin, one of the teachers at Evergreen Montessori School, to develop an art curriculum for their primary and elementary classes. (My kids are currently finishing the primary class there.) Admittedly, developing a program for this age group has pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I’ve relied heavily on Rebecca’s extensive experience teaching in a Montessori classroom to determine the appropriateness of particular concepts and activities.

Art has a natural place in childhood education. Aside from just being fun, art helps develop students’ problem solving and fine motor skills. Looking at and talking about art further builds language skills, advances critical thinking, and can improve visualization processes that are fundamental to reading comprehension. In contrast to art’s once marginal status, more educators now posit the study of art to be important in teaching 21st century skills.

Why? We live in a culture dominated by visual modes of communication. These require us to analyze images and be critical about the graphic presentation of complex data. More and more, we are also asked to create visual and other media-based interfaces to distribute information in clear and efficient ways. Anyone who’s ever designed, or even tried to navigate, a blog or company website will recognize the role of color, font size, imagery, and visual layout to direct viewers to what they need to know. These elements, however, are just as essential to producing a report, developing a presentation, or organizing photographs of your summer vacation in a way that is both engaging and effective.

In the past, art education has focused variously on teaching students technical skills to produce “good” art, relying on art as an expressive outlet where students might convey psychological and emotional experience, and as an integrated approach to enhance student learning in other academic disciplines. Current practice, reflected in the National Core Arts Standards, places greater emphasis on the creative process and critical thinking necessary to making art, and not on production of finished works of art.

This approach appeals to the natural tendency of children to create and problem solve through self-directed experiential learning, a cornerstone of Montessori education. Moreover, it builds on children’s relentless curiosity, sense of wonder, and play that is often squashed as we grow up and learn social codes of behavior. Think back to sculpting mashed potato mountains on your dinner plate, or constructing an indoor tent of sheets, chairs, and pillows big enough to hide in. Now flash forward to telling your kids to stop playing with their food, or to clean up that mess in the living room.

Exploring the processes and materials involved in art making can easily be integrated with learning in other disciplines. This connection is particularly relevant to study in science and math. Whether looking at the optical properties of color and light, the relationship of proportion and scale in rendering spatial perspective, or the physics involved in building a three-dimensional structure, art and science build on similar needs for observation and experimental methods, and both demand creativity in finding solutions to a given problem.

The program we’re developing at Evergreen introduces fundamental concepts of art history (cultural context), art criticism (basic looking skills that involve description, analysis, and interpretation), and creative production (experiential investigation and problem solving with different materials). Units are organized around themes such as Color and Light, 3-d Structures, and Storytelling.

Introduced to works by artists such as Claude Monet, Joseph Albers, and Louise Nevelson, students experiment and make discoveries by looking at light through a prism, mixing colors and learning about tonal gradation, constructing found object assemblages, and building bird houses for the school’s rain garden. Typical of a Montessori approach, Rebecca sets up the art classroom to include a variety of materials and resources, including posters of artworks and relevant books about art and artists so students might explore a topic on their own.

In the spring, we plan to integrate more discussion about specific objects, relying on a Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) educational approach. Although I have reservations about VTS when used in a museum or upper level academic context, I find it useful for classroom teachers who lack training in art history, or who don’t feel confident in their ability to lead discussions about art. For students at the primary level, VTS is effective because it cultivates both analytical and communication skills without imposing a lot of additional information. The goal is simply to have students look closely, find language to describe their observations, and support their reasoning through further description and explanation.