Where Dr. Montessori and I Disagree: Art




I love applying Montessori methods and theory to most aspects of our home life and our “preschool” life; I have found the curriculum to be so wonderful in how it addresses most aspects of a young child’s life, from meal preparation to math work. However, I strongly disagree with Dr. Montessori’s viewpoints on children’s art and using art as a freedom of expression. I read her writings on art with a grain of salt (I try to read everything critically, even if it is from someone like Dr. Montessori for whom I have great respect… I don’t always succeed).

Dr. Montessori was writing at a place in time when art was looked at very rigidly and art materials were scarce and expensive. Artists’ implements were the providence of artists and homes lacked the Crayola abundance that they currently possess. The world had not yet experienced the art movements that now inform our artistic appreciation, nor was there awareness of the therapeutic and psychological benefits of allowing children to express themselves through art.

Dr. Montessori looked at the rigid control of movement through implements such as the Metal Inserts as a means of imparting technique and precision to children, but ignored the joy and absorption that play a large role in artistic development. She was likely also reacting to the development of (perhaps less disciplined) movements such as Loris Malaguzzi’s Reggio Emilia schools, which were occurring in Italy at the same time that she was developing the Montessori Method.

What’s interesting is that Montessori did contemplate encouraging artistic exploration and expression in her Method, before ultimately writing the following:

“[Primary children’s artistic self-expressions are] nothing but monstrous expressions of intellectual lawlessness [which] shows only that the eye of the child is uneducated, the hand inert, the mind insensible.”
“…the so-called free drawing has no place in my system.”

Frankly, such statements would be considered ignorant and uneducated today. Before anyone writes me off as a sentimentalist, imbuing greater meaning into children’s art than the art merits, I invite you to interact with a child during their creative process:

Which materials are they drawn to? The materials often suggests a need, even on a sensory level, that the child desires to fulfill. Markers are easy to handle and provide universal results, while crayons provide better sensory feedback but are more difficult to handle and can be frustrating in their resulting work. Is the child selecting paint due to its silky experience, and the ability to easily fill up a canvas?

What is the motivation? Is it just to explore the materials? Is there a representation occurring? Is there a physical action that the child is satisfying in the act of creation? To elaborate, sometimes representation is not of a physical object, but of motion, impressions, feelings, etc.  Sometimes the child will feel a deep-seated (subconscious) urge to practice circular movements, or work on their grip, etc.

What is the end result? In this, I don’t mean the physical product — let’s be honest, its often just a bunch of squiggles or globs. But let’s observe the child, is s/he satisfied, proud, curious? Even if their product is unattractive to the critical eye, is their confidence something worthy of nourishing?

Of course, I love that Montessori encourages art appreciation at a young age, engaging children in art studies even in the Primary (preschool) age. But why would we encourage children to be little scientists — developing hypothesis, experimenting, exploring — but not encourage them to be little artists? While I do want to bring the art appreciation more into our art curriculum (I was pretty good about it during our Colourful Summer but have slacked off since then), I will continue to look to Reggio for ideas about how to provoke and nourish my daughter’s artistic side.

What are your opinions on children’s self-expression in art? I’ll leave you with the two instances in which I do not approve of artistic self-expression: vandalism (framing her Nana actually) and painting the dog:

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