For Montessori’s art-filled classrooms, back-to-school means also going back to the studio. We view our materials and presentations less as a curriculum and more as a way to cultivate the most aesthetically pleasing space that will invite the child to tap into her innate curiosity and work with her hands. Doing so leads to discoveries that define us a civilization, as Dr. Montessori wrote in The Absorbent Mind: “If we try to think back to the dim and distant past…what is it that helps us reconstruct those times, and to picture the lives of those who lived in them? It is their art… it is thanks to the hand, the companion of the mind, that civilization has arisen.”
Much as an artist enters their studio, a child walks into the Montessori environment in the morning, the whole day a blank canvas. In the span of our three-hour work cycle in the morning, the children have an open-ended invitation to create, manipulate and explore the materials that have been presented to them. “Attention to beauty” is a foundational principle for all Wildflower schools. In the school I co-lead, Wildflower Montessori, watercolors, collage, sewing, clay are all on the shelves There’s artwork on the walls that we change out regularly. We also have art folders–collections of paintings, photographs or drawings. Some are sorted by artist—for example, Wildflower’s classroom has a folder full of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. Some art folders are sorted by theme, such as a folder full of paintings by different artists that all have children in them.
We connect the child to the art in ways that relate to their world. Imagine the delight of a 5-year-old, who had been following the life-cycle of an iris bulb, watching it root and grow in a clear vase in the classroom and then discovering O’Keeffe’s “Red Amaryllis.” “She painted an amaryllis! That’s the same as what’s in our class!” The wonder and fascination grow. She went on from that discovery to sketch her own still-life of a vase of flowers.
We were all born with the innate drive to use our hands, to create and to explore. Look within, and you will feel it yourself! The urge to create beauty in the world around you is there. It’s what you feel when you are working on something for hours at a time, but it feels like mere minutes.
A child inherently knows how precious and sacred concentration is. You can see this when you observe a child working, and then resting, instinctively taking time to synthesize information. We usually think of art as defined by a product–a painting, a photograph or a piece of music; however, the creation of the art is what makes it truly special.
Children also learn from observing. Oftentimes I play my violin at school. The children watch me concentrating on the physical techniques of playing an instrument, the concentration in my eyes and my movements. They watch as I repeat a musical phrase over and over. I play something slowly with a metronome and then gradually increase the tempo. I make mistakes and keep trying. Some children sit and observe very closely. Some do their own work and listen to me in the background. The children observe this process of creation, and it invites them to do the same. We are co-existing in our own little artist co-op!