Lessons Learned: Montessori Art Closet

Monday April 11, 2016

A few months ago, with a new Billy bookcase fitting perfectly between Bean’s bunk bed and closet, I realized I finally had the space and resources to set up an art closet.

(Look, when you live in a small space, realizing you have FREE SPACE to fill up or not fill up is downright thrilling.)

One afternoon, with dreams of an art studio circling my head, I took all the markers out of their containers and plonked them into silver tins. Same with colored pencils and crayons. I put paints and paintbrushes on one tray, glue and a glue spreader on another. I stacked tracing shapes on the top shelf. I had a tray with paper punchers. I (so clever!) built a very shallow shelf that just held paper. She would finally have access to all her art supplies.

I present, the before:





So much artistic potential here. So many tools and brushes and colors. The child would never be bored! Look how wonderful this closet is with all its things! I envisioned her choosing some paper and her medium of choice, walking them over to her table, grabbing her smock, and then getting to work.

This is how it actually worked. Bean would take her tray of paint and paint brushes out to her table. Wander back for paper. Wander back for her smock. Wander back for her table top crafting tray. Try to figure out how to set this all up on her table like a tetris board game. Finally get the smock on. Sit down. Paint a few brushstrokes, one masterpiece complete. Then she’d realize she needed another piece of paper. Hands covered in paint, she’d make her way back to the art closet, dripping paint on the rug, paint fingerprints on everything she touched. Get the new paper and repeat until she was finished painting.

Then, she had to put all her paints back in the closet (dripping paint as she goes), strip off her smock at some point and put it back where it goes, give me the large craft tray to put it back where it goes. Voila, simple painting activity.

It was a mess. Not only did I look at this and think, “this is somehow very complicated and a total mess.” She also got frustrated with all the steps she had to do and stopped bothering with the art closet.

Well, that is, until she realized what wonderful confetti it all made. Between the reams of paper; boxes of crayons, pencils, and markers; assorted tools and paper punches, I had given her access to literally hundreds of things that were fantastic fun to throw up in the air and watch flutter down. New use for the art closet: found.

After she spent one naptime just trashing her room with art closet paraphernalia, I realized the art closet as-is needed some adjustments.

As usual, I looked to her Montessori classroom for ideas. While I think I set up a nice art closet for maybe an elementary school kid, this art closet had too much going on, making it complicated and actually overwhelming to a preschooler. In the face of so many THINGS, her choice was to just chuck it.

New art closet:



That looks comically better, no? In Bean’s Montessori class, the art tray is set up to be completely self-contained. A painting art tray has everything on it that a child would need to paint a picture: paint, paintbrush, paper, and smock. A coloring tray will have paper and a few crayons. The kid doesn’t need to grab one thing from here, and another thing from there.Furthermore, the child doesn’t get ALL the crayons. The child gets three crayons. Here, keeping the tools limited actually helps kids focus. Also, with a limited number of tools, it’s easier for them to clean up after themselves.

Let’s take a look:



(These trays also get cycled in/out. I’ll switch out the scissor tray for a shape punch tray. I switch in watercolor paints, playdough with cookie cutters, anything that you think of as “art” can go in this closet.)

Since setting up the Montessori-style art closet, Bean has been picking up the trays and actually using them much more than when she had all those buckets, bins, and paper at her disposal. Sure, she now has to ask me for more paper, but I just keep a stack of pre-cut paper in the closet and it’s easy to accommodate her for now. Maybe when she’s older, I’ll be able to keep the paper out in the open again?

The self-contained trays also gives her more flexibility as to where she works. If I’m in the kitchen, it’s easy for her to carry them from her room over to the kitchen table to work next to me. When she’s finished, it’s just as easy for her to put that one back and retrieve another one. She doesn’t have to ask me for help, and the whole process is so simple, that I don’t have to step in to help/nag.

Following Montessori principles at home always seems like an involved process at first, but it always results in a more simplified home that is actually easier to maintain and more likely to spark creativity.




Where to find this stuff:

“After” trays and ramekins purchased at Daiso, Japantown.

Shape tracer from Amazon.

Paint cups and glue spreader from Montessori Services.



Comments are closed.