Many Montessori teachers have a favorite classroom material. I have many, actually, but few items central to the Montessori curriculum have the kind of universal appeal as the Metal Insets. At the Montessori School of Ojai, where I work, students do insets from ages three through fourteen. At their earliest introduction, Metal Insets play a very important role in the child’s writing development. In later years, the insets fill a variety of important needs. Here’s a rundown of (some of) the many uses of the Metal Insets:
- They help develop the child’s fine motor skills, particularly those used in writing.
- Insets act as a centering activity. If a student is distracted and unable to focus on assigned tasks, or is unable to begin work when they enter the classroom, asking them to do an inset can be the switch that turns the day around for them. Some students need to start the day with an inset every morning. My theory is that insets are a calming work that require attention and concentration–without calling on the higher order thinking skills they can’t access at the moment anyway. It’s like a mini-meditation, rather in the vein of Zentangle. It’s Montessori’s version of “yoga for the brain.”
- Insets are practice in following instructions. I actually leave our inset “rules” on the white board throughout the whole school year after I’ve first introduced them. Because, let’s be honest, following instructions is a skill they need lots of practice with. I could–and probably should–write an entire post on the importance of following instructions, since the words have the potential to look rather negative when I put them down in black and white. Let me clarify. When I’m talking about following instructions, I’m not teaching my students to blindly obey and follow orders. What I am teaching is the ability to take in instruction and follow it accurately. (I tell my students they have to learn the rules before they can break them.)
Which brings me to the rules:
- Treat the materials gently. All teachers emphasize care and respect for the Montessori Materials, and the insets are no exception. The frames are metal, so they need to be set down gently lest they make a great deal of noise. The insets themselves also have sharp corners, so they need to be handled carefully by the children so as not to hurt themselves or others. We use Prismacolor pencils, whose soft lead makes for vibrant coloring. They also allow the students to see firsthand what happens when they treat the Prismacolors carelessly (if they drop them, the lead inside will break, making them difficult to sharpen).
- Set the inset frame on the paper so that no white is showing around the edges. The only exception to this rule is Inset #6, which I’ll explain in the next post. Inset paper is cut to
exactly fit the inset frame (5.5 inches square or 14 cm square).
- Trace your shape(s) and then remove the frame(s) before coloring. It’s always interesting to see which students leave the frame on and start coloring. I can promise–if you don’t mention this rule, one of your students will inevitably try it.
- Stay inside the lines. This rule is why they leave the frame on. It’s also why you don’t let them. You don’t want staying inside the lines to be completely effortless. Then the exercise would lose its value! On the other hand, a fellow teacher told me she doesn’t tell her students to stay inside the lines, rather not to worry about that. Instead, she carefully models staying inside the lines.
- Color lightly. This is often the most challenging task for students, especially if it involves retraining muscles. If they press hard when they write, they probably press hard when they color and their hand tires easily. If you can, demonstrate the way the colors look when you apply different pressures. Show
them which shade you’d like them to achieve. Remind the students their hands won’t tire as quickly if they don’t press so hard. They might believe you, but experience will probably be the best teacher for this particular lesson. Be upfront with the students. Explain that, if the children color in a dark way, the (costly) Prismacolor pencils get used up much more quickly. We want our pencils to last a long time because they are expensive, so if we color lightly, we all benefit by having them last. We want to help the children to realize that we invest in quality tools for important reasons. Coloring with Prismacolor pencils makes a satisfying and beautiful product.
- Leave no white spaces. Also a tricky one, especially for those who are used to applying serious pressure with the pencil. For them, “color lightly” and “leave no white spaces” can seem like contradictory rules. Explain that it doesn’t mean that the white of the paper isn’t allowed to show through the coloring, so much as making sure each area gets an even amount of pigment.
- Use long, brush-like strokes. Often, students color in choppy, uneven sections. This results in uneven shading because of different pencil pressures. It takes a lot of practice, so I repeat this rule as a soothing kind of mantra, over and over and again. Not to pressure them, but as a gentle reminder to relax the hand and make inset work more comfortable.
Other issues may come up as you set your students to work, but don’t worry too much. They’ll have plenty of opportunity to experiment with insets and to refine and hone their skills. My students keep an inset portfolio in their classroom throughout the year, which we add to continually.
Next I’ll be showing the inset exercises in the order we introduce them to our students, as well as some extensions some fellow teachers and I have created. I hope you’ll join me!