Montessori Materials Snapshots: Insets, Part 2


It’s time to take a closer look at the classroom staple that is the Montessori Metal Insets. Earlier, I introduced the material, and I strongly encourage you to read that post before reading this one. My introductory post covers the basic rules we ask students to follow when doing insets and also discusses why we use them in the classroom.

A few notes before I begin:

Generally speaking, Montessori insets are metal. I prefer them this way, as the greater weight of the material allows for less movement while tracing. However, certain companies (Montessori n’ Such) do sell plastic versions, which can provide a greater challenge for older children. I used to have a set of each and I liked changing them out halfway through the year to give the concept of insets a fresh boost. Additionally, by the halfway point in the year, the students have become very comfortable with the insets and switching to the plastic insets requires some minor adjustments. Students always have a definite preference: metal v. plastic.

Just a side note: Montessori protegĂ©e Margaret Homfray preferred the plastic insets. She felt they were lighter and easier to use. Furthermore, if dropped, the edges of the plastic insets wouldn’t chip.

Inset trays come in sets of ten, but the shapes may vary. Most trays have the following shapes: circle, oval, ellipse, square, rectangle, equilateral triangle, curvilinear triangle, quatrefoil, pentagon and trapezoid. Occasionally you will see a parallelogram in place of the trapezoid (as in the case of our plastic insets). This may be because all the insets were originally meant to fit inside the circle. However, if you look at a modern-day set of insets (pictured below left), you’ll see that there’s no chance that the square would ever do so:

Vintage Montessori Insets

And you’ll also see that the square in the older set (pictured on the right) is considerably smaller. In the original set, the only shape that didn’t fit inside the circle was the parallelogram. Perhaps this naughty refusal to conform got it ejected from the modern inset tray? We’ll never know…

You can use white or colored paper for insets, but I always use white with my Upper Elementary class. Use the best quality colored pencil you can afford. We use Prismacolor Softcore Color Pencils (not the Verithin, which have harder lead and do not provide the same kind of coloring experience). Other options include Caran d’Ache, Derwent Colorsoft and Faber Castell. You’ll want a set of colored pencils that has at least 48 different colors so the students have plenty of chance to play around with combinations, for reasons that will become clear as I introduce the exercises.

Inset #1: One Shape, Two Colors

Inset #1: One Shape, Two Colors

Inset #1 is the introduction to the inset exercises and is thus the most simple. Students choose one shape to trace in any color. After removing the frame, they are invited to choose a second color and fill the inside of the shape with long, brush-like strokes. Done properly, it’s not as easy as it looks, but you do get into a kind of meditation with it. Each stroke of the pencil is meant to begin on the left. Once you reach the right side of the outline, lift your pencil and return to the beginning. Repeat until no white space shows. This is how the students should color each inset.

Inset #2: One Shape, Turned

Inset #2: One Shape, Turned

Inset #2 is known as “One Shape, Turned” because that is how it is achieved. Pictured above is the Curvilinear Triangle (one of my favorite inset shapes!). The first time I ask my students to do Inset #2, I tell them they cannot use the Circle, Square, or Quatrefoil. This is because they are still practicing lining the frame up with the paper–and if they turn the Circle or the Square while still lining up the frame and the paper, they will end up tracing the same outline twice. A fellow teacher suggested specifying the turn for this inset 180 degrees. An eight-pointed star can be created by turning the Square 90 degrees, but then the students aren’t lining up the frame with the paper (or following the 180 degree direction, if you’ve given it). If they do happen to notice this is possible, I ask them to try it with a shape they can line up this time; next time they’ll be able to experiment a little more. They use 3-4 colors for Inset #2.

Inset #3: Two Shapes

Inset #3: Two Shapes

Inset #3 is the first time the students work with more than one shape at a time. It’s interesting to see which shapes they’re drawn to pairing together. The quatrefoil and the circle is always a popular pairing. I personally like to combine curved shapes (oval, ellipse, circle, quatrefoil and curvilinear triangle) with straight-edged ones (square, rectangle, trapezoid, pentagon, rhombus or parallelogram) and sometimes I recommend that my students try this, especially if they are having difficulty choosing shapes for themselves.

Inset #4: Shades of One Color

Inset #4: Shades of One Color

An excellent inset to do when you only have brown Prismacolors left in your inset color basket! Shades of One Color is a practice in color sensitivity. If a student is unsure whether the colors they’ve chosen are shades of one color, I have them check with me or my assistant. To be safe, have them stick with blue, purple, green and, of course, brown. Any shape (or shapes or combination thereof) is acceptable, and I encourage experimentation. Usually by this point in the introduction of the insets, the students are eager to use as many shapes as possible. I’ve also shown them a number of samples, so they want to try their hand at reproducing ones they’ve seen.

Inset #5: Fill the Page

Inset #5: Fill the Page

The first thing to know about this inset is that some students will try to trace one shape, color the inside one color, color the outside another, and call it good. That’s why it’s good to give precise instructions. Inset #5 isn’t “Fill the Page (with Color)” but “Fill the Page (with Designs and Color).” When students ask why, one of the reasons I give is that it’s easier to color small spaces, which is helpful for those students who are feeling overwhelmed by filling the whole page. I do not limit the number of colors they can use with this inset, but I do tell them not to have blue areas touching blue.

Inset #6: Border Inset

Inset #6: The Border Inset

In some ways the pinnacle of all the insets that come before, the border inset is certainly the most challenging. It takes patience, precision, and time. Instead of a square paper sized to perfectly match the inset frame, the border inset only lines up on three sides. The fourth side is longer, sometimes 8.5 inches, but more often 11. The chosen shape is used to create a repeating pattern as you move it along, lining it up each time with the same point on the previously drawn outline. In order to make sure that pattern doesn’t slide off the page, the frame must continue to be lined up along the edges at the top and the bottom.

It can be difficult to get the pattern to repeat identically. Looking at my example even now, I can see some differences that will drive me nuts if I look at it too long. However, just like you resist the urge to adjust the smallest cube at the top of the Pink Tower when presenting a lesson, resist the urge to “fix” your inset when doing a lesson. Your students will make mistakes when they do theirs and it will be an important part of their experience that they learn how to work with their mistakes, to shrug them off, or to otherwise deal with imperfections as they come.

Two additional, commonly taught inset designs that we do not include in our introduction to insets are as follows:

Frame and Inset, Two ColorsSymmetry Inset

The first, left-hand inset is achieved by tracing the inset using the frame (the pink part) first, and the inset (the blue part) second. Contrary to popular belief–especially among students–the two will create the same line. The inset is slightly smaller. It has to be in order to fit inside the frame. This is a fun lesson to show the students, but generally has a short shelf life with students my age. This is a lesson more appropriate to the younger 3-6 classrooms.

The second inset is a lesson in symmetry. Using the inset shapes, students create a pattern that repeats across at least one line of symmetry. In the case of the inset shown above, there are two lines of symmetry. Though the insets naturally lend themselves to these patterns, symmetry can be a challenging concept to implement intentionally.

Once the students have been introduced to our basic six insets (I run through them twice) they’re free to experiment. In my next post in the inset series I’ll be showing a number of ways in which you can expand on the use of insets in the classrooms, and school-wide. I think you’ll agree that they add richness and color to already vibrant Montessori curriculum.


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