Process Over Product

An Instagram or Pinterest-worthy craft project is less likely to be a great accomplishment for your child than a page of seemingly meaningless scribbles or dabs of paint.   Why?  Because it takes little creativity to fill in the blanks, color in squares or model your art after what someone else has done (a prescribed process).  But, to create your own involves a process of using your imagination, creativity and, often, resourcefulness

Advocates of “process art” emphasize that it should involve a lack of instruction, no specific time limit or pressure for a finished product.  The experience of working with interacting with materials, experimenting, using different senses, and even failure is all more valuable than a finished “product”.  It is the process of learning, not performing.

child creating process art at preschool

In the Montessori early childhood program, art is integrated into the environment rather than being a group activity or scheduled into the day.  There are a variety of mediums available to the child during the morning work cycle—modeling mediums, clay, watercolors, crayons, colored pencils, gluing and collage materials, chalk, acrylic paints, basic sewing, and more—which the child has the freedom choose to work with whenever they like, for as long as they like.  The process of getting out the materials, working with the materials, and then cleaning up the materials is what makes the “work” valuable, as the child develops important skills through this process.  Another important goal in the process is the child’s internal satisfaction with their work. 

preschool teacher and process art

In the early childhood Children’s House classrooms, art is not the only activity which values process over product.  Flower arranging, for example, allows the child to experience the joy of not just expressing their creativity through their arrangement of the flowers, but also develops their concentration, fine motor skills and sense of order.  This is also true of the math, language and sensorial areas of the classroom. 

Often, Montessori parents express concern that their child is “not learning anything” in the preschool Montessori classroom because they don’t come home with worksheets, or the child might say they “did nothing” during their school day.  It’s important to know that the classroom is filled with hands-on materials so there is often no “product” for them to take home!  For example, instead of holding a pencil in a still-developing hand and attempting to form letters on a worksheet, the children trace sandpaper letters and practice writing them in sand.  While the materials in the classroom are purposeful they are also multi-faceted, developing the child’s concentration, fine or gross motor skills and sense of order. 

The materials in the Montessori classroom often do have a “correct” way of being used, but there is an important characteristic of the materials which help guide their usage: they are self-correcting (i.e. if you put four spindles in the section of the spindle box labeled “3”, you will run out of spindles when you get to the “10” slot!).  Additionally, the Montessori teacher does not interrupt the child to “correct” them or teach them to do it the “right” way.  The teacher values that the child is learning from the process of interacting with the materials and from making errors.  The teacher also doesn’t detract from the process by interjecting comments, praise or instructions.  Instead, when a child is finished with a work, a teacher might observe, “I noticed how long you worked at that.”  “I noticed how carefully you cleaned up your work.”  “What do you think about your work?”  They avoid commenting on a product and giving their opinion, such as, “Good job!”  “That’s so beautiful!”  “You’re so good at math!”   Teachers understand that process is critical for learning to happen.

At home, parents can support the learning process much as our classroom teachers do.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Change your expectations from “What will my child make?” to “What did my child do?”
  • If your child is working with art mediums at home, encourage them to use the mediums creatively by asking, “What would you like to do with these?” instead of having them copy an example or model.
  • Provide sketchpads and blank paper rather than coloring books, color by numbers, etc.
  • Avoid interrupting your child when they are concentrating on an activity.
  • Avoid praise or criticism and instead, offer neutral observations.
    DO SAY: “You used many different colors!” “I noticed how long you worked at that.” 
    DON’T SAY: “Good job!” “Wow, I love it!”
  • If you’re not sure what their picture is of, instead of asking, “What is that?” say, “Can you tell me about your picture?”
  • If they ask you if you like something they’ve made/accomplished, instead of saying, “Yes,” say, “What do you think of what you did?”
  • Don’t hijack a child’s learning process by making them learn something else. For example, if they are concentrating on cutting pieces of paper, they may need all their concentration on manipulating the scissors- rather than answering your questions about “What shape is that? What color is that”?
  • Avoid correcting your child’s errors, if possible. Instead, give them the opportunity to observe the errors for themselves.  (For example, noticing spilled flour on the floor while making cookies.)    If they don’t observe the error, there may be times where it’s appropriate for you to make an observation without criticism. (For example, “It looks like there is some flour on the floor!”)  There are also times it’s appropriate to encourage self-reflection.  (For example, “I wonder why the flour spilled on the floor?”)
  • When talking about your child, don’t emphasize performance, which pressures a child to further perform (“You’re so good at math”), but emphasize the intangible qualities (such as empathy and resilience) which will carry them through future challenges (“You work hard at what you do” or “You notice when your friends are sad and help them.”)
young girl painting with a variety of colors


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