By Yelena Ostrovsky

Metal insets serve a real and concrete purpose in the Children’s House. The metal inset work has 11 different stages, ranging from basic tracing to the more challenging design and embellishment work. Each stage provides the child with all the practice that is necessary to eventually writing on paper with a pencil. In the first stage, the adult shows the child how to first trace the inside of the frame and then superimpose the blue inset piece over the penciled tracing. A second penciled tracing is made, this time around the outside of the blue inset. Once this is removed, the outside of the blue inset. Once this is removed, the child can see the double outline. Finally, a wavy line is drawn from the lower left corner, up and down, to the lower right corner – touching the upper and lower borders of the traced figure. Eventually, the wavy lines are almost overlapping and fill up the entire paper within the traced figure. As the child moves on to the more challenging stages, he can use three different insets and various colors to create a design uniquely his own. We have seen some really spectacular work over the years.

By now, you are wondering, “Okay, that’s great, but what does it have to do with writing?’’ Many things. First the child’s pencil grip is exercised and perfected by practicing holding the pencil in his dominant hand. Grasping the knob of the inset gives the child good practice with the pencil grip, too – when the adults demonstrate how to pick up the inset by the knob, we use the thumb and the first two fingers. Enough control of these muscles is necessary, both to manipulate the pencil around the inset, and to simultaneously hold the inset with the
non-dominant hand. In the early stages, just the tracing itself is challenging to the child-the muscles are still developing.

Second, the left to right movement of writing is demonstrated to the child when we show how to make the wavy line within the traced drawing. We begin in the lower left corner and move from left to right until the line terminates in the lower right-hand corner. This provides practice for the time when child moves on to writing words, and eventually, sentences on lined paper. We also show the child how to keep within a space with this wavy line. It always stays within the borders of the traced figure. When the child is writing, he will have to control his movement and keep his letters on the lines.

The metal insets also exercise the child’s ability to use lightness of touch. In one of the later stages of work, the child is shown how to trace a figure and how to fill in the figure using only one colored pencil. Simply by varying the pressure put onto the pencil, the child can make very light or very dark marks.

One of the most obvious benefits of the metal inset work is the development of the child’s creativity and sense of design. We never dictate to children exactly what they are supposed to create; the idea must come from their experience and imagination. They are free to choose from 10 different plane figures, 11 colored pencils, several different colored papers, and countless combinations of shapes. The children really love this work. And as a grand finale, once the children create at least six metal inset drawings, they can assemble a booklet with construction paper and ribbon, and they are free to embellish their booklet any way they wish.

As with all of the Montessori materials, the metal insets serve a very real purpose in the child’s development. Much more than just tracing work, they provide practice in all the skills necessary for writing with a pencil. In the Children’s House, we “never give more to the mind than we can give to the hand.” It would be unrealistic to “teach” writing; there must be physical and intellectual preparation before writing can happen. The metal insets provide such preparation and delight the children as well.