Do Outlines & Blackline Masters Stifle Creativity?

I recently read an interesting article by Julia Volkman in the Jola Montessori newsletter Public Montessorian. In it, she talks about the creative limitations of having kids color outlines like those found in coloring books or blackline masters.

In Montessori, blackline masters are black and white outlines of our nomenclature cards (see the Parts of the Reptile master, below right). Traditionally, kids color in the blackline masters after matching the nomenclature cards (pictures, names, and definitions) together. They color one picture for each “part” of the plant or animal, then staple the pictures into a booklet.

Many people feel that having children color in prescribed lines stifles creativity. I don’t think it’s that simple; not all outlines are created equal. There’s a difference between a child coloring in the lines of a picture of a house and tree (when they could easily draw their own version), and a child who carefully colors in a continent map or detailed drawing of an animal’s anatomy.

Parts of Reptile Master

Precision in Montessori

We’re not against staying within the lines when it comes to materials like the metal insets; on the contrary, we present them to the children with precision and expect them to stay “in the lines” when they use them. Many children have created stunning patterns and designs by manipulating the metal insets. Another longstanding Montessori tradition is having children copy famous works of art on their own papers.

When questioned, we offer explanations. In the case of the metal insets, the child is making the decision about how and when to draw a shape, which shape to draw, and how to fill it in. Copying famous paintings is a centuries-old practice that teaches techniques like shading, use of color, shadow, and perspective. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

I Don’t Actually Use Blackline Masters (shh!)

I offer blackline masters with most of my nomenclature cards, but I’ll confess it right now: I don’t use them. In my training, we were taught to have the child either trace the drawing themselves, right on their paper, and then color it in, or draw their own representation of it, using the pictures on the cards as a guide. They then might fill in only one part and label it. For example, they might draw their own picture of a bird, color in only the wing, and then write “wing” underneath the drawing.

I find blackline masters to be fiddly: there’s a lot of copying and a lot of paper usage involved. However, I have seen examples of carefully made “parts of” booklets using blackline masters, and the child put an enormous amount of hard work into it. I don’t believe their work is diminished because they used an outline rather than drawing the picture themselves.

Keeping a Broad Definition of “Art”

Let me offer this example: when I was a 3-6 assistant, one of the older boys in the classroom took it upon himself to make a map of the United States. What he did was this: he took construction paper, traced each state on it (from the wooden map), cut each state out, and glued it on a very large piece of paper. The effect was stunning and his effort was extremely apparent.

Then, another girl in class got excited by the United States map and decided to make her own version. She asked for an outline map of the United States, gathered various colored pencils, and began to carefully shade in the states. It took her a long time to finish it, and the end result was lovely.

How could I have the artistic hubris to say that one of their maps was “better” than the other? More “artistic” than the other? There is no way I would do that. Each was a work of art in its own way.

What Is the Goal?

Anytime children use anything as a guide – be it a metal inset, the movable alphabet, the small bead frame, or a blackline master, the intent is that the material becomes a springboard to abstract work. We do not think that a child who uses the small bead frame for multiplication will never be able to do multiplication abstractly; neither does that mean a child who colors blackline masters will never be able to draw or color on their own.

I won’t be the one to say that blackline masters are good or bad. The question is too complex and has too many variables; I can’t dictate to my customers how they use the materials, and enough of you have requested blackline masters for me to know that many of you use them.

I can say this: as with anything, moderation and balance is the key. If you use the blackline masters, do so with intent. Have a purpose behind it. Perhaps a child will use the blackline masters the first time they complete the work, to make their own booklet. Maybe the next time, they will draw their own plant or animal instead. In any case, the child should be given ample opportunity to draw and paint without guidelines. In this way, the best of each method can be utilized.

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12 Responses to “Do Outlines & Blackline Masters Stifle Creativity?”

  • Lori said at December 29th, 2008 at 3:49 pm :

    “There’s a difference between a child coloring in the lines of a picture of a house and tree (when they could easily draw their own version), and a child who carefully colors in a continent map or detailed drawing of an animal’s anatomy.”

    But a child could easily draw a detailed map or a drawing of an animal’s anatomy as well.

    I disagree that outlines and blackline masters are a “springboard to abstract work”. I have worked with children who are used to this type of work who crumpled in frustration when handed beautiful art supplies and blank sheets of paper.

  • Lori Bourne said at December 29th, 2008 at 4:29 pm :

    “But a child could easily draw a detailed map or a drawing of an animal’s anatomy as well.”

    This is not always true. Trace, perhaps, but not draw freehand. I have seen children get very frustrated trying to draw complicated pictures like maps, etc.

    I remember seeing a giant human anatomy coloring book in the Michael Olaf catalog. The caption mentioned that coloring in the pictures was a great way to learn the names of all the bones and organs.

    Again, what matters is the goal. If the goal is to become a better artist, then tracing and/or drawing freehand might be a better way. If the goal is learning or processing information, then sometimes coloring in prescribed lines might be the better way.

    Certainly every Montessori classroom or homeschool should have beautiful art supplies and blank pieces of paper – you can see my previous posts about preschool art and elementary art to learn more. I have never heard any Montessorian say otherwise.

    However, depending on the goal of the work, there may be a need for blackline masters or outlines. I like knowing that teachers and parents have the freedom to use both, rather than making a blanket condemnation of either.

  • Lori said at December 29th, 2008 at 4:50 pm :

    What matters *is* the goal — if a child gets frustrated drawing freehand, should they be given outlines to color in? Or should they be taught to draw from a young age? I never saw a child shy away from a challenging drawing assignment if they were exposed to drawing early.

    What is the goal?

    Can you learn the names of bones and organs with a coloring book? Sure. Is there a way to learn those same names without using a coloring book? Yes! And which method meets more learning goals?

    Absolutely, learning and processing information can be done — while accomplishing many, many other goals — while doing real drawing. I don’t see any learning goal whatsoever that can be met by outlines and blackline masters that couldn’t be better met with using a full spectrum of art techniques including drawing, painting, constructing, etc.

    There’s no reason to “use both” if one method far, far exceeds the learning opportunities of the other.

  • Lori Bourne said at December 29th, 2008 at 4:54 pm :

    While I’m not a huge fan of blackline masters or outlines, as I stated in my post, I have seen them used in Montessori classrooms in a way that complements the materials.

    I also think they should fit the ages in question – elementary age children should be able to draw their own pictures rather than coloring them in. If blackline masters are used, they should be used in 3-6.

  • Tracy said at December 29th, 2008 at 7:01 pm :

    Ok so I’ll set myself up to be flamed by “creativity purists” here but in my 3-6 classroom I not only use masters, I even sometimes put out seasonal “coloring sheets”. Yes I do. Not only that, but sometimes I put out “kit” projects with precut materials and step by step diagrams. Some children love doing this and if this is how they choose to spend time on “relaxing work” why not? How is a child using these types of materials being any less “creative” than the child who pastes cutting strip pieces on a paper as collage work everyday for months at a time? Both are adressing an individual need in a way that is pleasing and useful to them. Our children have a wide range of art supplies available and the choice to use what they want as they wish. As you say, some do beautiful work with insets (ok- just waiting for comments from those who want to tell me they are *not* for art work they are for handwriting practice.) Others do lovely drawings. Others love to paint or cut and paste. All of these address important fine motor skills, following patterns/directions, as well as individual creativity. After a recent “kit” project of a paper bag Rudolph (I know, I know…holidays in the classroom…make believe characters) one of my 5 year olds went on to make puppets of the whole Holy family -shepherd-angel -wise king- mean king -right out of his own imagination. How is that not creative? Not to mention how it helped him think about the Christmas story. To anyone who is against coloring (as opposed to drawing/sketching) pull out some crayolas and see how fun and relaxing it is. We always try to offer the children a mix of “challenging” and “relaxing” work. Frankly, I think it is kind and respectful as well as serving many useful purposes. If a child “crumples in frustration” when handed blank paper and art supplies how is that serving him or her? There are all types of learning styles. To try to force all children into one style because it is more pleasing to adults is not by any means following the child.

  • Lori Bourne said at December 29th, 2008 at 7:13 pm :

    No one will flame you here, Tracy!

    I have a very vivid memory of sitting in a 3-6 classroom while an extremely experienced directress showed the children how to make a lion with construction paper. She didn’t speak the entire time, just demonstrated how to wrap the strips of paper around a pencil to get them to curve into a “mane”. The kids were absolutely rapt – you could have heard a pin drop for about 20 minutes.

    After she was done, each child set about to make their lion. Each project was completely different, as they were just given plain pieces of construction paper and had to cut out the lion’s body, head, and mane themselves. The results were astounding.

    I think there’s a place for “crafts”. Often, when you endorse crafts, people assume you never give children a chance to freely do art on their own. Why is that? In every classroom I’ve ever had, as well as my own home, there are tables and shelves and trays filled with art supplies so that kids can make/create anything they want to at any time.

    But, we have done crafts too. Through a craft, you can teach a technique that ends up being used again and again in other projects.

    While the metal insets are primarily for handwriting, they most definitely end up being about artwork once a child learns how to manipulate them. I don’t think anyone could disagree with that…it’s right in my albums. And isn’t one of the nicest things about Montessori materials the fact that they often cross curriculum lines?

    There are some truly nifty things that can be done with printed outlines like coloring books. One of my favorites is to turn the picture upside down and color. This immediately engages the right side of the brain. It’s also fun to draw upside down, and lest someone say that only the latter should be done, I find value in (and a different experience from) each of those activities.

  • Lori said at December 31st, 2008 at 12:23 pm :

    the point i was trying to make, tracy, was that if you can provide two activities and one meets all the requirements of the first AND does much more, why would you ever choose the first? just because children enjoy fill-in-the-blanks crafts doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy — and get much more out of — more authentic art activities.

    re: challenging vs. relaxing — these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. and my comment about the child who crumpled in frustration was pointing out that he had become reliant on coloring sheets.

    lori, hey, i took your challenge and i was perfectly willing to be the one to say blackline masters are bad! ;^) interesting article and very thought-provoking!

  • Dee Kelln said at January 1st, 2009 at 7:54 pm :

    I definitely come down in the middle. I taught elementary for 7 years, both 6-9 and 9-12 at different times. Children working on “parts of” activites had several options . . . they might do a booklet, or a carefully colored and labeled outline, or they might trace a puzzle, or they might choose to draw their own illustration. The choice made was very dependent on the individual, their goal/inspiration, and the mood they were in that day. Occasionally a student would revisit the activity choosing different methods each time. Usually one child’s inspiration led to others.

    As a teacher, the blackline master insured that I had an activity that anyone could complete competently to show understanding about the topic. Not every science learning activity needed to also be an art activity.

  • Dora said at January 1st, 2009 at 10:09 pm :

    I teach in a public Montessori school. I have had many students with special needs that required breaking down work into even smaller steps than the ones provided by Montessori. Sometimes that means giving the student the work that will challenge but not overwhelm because of his or her “challenge”. I find that the booklets I provide can be used by most and I found that after using the booklet they seemed to be able to draw and label on their own. When I ask some of my students to draw on their own they seem frustrated when their drawing does not look like what they are attempting to record. I look at the booklets as a form of ditto metal inset. We would not expect the student to look at the inset and create the shape initially. They trace the shape and eventually their fine motor control becomes perfected. Most importantly I have learned that Montessori follows the child and that child’s needs. I would not restrict a child who has demonstrated the ability or desire to record their work without the use of outlines.

  • PSMontessori said at January 1st, 2009 at 11:11 pm :

    I’m glad you posted this. I have been questioning this lately. My training greatly emphasized NOT using blackline masters for all of the reasons mentioned above. I have followed this suggestion, but I have found many of my children flat out REFUSING to even attempt drawing “parts of” cards, even though they were very excited by the idea. Oddly enough, I found that if I drew (by hand, in front of them) just the outline of the object (pumpkin, apple, etc…), the same children who had refused, readily filled in the missing shapes on the inside, colored, and labeled the entire picture. I suppose what I’m saying is that I do not believe in blackline masters. I don’t offer any in my classroom. However, a little suggestion or a push in the right direction could give a child the confidence that he or she needs.

  • Lori Bourne said at January 2nd, 2009 at 2:28 pm :

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic, and I’m so glad to see more comments and additional points of view.

    Knowing the Montessori method as I do, there must be a “reason” behind the creation and use of blackline masters. Since that wasn’t emphasized in my training, I am hoping that someone comes by to share it.

    One of my thoughts on this topic is that Montessori materials are always about providing one salient point for each work, and by providing blackline masters, you allow the child to focus only on learning names for “parts of”, rather than having to focus on drawing and learning names.

  • Kim said at January 2nd, 2009 at 6:56 pm :

    I really liked using the blackline masters when I was a Montessori student many years ago. It was fun to have the lines already there because I found it frustrating because my drawing skills weren’t good enough to reproduce animal shapes and body parts exactly the way I wanted them to look in my mind’s eye. Decades later, it turns out my art skills are in the area of graphic design and animation, not technical drawing, which I still find impossible.

    Following the blackline masters is only one of many drawing opportunities in a classroom and children do not have to use them. I suggest providing an art shelf and art supplies and letting children choose what to use.

    Great article!