Language: Cardboard Cutout Metal Insets

Metal inset tracing is one of the most popular activities in the classroom, and many families have certainly marveled at books filled with artfully traced and colored geometric shapes. What might surprise some is that this activity is actually part of the Montessori language area, because it prepares children for writing. The limited area of each shape teaches the child to control the action of the pencil while encouraging the use of the same up and down movements needed for writing. Additionally, the child practices lightness of touch and keeping within the lines/ limits of each shape. Hence, this exercise allows the child to fine-tune his motor skills while using a writing instrument. Additionally, it teaches the child about geometric shapes in a creative, artful way. With just a few materials you can make cardboard versions of the metal insets we use in the classroom.


  • Piece of cardboard (the thicker the better)

  • Scissors (or a box cutter/exacto knife if you have one)

  • A ruler and/or objects shaped like the insets you can find around the house (e.g. a bowl to make the circle inset)

  • Paint (or any other way to decorate the metal insets)---this is optional

  • Flat-head screw and nut (optional, you can make the inset knob out of something else, or leave it out all together)

  • Colored pencils for the child to use to trace the shapes

  • Paper cut to fit the metal inset (e.g.: if you use the 5 ½ inch measurement for the inset, the paper should be cut to the same size)

How to make the cardboard metal insets:

1. Traditional metal insets measure 5 ½ inches (14cm) square. Cut a square of that size out of the cardboard.

2. Trace and cut the first inset shape out of the middle of the square frame. Be careful not to damage the inset shape while cutting, since you will need it (alternatively you can retrace and cut [or repair with tape] the inset once you are finished cutting). The ten inset shapes used in the Montessori classroom are: square, triangle, circle, ellipse, rectangle, oval, pentagon, curved triangle, quatrefoil, trapezoid.

3. Paint or decorate the frame and inset (optional). Traditionally the frame is red or pink and the inset is blue.

4. Insert a knob in the middle of the inset to make it easier to remove from the frame (optional). I used a flat-head screw with a nut at the end for the handle which I inserted through a hole I made at the center of the inset (tip: make sure that whatever you use for the knob isn’t sharp----for example tacks are probably not a good idea since they might prick the child using the inset!)

5. Repeat these steps to make other shapes (three shapes are ideal, since we usually encourage students to trace at least three shapes in one sitting).

How to use the metal insets:

(Important: always model the correct way of holding a pencil for your child and encourage them to hold the pencil correctly when tracing shapes)

1. Invite the child to choose one metal inset shape (frame and inset; make sure to identify the shape---e.g. this is a square), one piece of metal inset paper, and three colored pencils (the children know that they are limited to using three colored pencils at a time).

2. Place the frame on top of the piece of paper so the sides align perfectly with the paper.

3. Trace the outline of the shape inside the frame with one colored pencil.

4. Remove the frame.

5. Place the inset on top of the traced frame shape, and trace around the inset with a different colored pencil (this will ultimately create two lines for the shape).

6. Remove the inset and notice the two lines outlining the traced shape.

7. Fill-in the traced shape with the third colored pencil.

8. Encourage the child to trace and fill-in more shapes!

9. Once the child has traced at least three different shapes we usually put them together in a book. We use colored paper (usually red) for the cover and back page and place the white pieces of paper with the traced shapes in-between. We make sure to write the name of each shape under the traced shape on the white pieces of paper and entitle the book “My metal inset book, by___”

Fore more detailed instructions about how to use the metal insets: https://montessorium.com/encyclopedia/metal-insets

Note: Some children prefer to just to trace the frame (and not create a second line with the inset, which is more challenging). Some children also keep the frame on the paper while they fill-in the center of the frame. Let them experiment with how they prefer to use this material. You can suggest ways of working with the material, but allow your child room to explore!

Ways of filling-in the shapes:

1. Curved lines/ waves, starting in the bottom left corner, moving from left to right (to mimic the direction of writing):

2. Straight lines (starting from the top and moving down, again, left to right on the page):

3. Shading or using small lines close together to mimic shading (again left to right):

Other creative ways to use the metal insets:

1. Overlapping two shapes, either the same shape twice or two different shapes, and filling-in each created space using a different method (if desired):

2. Overlapping multiple shapes, either of the same shape or different shapes, and filling-in each created space using a different method (if desired) :

3. Shading each created area, some dark, some light:

4. Using a full sheet of paper to create a geometric masterpiece:

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