First Encounters with Clay
By Mary Munday, Teacher, and Nancy Howe, Head Teacher
During the winter quarter this year, the children in Tuesday/Thursday AM Twos explored clay. Most of the children were already quite familiar with the more malleable playdough, but clay’s resistive qualities presented new challenges.
Hand-sized balls of clay were set out at the art table for the children to explore each morning. The children began their investigation of clay by poking holes into the balls or pushing the clay with the palms of their hands to flatten it. Teachers recorded the children’s initial reactions to the open-ended question “How does it feel?”
Michael: It’s hard.
Anne: It’s cold.
As they became more comfortable working with clay, the children noticed other ways to manipulate it. They observed as teachers modeled techniques, such as rolling it out into long cylinders or into small balls. The children began to incorporate these techniques and to label their products:
Isaac: It’s getting long. It’s a snake!
Katherine: It’s a ball.
Dominick: It’s a rainbow!
Matthew K.: This is a boa constrictor because boa constrictors are usually big.
The clay experience was repeated over several weeks. The children’s competency with this new material expanded, and their ability to label and describe what they had made became more detailed and representational. The snakes became “boa constrictors” and the balls of clay became a “snowman.” Children who had been observers became participants.
Working with clay benefits young children in many ways—emotional, social, cognitive, and physical:
Manipulating clay into myriad forms promotes self-expression, creativity, and a sense of accomplishment. Like other basic materials—blocks, paint, sand, and water—clay provides a language in which children can give concrete representation to their real-life experiences, thoughts, interests, ideas, and feelings.
Poking, pounding, pinching, and squeezing the resistive but malleable substance give children a means to express their feelings of frustration, stress, or anger in a very physical but socially acceptable way.
Working with other children who are exploring the same material encourages the possibilities for collaboration. Children inspire each other with new ideas and techniques as they build their knowledge and expand their thinking.
Creating with clay encourages problem solving and develops an understanding of cause and effect. James placed balls on top of each other to make a snowman. As his snowman became taller and taller, it became less stable and eventually tipped over. James tried again. He discovered that gently pressing down as he carefully placed each clay ball on top of another strengthened and balanced his snowman.
Manipulating clay helps to build children’s fine motor skills, developing the same small muscles in the hand and fingers that children use to write, draw, tie their shoes, or button their clothes.