Working With and Talking About Clay
By Tom Limbert, Head Teacher
“This is my building,” Riley explained to a teacher transcribing his words. “It’s a hundred feet tall!” Riley pointed to his clay creation and elaborated, “It has a huge window. The little pokes are the small windows.” A basic, open-ended material such as clay, water, sand, or blocks relinquishes all power to the minds and hands of children, inviting them to explore and create freely. And as the children talk about their work, their ideas take center stage and become the focus of the learning experience—the context of the conversation. Often their ideas flow through spontaneous conversation like free verse poetry.
In addition to creating clay pieces that sprang from their own experiences and ideas, the children also helped to make characters and objects that were then used by teachers at story time to help tell a story or sing a song. The week we read Eric Carle’s A House for Hermit Crab, the children were excited about helping to decorate the hermit crab’s shell. “I’ll make the pebbles!” Emma R. exclaimed. Cassie studied the shape of the snails in the book and rolled her clay out on the table like a tiny snake, then coiled it up into the shape of a snail. Another week we sang the song A Tree in the Wood and the children helped make a branch, a nest, a bird, a feather, a flea, and even the hair on the flea. After weeks of working freely with the clay, the children responded enthusiastically to the cognitive challenge of making a more representational piece of work, studying a picture or an object carefully and then trying to re-create it with clay.
Besides learning from actually manipulating clay, children also benefit from communicating about their work. “My clay keeps changing. The baby bird will be hungry, she will want a worm,” Joyce explained at the clay table, as an attentive teacher listened, asked questions, and jotted down what Joyce said. By lending a curious ear or by writing down a child’s words, a teacher sends a powerful and important message to the child: what you think, know, and say is important and valued. The process also helps children to connect spoken words and written words, an important step in the development of literacy. Joyce rolled her clay out on the table and continued, “It looks like a stick, but if I put a head on…” She carefully attached a small ball to the worm. “Now I’m done, with the story and my clay.”
At story time at the end of each day, we presented the children’s clay work, allowing the other children to listen to their peers’ words and see what their peers were working on and thinking about.
The children’s pieces were then put on display each day as the children left the classroom. Children were eager to show their caregivers our museum and what they had done to contribute to it. The museum again validated each child’s labors and thoughts, and it also bridged home and school as caregivers shared in the enjoyment of their child’s and other children’s work.