Clay: Developing Strong Bodies and Creative Minds

Child holding a mug she made with clay.

By Nancy Verdtzabella, Head Teacher  

“It is, thus, that materials show their hand at the dawn of development. It is materials that invite motor actions, linking discovery to imagination in what will become an inexhaustible interplay guiding artistic growth and development.” 
—Judith M. Burton, art education scholar

lay is one of the five basic open-ended materials (blocks, clay, paint, sand, water) available for children’s play at Bing Nursery School. Offered in West PM daily, children gravitate to it naturally. They develop a relationship with the flexible medium of clay the moment they touch it. And while clay is heavy and not so easy to manipulate, in my 30 years of teaching I have marveled while observing children ages 2 to 5 use it successfully. Having access to clay encourages meaningful engagement through the body and mind, supporting the development of the whole child. 

One of the greatest attributes of clay is its ability to be open-ended. As children work with clay, their ideas come to life. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, clay use at Bing was put on hold for a short period while we learned more about COVID safety practices. This school year we were delighted to re-introduce clay to children, knowing that COVID was not highly transmittable through materials. 

Children naturally learn through their senses when working with clay. With each hands-on interaction, children are learning new attributes of clay and things about themselves. 

They see the natural color and smell the earthy scent that distinguishes clay from other malleable mediums such as play dough or polymer clay. They notice the sounds as they manipulate the clay. They use fists to pound the clay and fingers to squish, pat and cup it. Children use their upper torso and legs for lifting and dropping heavy lumps of clay on the table to flatten the material. With the touch of a finger, the sensory input will let children know if the clay is too hard, soft, wet or dry and whether its consistency is good for manipulating. Using their whole bodies gives children a better understanding of how body pressure can transform clay into a series of shapes that are in alignment with their creative thoughts. 


Building a Relationship With Clay

I introduced clay in West PM in early fall by placing a huge block of the material—about the size of a half-gallon of milk—in the middle of the table. This setup ignited the children’s curiosity. Some engaged with the material instantly while others watched to see what would unfold. When a child asked where the tools were, I responded by pointing to the child’s own hands. My response surprised the children, as they were used to the plethora of tools that accompany play dough kits. However, when I explained the marvelous ways hands can manipulate clay, the children developed a confidence that allowed them to shape the material using their hands as the primary tool. The children demonstrated how capable they were of making cakes and cookies without feeling the need to depend on tools to produce the same “perfect” shape each time. Creative thinking was evident as children formed small pieces of clay into intricate designs with their hands and added them to their creations. 

As with any material in our learning environment, the more children engage with clay, the more comfortable they are using it as a tool to work out or interpret their ideas. The teachers help children strengthen their relationship with clay by casually modelling basic techniques such as rolling it into a ball or snake, making coils or pinching a pot, encouraging creativity. Some children come to the clay table with a concrete idea, while others come to experiment, but all form an initial shape and transform it into others. The process becomes the focus and ignition for creative development. Children will create and find satisfaction with their creation. Following the accomplishment, the clay will metamorphize into something different only minutes later. Each modification is deliberate and exciting when it reveals its new identity. 

The process of transforming one shape into another is intense yet gratifying for the child (and teacher) to witness. Going through a series of clay conversions strengthens children’s ability to understand the medium more fully as a material that can become anything they decide. Children become cognizant that hands working together with the mind make a powerful team. This process, which allows one idea to flow into the next, also reveals children’s ability to validate the process and be content with the series of modifications rather than focus on a tangible artifact as validation for their hard work. At cleanup time, any onlooker can witness children happily shaping the clay back into a lump and placing it in the clay bin. They know that next time they come to school, a fresh lump of clay will be waiting for them to be transformed, making their creative ideas visible once again.