Molding the Future: Child Development Through Work with Clay

By Todd Erickson, Head Teacher


A child approaches the West PM art table, where a ball of grayish clay awaits. She picks up the ball and feels its cool smoothness in her hands. As she squeezes, the ball slowly changes its shape. Her fingers dig deeply into the now elongated form, and with some effort she pulls it into two pieces. A smile spreads across her face as she puts both pieces on the table and vigorously pounds her fists into them.

One of the paradoxes behind all of Bing’s open-ended, basic materials (blocks, clay, paint, sand and water) is their wonderful complexity. Clay is an excellent example of this paradox. It offers an alluring mix of hardness and flexibility. It is simultaneously plastic and yet resistant. Unlike water, paint and sand, clay can indefinitely maintain its shape after manipulation. Perhaps it is closest to blocks in its density and permanence.

When children in West PM work with clay as an expressive medium, their experience touches a variety of different developmental modalities that support and inform each other. These modalities touch the most basic aspects of human experience: physical development, cognitive challenge, artistic expression, social connection and emotional satisfaction.

The interaction between hand and clay can be not only physically stimulating
but also emotionally satisfying to children. A handprint allows children to
consider their reflection in and imprint on the wider physical world.

Physically, clay offers a child an excellent combination of fine and large motor opportunities. Fingers can pinch, smooth, poke and push smaller pieces of clay through detailed and intricate fine motor work. Importantly, many of the hand muscles at work during clay play are the same muscles a child will use to hold a pencil, tie shoes or button clothes. As hands and arms work to slap, push, squeeze and pound, large motor skills are called upon. It is not uncommon for children to lean their entire upper torso into the clay as they are flattening or cutting it. Clay provides and sometimes demands a whole body experience!

As a child considers the lump of clay in his hands, he creates a plan of action and evaluates the various steps needed to reach his goal. These cognitive processes, known as executive function, will be vital for future information assessment and problem solving. As he rolls the ball of clay into a long worm-like shape and then back into a ball, his rudimentary, hands-on experiments with advanced concepts like the conservation of mass (the mass of an object does not change, even if the shape of it does) increase his overall awareness of physical properties of the world around him.

Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Picasso understood the vast levels of creativity possessed by the very young. Like all of Bing’s five basic materials, clay is open-ended, which allows a child to approach a ball of clay as she would a blank piece of easel paper. The clay can become anything from an abstract design to a flying vehicle with rocket blasters. And with greater experience and confidence naturally follows increased awareness and attention to creative elements and aesthetics. As children move into what is called a “later representational” stage of clay creation, they name their clay creation before they actually begin the work. If it is true that every child is an artist, then every child is an intentional artist. Even a seemingly experimental or random clay construction contains deep meaning and significance to a child. In fact, West PM teachers can learn much about a child by simply observing her creative choices with clay.

When a child shares some part of himself through his clay expression, he is using the clay to also reach out for social connection. He is telling his peers, his teachers and the world, “This is who I am. This is what I feel strongly about.” Further, when children join together around the clay table, a social dynamic is created that often deepens social connection. Recently in West PM, Devin and Rhys used the clay to make pizza, pancakes and salad. By sharing their small feast, along with lots of laughter, the children deepened their social bond.

West PM teachers are also interested in teaching various techniques, when appropriate. One example is the creation of a “pinch pot” by using the thumb and index fingers to pinch the edges of a flat, round piece of clay. As a child diligently applies this technique to create a bowl-like shape, she receives emotional satisfaction thanks to her growing competence. Satisfaction can be achieved not only through increased skills, however, but also by the specific application of those skills. When she is able to use clay to create something that both pleases her and carries even a degree of representational accuracy, a child feels deeply satisfied.

As mentioned above, these developmental modalities do not exist in isolation. A recent moment at the West PM clay table illustrates the interrelation of these developmental growth points. José sat down at the table and began slapping several small pieces of clay with his open palm (large motor physical development). Once the pieces were flattened, José delicately attached the various pieces together (fine motor physical development). “Mickey Mouse,” he announced as he examined his work (artistic expression). After considering his creation, he then added a tiny piece of clay to the torso. “This is the nametag,” José said, pointing at his new addition (cognitive development). José held up his clay mouse for the children at the clay table to see, which prompted the question from a peer, “How did you make that?” José then shared with the peer his process of making the clay mouse (social connection). When he was finished walking through the steps with a peer, José smiled broadly, quite content with his work (emotional satisfaction).

Clay is a timeless substance that concurrently touches many aspects of a child’s development. Like all basic materials, it meets the child at her own distinct abilities and interests. Yet despite its unassuming appearance, clay also pushes children toward greater exploration. Clay inspires invigorating activity that bridges ages and genders and allows for infinite expression. Clay is truly an effective multidisciplinary material!