Children with clay makes ceramics bowl

For thousands of years, an important resource for society is clay, which is a natural material. It is widely used for utilitarian and decorative ceramics and is one of the oldest building materials. The first medium used for writing were clay tablets. In early education, clay plays a prominent role.

Friedrich Froebel (1782 – 1852) was the first pioneer of early education to devise key pedagogical principles for young children and he put them into practice in his kindergarten.

Froebel’s approach included specially created “Gifts and Occupations” to support children’s play and self-activity. Gifts brought in solid, tangible objects, while occupations brought flexible materials such as clay and sand. Froebel saw these activities as interconnecting and part of the whole approach. He believed it was important for children to have access to a wide range of media, exploring and presenting their ideas through three forms – knowledge, beauty and life.

Carefully selected materials helped develop the child’s understanding of the two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes, to develop problem-solving skills, support physical development, creative expression and communication, and present ideas.

Father is playing clay toy with kid
Father is playing clay toy with kid (photo credit: jcomp)

Froebel hoped that by connecting with these carefully selected natural materials, they would gain a better understanding of their connection with nature and life as a whole.

The value of playing with clay

Clay is an ideal material for exploration through play. Its open nature means that a child can be what he wants. It offers endless possibilities, and only by squeezing, shredding or twisting can it change, spurring ideas to flow. Clay is unique in that it is malleable, but can be fired if required to produce a permanent hard object. It provides children with a natural solid material to explore, giving them a greater understanding of three-dimensional shapes.

Children need to be able to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in two and three dimensions.

From a Froebel perspective, clay is an important material for children that support their creative development and contribute to all areas of learning.

Girl paints dough figurines
Girl paints dough figurines (Photo author: bearfotos)

As the kid rolled the clay into a ball and then used the reel to straighten it, he explored both the two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes. Through this, she explored forms of knowledge while experiencing volume, quantity, and size. It plays imaginatively, turning its flat piece of clay into a “birthday cake.” By presenting something real, it creates a life-form. She or he explores mathematical concepts by cutting and dividing them into four, then placing a “candle” (stone) on each piece. They create a form of beauty through decorating for example ‘cake’ and exploring own aesthetic qualities.

Kids need time and space to explore. This exploratory phase is important to give them the freedom to move in their direction so they can become informed about the clay, really engage with it and find out what it can do. Tools and additional objects are not always necessary. Supply large pieces of clay to explore, perhaps even a whole sack. With younger kids, putting the clay in a large tray and placing it on the floor will enable them to access it more easily. Provide water so they can explore how this changes the clay’s texture.

These exploratory activities provide many opportunities for the children to find out what the clay can do, and develop understandings of cause and effect.

Froebel saw his activities as part of a whole approach that provided children with opportunities to explore activities. Exploratory activities with clay will allow children to research many of these oppositions, such as wet and dry, smooth and rough, hard and soft and round and flat. They will get messy but old clothes or good aprons will help with this. Some children do not enjoy messy activities or are maybe they are careful in the beginning. If this is the case perhaps offer smaller pieces and a selection of tools to make marks with.

Activities with clay provide children rich opportunities to engage in imaginative play. The ease with which the clay can be transformed allows for rapid exploration of ideas.

Children play with plasticine
Children play with plasticine (Photo credit Kasjan Farbisz)

Developing children’s interests

An important part of the learning process is to help children to develop their interests and make connections. It is really exciting to be able to make something that can be kept, and children must experience this process. As children become more skilled in using clay, try introducing them to key tools and techniques. Objects such as pinch pots and coil pots, tiles, candleholders, and simple figures are all easy to make. Allow children to plan what they would like to make and follow their interests and ideas. Ensure their individuality and creativity are respected, avoid producing 30 pinch pots that all look the same! Using the work of artists can be useful for providing an inspiring stimulus for the start of a project.

Setting up a clay area

It is simple and inexpensive to set up a clay table. It is also less messy than you may think!

You will need:
Clay – for playing and exploration use firing clay (not air-drying clay as this does not have an appealing texture and dries quickly). I like the red/terracotta clay as I think this looks more inviting. A large bag is under £10 and if stored properly will last a few months

Airtight bin/container – roll the clay into balls and make a small well in each ball and fill with water. Wrap in a damp cloth and put in an airtight bin/container and the clay will keep moist.
Clay table – cover the table in hessian and clay boards. To avoid lots of clay dust gathering, clean the resources regularly and use a damp cloth to wipe up pieces of dry clay

Natural objects – provide shells, stones, sticks, conkers etc. for children to explore and add to the clay if they wish. These can reflect seasonal changes and children’s interests.

A range of tools – as well as traditional clay tools, think about providing anything interesting that might make a mark eg. knives, forks, a potato masher.


Exploring clay, by Lucy Parker

Written by

Irena Canji

I am a teacher in kindergarten. I have been working with children aged from three to seven since 2000. Also, I am a mother of two kids. My son is a teenager and my daughter is going to kindergarten. My main goal through the website is to show that the process is more important than the product. In childhood, kids need to play, have fun, learn through their experience.

The content of this website is an interesting activity for children. You don't need special skills, lots of money or too much preparing.

Just smile, only positive energy, and goodwill!