The Language of Clay

A preschooler presses natural materials, such as shells, pinecones, and acorns into a small piece of clay to create texture and impressions.

Why Clay?

Malleable materials are an excellent medium for young children because of their responsiveness to children’s inputs. These materials, such as clay, can be introduced to infants and built upon through preschool (and older).  Playdough, slime, and ooblek all offer children the opportunity to sculpt and manipulate, however, there are aspects of clay that make it a better (and safer) fit for young children.

  • Clay is natural. It is just a mixture of dirt and water.  Not only does utilizing natural materials encourage children to explore and learn about materials in the environment, it offers an non toxic option that is safer for children who periodically explore through taste.
  • While malleable materials change through manipulation, clay is the only material that reacts to human touch, not just to human force.  When clay is offered to children, it is hard and cold.  Clay warms to the touch, softens then becomes smooth. This immediate cause and effect over the course of play and material interaction enriches the experience and learning opportunities.
  • Clay can be reused indefinitely.  You can store clay with a damp paper towel, and can spritz it with water to bring hardened clay back to life.  Clay is a sustainable material that has a long life. 
  • Offering open ended materials, like clay, activates the imagination, stimulates the senses, and ignites experimentation and curiosity. 
Above, infants and young toddlers use their fingers to scratch and scrape from a large block of clay.

The Value of Clay

Playing with clay promotes developmental growth across a range of learning domains, including cognition, math and literacy.  As children work with clay, they strengthen  hand-eye coordination, as well as the ability to sustain play over longer periods of time as they build stamina for focus.  By squishing, pinching, pulling, and pressing, children strengthen both large and small muscles, which support fine and gross motor skill development.  “Clay requires muscle.  We engage clay with our hands and feel it on our skin.  There is an intuitive aspect to working with clay; through many encounters, we develop a sense of its fluidity and substance,” explains Pelo (p.92).  

Working with clay authentically introduces three-dimensionality, which helps to build pre-math skills.  Sculpting with clay is also a tactile experience that introduces concepts and understanding around weight, size, texture, and pattern.  Additionally, as parents and teachers talk through the sculpting process, clay play builds vocabulary that supports pre-literacy skills and promotes the value of language as a means of describing both process and output.  In this vein, as children become more verbal, clay offers a tool for creative expression and storytelling by inviting children to share what they make and to imagine stories that accompany their creations and work.  What does Clay Play look like through Early Childhood Development?

Above, a 16 month old (left) uses a golf tee to make holes in a slab of clay and a 2 year old (right) presses a leaf into clay with a roller.

Introducing clay to children at a young age helps create a new expressive language for children and to explore how the environment and materials react to their input.

  • 0-18 months
  • Offer a large block of clay on a tarp or piece of unstretched canvas so infants and toddlers can use their fingers to scrape pieces off, poke the compact material, push a heavy item, and even use it to help them pull up and stand, or sit on.  The bigger the block of clay, the better!  They typically come in 25 lb blocks.
  • Working with clay in the way described above is a great activity to do outside and connects the material back to the natural environment.
  • Children may be reluctant to touch the clay initially. Offer tools, such as popsicle sticks or wooden mallets so children can find comfortable ways to explore and make marks.
  • Go barefoot so children can feel clay with their toes and soles of their feet.
  • 18 months to 3 years
  • Clay can be offered in the same way as explained above, but adults can help children break off larger chunks of clay for smaller molding exploration and manipulation.
  • Invite children to use tools such as rollers, sticks, and loose parts to change the clay based on force.  
  • 3-5 years
  • Children might express interest and begin making representational sculptures, such as cakes, cars and people.  This is a great opportunity for rich conversation through imaginative play.
  • Introduce natural materials to elevate their play.  Children might be interested in collecting items outside and incorporating it into their sculptures.
  • Children will enjoy using materials that make small marks (toothpicks, blunt pencils, the back of a paintbrush).  They can use these types of tools to draw and write directly on slabs of clay.

While clay work is often tied to kilns, firing, ceramics, and pottery, it is a powerful material on its own. Although these are always opportunities for continuing to build on claywork, simply introducing blocks of clay and encouraging children to mold, imprint, re-use, and manipulate carries an invaluable world of sensory, conceptual and motor learning within early childhood education.

The Language of Art by Ann Pelo, page 92, Redleaf Press, St.Paul, MN, 2007.