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Montessori Toddler Art: Clay - the How and Why.

Montessori toddler  working with clay  21 months at How we Montessori

Art is as important in the Montessori environment as practical life, language or mathematics. It should not be dismissed (by parents or teachers) as less than, or as simply 'play' not 'work'. However, as a parent, I find there is more information available on the benefits of reading to a toddler or cooking with a toddler. Yes, these are important but today, let's talk about art and specifically about clay.

Art with toddlers is often dismissed because of mess. Art can be messy but it doesn't have to be, use only a few materials in small quantities, prepare your surface or tray and we can minimise the mess of clay work with our toddlers. The effort really is worth it!!

"Children that are old enough to squeeze your finger can squeeze a piece of soft clay. If they can notice a change in the clay, they are learning that their actions have consequences.  This is empowerment. It encourages more experimentation. The child’s brain is taking shape along with the clay.  Such self-initiated activity can be the perfect match for the developmental needs of the child.  Clay stimulates the child’s curiosity. Intelligence, imagination, and creativity are engaged and fostered.  Many new neurons and synapses in the brain are being generated when a child is engaged by the immediate tactile and visual feedback provided by clay.

Manipulating a piece of clay develops the child’s large and small muscles. Clay play fosters eye-hand coordination.  Soft clay is receptive and responsive to all kinds of emotional expression.  Clay is so fascinating that some children work for long periods without any adult motivation to maintain their interest. It can be a great way to extend the attention span of some children." - Clay for Toddlers and Preschoolers How and Why by Marvin Bartel, Ed.D in Art Education.

Montessori toddler  working with clay  21 months at How we Montessori

How can we use clay with Montessori principles?

  • Make it child led. Allow the child to choose if they participate and how. Art is expression, it is like or open-ended play so as long as the child is safe (not eating or throwing the clay) there is no wrong way to use it. If possible allow them to choose their own tools and materials to use from a small selection.
  • Observe and follow the child. Do they need more water, more clay, can they use the tools, what tools or materials are they interested in. Observing the child using the materials helps us to meet their present and future needs. 
  • Allow time and space for clay work, unless there is a safety concern, try not to interrupt and break the child's concentration
  • Place an art or clay tray/basket or caddy on the child's art shelves for the child to use independently.
  • Set up a larger invitation to play where you can work with the child to demonstrate new technique, just like a teacher would present a lesson in the Montessori classroom, invite the child to come and work with you, or set it up for a larger group of children to work with, toddlers can learn a lot including art technique like rolling a clay ball from working alongside their siblings. We know children learn best from their peers. 
  • Involve the child in the entire process including in the cleanup and putting away. Activities like returning work to the shelves, wiping the table or sweeping the floor are extremely valuable. 
  • Use child-friendly containers and jars. From a very young age, we found the OXO Pop containers useful, from around 14-16 months a toddler can easily open and close the airtight container. 
  • Use child-size utensils and tools. Rolling pins, knives, mashers, should all be child size as they are easier to the toddler to hold, grip, manipulate and use in a controlled way. 
  • Use natural materials where possible. Using natural materials (especially over single-use plastics)  teaches children respect for the earth. Natural materials also provide feedback and texture where often man-made materials don't. 
  • Have the child wear an art apron, smock or art clothes. My one-year-old currently has an art shirt he puts on for art activities like clay work or painting. There is worth in correctly preparing for the activity and using an apron (or smock etc) can help define the start and the end of the activity. 
  • It doesn't have to be mess and chaos. Teach the toddler to use the materials correctly and with respect, start with small quantities and put it away if the child misuses it (such as throwing it). Like other toys and materials if the child is misusing it they may not be ready for it, put it away and try again in a few weeks/months.  
  • Use seated or standing at a table that is child-sized, in our home our coffee table is the perfect height, outside we use the Ikea Flisat.
  • Keep check of your expectations. The toddler isn't really creating art with any planning or intention, they are experimenting. Once my one-year-old spent 20-30 minutes pulling and pinching the clay into really tiny pieces. It's not art as such but still a valuable experience. 

Why would we want to use clay with toddlers? What are the benefits of using clay with toddlers?

  • Experience texture and sensory play. Clay is malleable, cool to touch with a wonderful earthy texture. 
  • Learn cause and effect through hands-on learning.
  • Express and develop creativity.
  • Strengthen finger, hand and arm muscles - this is so important for future writing, using scissors and other hand work such as sewing. 
  • Experience a wonderful art medium.
  • Begin to develop language and art literacy. 
  • Relaxation and stress relief. 
  • Develops coordination and concentration, can lead to increased focus.
  • Can help to further develop an interest. 
  • Can build a sense of self, the child knows and experiences building and creating something independently. 

What can toddlers do with clay?

  • Make prints/imprints with things like footprints with model animals or impressions of shells, seedpods or pine cones, imprints from stamps.
  • Squish, pinch and pull the clay.
  • Roll a snake on the table.
  • Roll a ball in their hands.
  • Flatten and stretch like a pizza.
  • Poke with sticks or craft sticks.
  • Poke or push with kitchen tools like a fork or mini masher.
  • Poke and prod with their fingers.
  • Draw in the clay with an old pencil.
  • Older toddlers may be able to roll it flat with a child size rolling pin.
  • Paint the clay once it has dried, if using air dry clay.

Our toddler clay tools include:

  • Dried beans.
  • Dried herbs or spices such as star anise, rosemary or lavender.
  • Craft sticks.
  • Sticks, dried flowers, small gum nuts, seed pods, dried leaves.
  • Recycled jar or bottle lids like milk bottle lids.
  • Fork, round-tipped knife or another children-friendly knife.
  • Mini Masher.
  • Old blunt pencil.
  • Textured child size rolling pins.
  • Water to change the texture.

My parent-to-parent tips for working with clay with toddlers;

  • With a very young toddler, provide clay that is soft but not too sticky. You may need hand washing nearby or a clean cloth for wiping hands.
  • Provide clay in small pieces, perhaps child fist size so they can easily manipulate it, and so it isn't so intimidating. 
  • Work alongside your toddler, grab a piece of clay and play with it yourself, it can be meditative. Allow the child to see you enjoy working with the clay.
  • Provide long periods of uninterrupted time with clay. It's not something that can be rushed. When we work together I allow at least 40 minutes, sometimes it's best to give a lesson/demonstration or work with clay together on the weekends when there are no other commitments.
  • We use a good quality non-toxic air-dry pottery clay in a natural terracotta that older siblings can use too. 
  • Toddlers are often happy to deconstruct/pull apart their creations and to put the clay away for another day. Go with this as much as you can, there is no need to keep all of their creations. 
  • When you find a source or brand of clay that you like, stick with it and consider buying it in bulk. I've found that clays differ significantly but we've found one that is nice and soft with just the right amount of moisture, it doesn't stain. Experiment but when you find a good brand, stick with it.

This list may feel overwhelming but it is important for toddlers to keep it simple. A small ball of clay and one or two materials may be all the toddler needs. For a larger group, it would be nice to have more materials available but observe your child, to start with they may be happy with less, think clay and sticks or clay with a fork. 

I recommend starting to use clay with toddlers once they are largely out of the 'put everything in their mouth' stage. This lasts longer with some children than others. My toddler was ready to use clay at around 14-16 months and really into it at 18-20 months. Of course, always supervise the child around clay and all other art materials. 

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