To prepare our children's hands for writing and using scissors it's important they have lots of hands-on play in the early years. It's imperative that our children are given opportunities to learn through tactile experience that strengthen the hands. Using clay is the best multi-sensory art experience I know for developing fine and gross motor skills.
I prepare a lot of activities using play dough as it's easier for us to use inside, but at least once a week I like to break out the clay for all three of my children to use.
Generally, our clay play involves open exploration but occasionally I will introduce an idea like making beads, bricks, bowls, or I will put out some items from nature, or animal models for inspiration and idea creation. Here are seven ideas we've used this week for making with clay.
1. Nature collage. Children as young as 18-months can make nature collages (be careful with small items). Think leaves, shells, sticks, pebbles, feathers, gum nuts, anything you may bring home from a nature walk, pressed into a piece of clay.
This is super easy to make and is fantastic for developing fine motor skills.
It's also a nice way to display special finds or seasonal items.
2. Crayon holder. This is another easy craft activity. We present the child with a small ball of clay, we could also make it into the shape of an animal like a hedgehog, or a snake. The child uses a crayon (we could also use a pencil or marker) wrapped in plastic kitchen wrap. The child pokes holes in the clay. We allow the clay to dry and paint it. The child can then use it to store their crayons (or pencils or markers). This would also make a cute gift.
3. Octopus. I've found that young children struggle to make complex animal shapes but are often comfortable making worms or snakes. This simple octopus shape builds on the skills of the child who can already make snakes and spheres. The child makes one sphere and eight snakes (worms/logs). The child can then attach the snakes under the sphere to make octopus tentacles. This is a confidence-boosting activity and also a good way to incorporate some octopus anatomy and counting. Once dried the child can carefully paint the octopus.
4. Pinch bowls. We give the child a small ball of clay. It's easiest if we have already manipulated the clay beforehand so it is warm and pliable for the child. We show the child how we put our thumbs into the ball and pinch so that a bowl is formed. We keep on going until we can smooth out the inside and outside of the bowl. As we want to use our bowls as small planters we've used a straw to make a small hole in the bottom of the bowl.
I recently discovered how children from 2 years can make pinch pots, after it was an activity at a Forest School class, the children needed minimal help to make their own little pots.
For our second bowl, we made a larger ball and carved out the inside. It took lots of scooping to get all the clay out and it was a good exercise in endurance and hand strength.
Once the pots have dried the child can paint them. We can also seal them before using them as planters.
5. Hand prints. This is fun to do and it's great for developing body awareness. We trace the outline of the child's hand into the clay. We (an older child may be able to do this themselves) cut the shape of the hand out of the clay and allow it to dry. The child can then paint it. This is fun to do with all members of the family and we can compare the different hand sizes.
6. Cookie cutter shapes. We can do this with any cookie cutters. I presented this with a range of cookie cutters and my child chose to use the dinosaurs. The child can (with some help) roll out the clay with a rolling pin and then cut out the shapes with the cookie cutters.
Once dried the child can paint them and use them in play.
7. Name plate. I was looking for a way to introduce some literacy into our clay play. Here we are using alphabet stamps to write the child's name in the clay.
The child can then decorate the name plate. We've used items found in nature like gum nuts, petals, and flowers from our garden.
Once it has dried we can paint it, seal it and hang it with some string through the hole in the top.
Some general tips about using clay with young children;
- process over product - these clay projects are shared as prompts or ideas to share with the children. All of our art is child-led and process-driven.
- white tile - when using clay with more than one child I like to use large glossy white tiles. They are easy to clean, provide a nice neutral background, we can slide or cut our clay work off it and it protects the table underneath. Once the clay item is finished we can then put the tile in the sun for the clay to dry.
- pottery wheel - if you are doing a lot of clay work or the child's clay work is getting more detailed, you may want to invest in a pottery wheel. Our wheel allows the child to easily rotate their work without disturbing it and it is easier to make pots. We also like to display our finished work on the pottery wheel in our art centre.
- children's knife - while we can teach the children to cut the clay with string or wire, I also like to present our clay work with a children's knife. It's a fun way to help develop knife skills and hand strength.
- spray bottle - the clay can dry out quickly and a child-size spray bottle with water can be used to keep the clay moist. My child loves to really wet the clay and this can be a fun sensory experience.
Interested in using clay with toddlers? You might like Toddler Clay Tray + The Materials We Use.