I believe clay should be readily available in every early years classroom. For many kindergarten or reception classes this isn’t always possible or practical. In my daughter’s kindergarten class, I give them an opportunity to experience clay during our art classes in the hope that they will build on it in future years and at home.
Before making a product, I feel it is important to explore and understand the properties of clay. In my own class I would give the children a chance to explore clay with hands, different tools and different sized pieces over a long period of time before creating any finished products.
I showed the children a series of pictures of children exploring clay. Pictures of children climbing on big pieces, rolling great structures, building with blocks of clay and adding objects to clay. I feel a little sad that we don’t have the opportunity to explore these things ourselves but I want the children to see the many possibilities.
The children have a piece of clay to explore. I gave them questions
Can you roll the clay into a long shape?
Can you squash it flat?
Can you make a round shape?
How does it feel?
Can you make it smooth?
The pieces I gave them came from the scrap bin and they were really wet and sticky. We talked about how it felt and how it differed from some of the pictures we had seen.
I then showed them how we could use tools and everyday objects to make patterns and textures in the clay.
The children explored and we put the clay in a bag for the children to take home and explore further at home.
Building on the skills to make a project
In the introductory lesson we had explored the properties of clay and how we could manipulate it and add texture. We did not touch on how to join clay pieces together as I wanted to keep the project simple and work on pattern and texture.
I pre-rolled pieces of clay for the children to ensure it wasn’t too thin and it wouldn’t break in the kiln.
I demonstrated how to cut around a template with a clay tool to make a shape. The children were given a choice of a fish or a starfish as the finished products were to be displayed in our art walk with a water theme. I have also created similar projects in previous years with hearts and circles.
They then used different tools to create different patterns on each section of the fish or starfish. The smaller animals were cut out using cookie cutters.
The holes were made using straws. The children learned that by pressing hard they could make a hole but if they pressed lightly it would make a circular pattern, but not go all the way through.
Lesson 2 : Glaze
We are really fortunate in our school to have a kiln and be able to fire projects, as this allows children to go beyond exploring clay and to learn about the requirements of creating lasting projects.
The children painted each section of their project with different colours and patterns. They were really meticulous in their execution. They painted three layers to make sure the colour coverage was strong. Some children painted different colours for each layer. I would suggest showing children different examples so they can see how different techniques will turn out.
When they came out of the kiln, I made them into mobiles using fishing line and ribbon.
Wayne Thiebaud is an American artist, known for his paintings of everyday objects. These include many works depicting food; in particular, cakes, pies and pastries. For our second grade clay project, we used Thiebaud’s cupcake paintings as inspiration for teaching two basic techniques for making pots.
The base of the pot was a simple thumb pot and the lid a coil pot.
Each child was given two pieces of clay, a selection of clay tools and a damp sponge in a pot, all laid on a slightly damp cloth.
Take one of the balls of clay and knead it to get rid of any air bubbles. Then press thumbs into the centre to make a hole.
Push thumbs outwards to make a pot shape.
Smooth fingers around the top edge to make it flat and even.
Carve patterns into the bowl. Some children made lines to make it look like a cupcake case and others chose their own designs or carved names into the sides.
The coil pot lid
The base was put to one side and the second piece of clay kneaded to make the lid. The lid was coiled to look like frosting.
Shape the clay into a cylinder with your hands and roll it on the mat until it makes a large sausage shape to equal the length of the mat.
Keep moving hands along the length of the clay to avoid thin parts that will break off. The paper moved around a bit so it was helpful to have their partner hold their mat down whilst they rolled.
Measure the sausage around the top of the thumb pot. Keep coiling, sloping the sides inwards until it closes at the top. Add a clay cherry, if desired.
Dampen the inside of the coil pot with a sponge and rub your fingers over the joins on the inside, until the surface is smooth. This will stop it collapsing and falling apart.
Fire in the kiln
Session 2 :The Glaze
I showed the children pictures of Thiebaud’s cupcakes for inspiration.
The glaze colours were selected to match those used in Thiebaud’s paintings. Pastel shades, along with red for the cherries and brown for chocolate.
Each table had a paper plate with a selection of glaze colours on it and every child was given a fine and a thick paintbrush, a pot of water and a paper towel.
They applied two layers of glaze, being careful not to leave white spaces.
The finished results were pale and matt. I explained that the colours would become vibrant and glossy once they had been fired.
The Finished Results
The glazed pots are placed on stilts when fired in the kiln, so they don’t stick to the shelves.
I love the results. I think they will make a perfect Christmas gift.
Occasionally, you come across an unexpected treasure. Anticipating a fleeting look around the Bainbridge Art Museum with the children in tow, I was pleased when the assistant greeted the children warmly and entrusted them with a task. The children were given a list of thirty animals that were hidden in Nancy Thorne Chambers’ ceramic installation ‘A Story Place’. If they could find them all, they would be rewarded with a special prize.
Motivated by the prize at hand they made their way to the exhibit. They worked together to find the life-sized animals , studying every angle of the exhibit. They were captivated by the detail and wondered how something so delicate was made and transported to the museum. The animals are reminiscent of Beatrix Potter characters and took me back to my childhood passion for those stories.
My favourite piece was the mole wrapped up in the girl’s sock and the children loved the girl and boy mouse, huddled together with their tiny tea tray.
A Story Place remains at Bainbridge Art Museum until June and is worth seeing if you are visiting Bainbridge Island with children. Entry to the museum is free of charge so visiting this installation alone is worthwhile.
The children were equally compelled by the adult exhibits. It’s easy to assume that children will find art galleries boring but their fascinated faces reminded me that children often find pleasure in unexpected places.
They were mesmerised by models that fold into boxes by Nancy Smith-Venturi and wouldn’t leave until they had seen the slide show of the whole collection.
The younger children wanted to understand each of the models and read the descriptions with interest.
‘What does this one say?’ asked my youngest pointing to a textile on the wall. I read the description. ‘How does it look like wind?’ she asked. ‘It could be because it moves’ I replied ‘ but you might see something different, you don’t have to see the same thing as the artist.
The girls were completely absorbed by the museum and we spent a leisurely few hours there. I think we may have discovered a new passion.
Most Pre-school teachers in the UK are experienced at teaching children aged 3-5. It is rare however, that graduates or teachers with Qualified Teacher Status are appointed to teach children of 2 or under. This may be set to change, as children from disadvantaged backgrounds are offered government-funded early education. There is lively debate as to the ‘best’ type of setting for these children but evidence shows that the quality of the setting is the most important factor. Graduate and teacher led settings have been shown to be the most effective at closing the achievement gap (Matters et al 2014).
‘Early Education’ have published an excellent briefing for school leaders considering offering provision to 2-year-olds. It also offers valuable advice to anyone considering teaching 2-year-olds. In the search for graduate teachers for this age group, it is possible that experienced and well qualified teachers will be asked to take on a new role of leading this provision. This may be daunting. It certainly was for me the first time I encountered this age group.
When I began working in a mixed age nursery environment for 2-5 year olds, I was used to teaching children who could sit on a carpet in a large group and listen, who could draw representational figures, talk and share ideas, were toilet trained and who played for the most part, cooperatively with their peers. Planning for the 2-year-olds terrified me at first but I soon learned that creating an environment in which they could freely explore and move around was the most important consideration.
Our mixed age setting was split into 3 rooms. Sometimes the 2-year-olds were in their own group (and always at small group time) but for a large chunk of time, they were mixed with 3 and 4-year-olds. Teaching in a mixed age setting comes with its own challenges.
Common Concerns About Teaching in Mixed Age Settings
If you are a parent of more than one child, begin by thinking about how you manage the challenges below at home. In a mixed age family unit, compromises have to be made but the youngest children’s experiences are enriched by the older siblings and the older children learn to nurture, guide and understand different needs.
How do you find activities that are appropriate for 2 year olds but also challenging enough for the older children?
Choose activities that are open-ended. Building blocks, small world play, painting, drawing, clay, water, sand and other sensory activities, imaginative play and recycled materials are perfect for all ages. Make sure there are times during the day when children are in a smaller group with same age peers. Build an engaging outdoor learning environment and allow the children to move freely between indoor and outdoors.
How can you ensure safety without denying the older children valuable experiences?
Tools can be kept out of reach of toddlers inquisitive hands but in a place where older children can reach or ask an adult to get it. It is important to me that my children have ready access to mark making materials but when my youngest was at the drawing on walls stage, these were pushed back on the shelf where she could not reach but her sisters could.
If younger children want to use scissors, clay tools or small loose parts don’t deny them the opportunity; simply ensure an adult is sat with them to support them. Keep the materials to one area which has adult supervision.
How do you stop the younger ones spoiling older children’s games by knocking down things they have built or taking toys they are playing with?
Learning to negotiate with younger children is important, learning that children of different ages have different needs and they do not mean to spoil things for the older children. Encourage older children to play at building and knocking things down with the younger children and allow the older children to place their completed models out of the younger children’s reach. Have special places for ongoing projects and ensure that there is some time with their own age group. Projects requiring a finished product or advanced skills are best for small group time.
Additional things I learned about teaching 2-year-olds
They like to move around and explore. Often, they will not stay at one activity for long and prefer activities with lots of space rather than at a table top.
They find large groups distracting. Do not expect them to sit for a story session with 3 and 4-year-olds as they will more than likely lose interest before the end. They would much prefer to be read a short book in a small group, or better still 1:1 on an adult’s lap.
They like songs that are simple and short with actions, puppets, props or simple instruments to maintain interest . Again this is best in a small group
They love messy, tactile or sensory play and are interested in exploring materials. They are fascinated by processes and how things work. This may mean they will use materials in unexpected ways – tipping, throwing or splashing, for example. Try to channel these investigations in positive ways. Do not expect them to create a finished art product.
Some are not yet talking, others may be difficult to understand. It takes time to build relationships with these children and understand their needs. Play alongside them and observe. Build positive relationships with parents and help the children to build a secure relationship with you
They are still learning to use tools and will need adult supervision when using scissors, small items and books.
They learn by repetition, so don’t be worried that your planning isn’t varied. Try to spot schemas and re-occurring fascinations and plan a variety of experiences to support them.
‘Art’ projects work best on a large-scale. Rolls and large sheets of paper, chunky crayons, blocks of clay, pavement chalk and large brushes are all perfect for this age group.
They will assert their independence. Give them plenty of choices – I need you to come and have a drink, would you like a blue or a red cup?
Below are a selection of activities for 2-year-olds or in mixed age settings.
Do not limit this to a home corner, use your imagination to create familiar experiences like shopping, new ones such as a vets or pure fantasy with pirates or fairies.
When considering the question of how to teach preschool art it is helpful to first consider the meaning of ‘art’ for our youngest children.
What is Children’s Art?
As adults, artists are generally referred to in terms of the product they create – painters, sculptors, musicians or dancers. When we create ‘art’ we might think about what we are going draw or make before we begin.
When children explore art there is much less emphasis on the finished product – they might say they are going to draw or make something specific but often this evolves into something else during the process.
As I watch my children involved in what we may traditionally term ‘art’, I find that creative expression isn’t their only interest and there is certainly very little focus on the finished product. Sometimes they are practising skills. My youngest for example likes to snip paper into tiny pieces but if I suggest she might like to make a picture with the pieces, she isn’t interested. As children get older the finished product becomes more important. My pre-schoolers will often remark that they don’t know what it is going to be yet, whereas my 9-year-old often has an idea before she starts. Does this change occur naturally or do adults teach them that this is what ‘art’ is?
My younger girls’ ‘art’ is about exploration. They ask questions like ‘what happens if?’ Through this exploration they see themselves as competent in the knowledge that there is no right or wrong way to do things. This give them the confidence to explore further.
The Salad Spinner Project
An example of a process oriented art project was inspired by a visit to the Children’s Museum where the children made pictures using a salad spinner. The directions were simple:
1. Put paint onto a paper plate
2 .Place the plate inside the spinner and put on the lid. Place the spinner onto a cloth or newspaper, the holes in the bottom of the spinner allow the paint to come through.
4. Check results
They watched as the pictures took shape changing according to the colours chosen and how much paint they put on.
There is potential for this activity to become a product oriented if the adult takes over. The key to making it process oriented is to offer choice and allow the children to freely explore the materials.
How the Project Evolved
The pictures the girls had made at the museum had colours that ran into one another producing a marbled effect but the paints we used at home were thicker so produced very clear lines with little mixing.
They explored all the possibilities:
I’m choosing two colours.
What if I just put a bit of paint on?
I’ve put lots of paint on this one.
Which one is your favourite?
The next time we got the salad spinner out I suggested they might like to add things to the spinner to see what happened.
I know lets put balls in.
First they tried a golf ball
They put it back in a number of times spinning the spinner at different speeds to see how the pattern evolved.
Next they tried marbles. The marble made tracks across the plate
The next attempt came out differently
Hmm, Maybe if I spin it faster
Still no change.
I could try more marbles
Still no change.
Suddenly my 5-year-old had an idea
I know; it’s because I used too much paint. The one with tracks on didn’t have so much paint on so I need to use less paint.
The learning and creative thinking in this project is clearly evident so why would we plan art with a finished product as our starting point?
Process v Product
Sometimes as early educators and parents it is difficult not to plan art projects in terms of the finished product. Certainly years ago when I worked with older children we would often plan workshops and sessions in terms of what we would make. We all like our children to come home from preschool with something they have made. Teachers sometimes argue that parents expect their children to come home with something at the end of the day. It is difficult to be enthusiastic about yet another drippy painting or cardboard box construction.
This is often given as a justification for producing heavily adult directed arts and crafts. Starting from an adult viewpoint in this way often means that the children don’t do very much themselves. I have observed teachers presenting children with pre-drawn templates, ready cut outlines and telling them what they need to stick where – sometimes the child isn’t even allowed to do the sticking themselves. The children may come home with something pretty to put on the wall but what have the children learned, how much enjoyment have they had and have they actually made it themselves? Furthermore, if we show children at a young age that there is only one way to do things we destroy their enthusiasm to do things for themselves. Is this why we often hear older children say ‘I can’t draw’, ‘ I don’t know what to make’ or ‘It doesn’t look right’.
When you allow children to freely explore materials they begin to understand the properties of media, they learn that art can be a series of explorations and they are allowed to become absorbed in the joy and relaxation of the artistic process. Sometimes they will want to make something specific but allow them choice in the materials and tools they use and encourage them to try out things for themselves.
Creative thinking isn’t neat and tidy. An artist will paint many sections of a painting exploring colour texture and shape before finally coming up with a finished product. Think about the work of an author who writes and rewrites many times with crossings out, arrows and notes all over the paper. A finished product will come eventually but it is a long way off. Allow children to explore in this way, let them make a mess and do things their own way.
As Peter Dixon puts it
Your children are at a stage where the process of doing things
LOOKING, SEEING, FINDING, FEELING, INVESTIGATING etc.
is far more important than the end product sought by some parents. …The process of their work – might look messy, scribbly or completely unrecognisable to us but to your children it is utterly meaningful and an essential part of their mental and physical growth and development. Please honour – please respect your child’s own way of thinking. It might seem unusual but it is their birthright. It is the foundation upon which they will build all future understanding.
The Adults Role
Process oriented art doesn’t mean that you leave children alone with a huge amount of materials. The adults role is to organise the materials so that the children can find what they need easily. Sometimes this means setting out particular materials for example you may want them to explore with charcoal and erasers. It can also mean setting up an organised art station with neatly labelled pots and drawers that the children can choose materials from.
If the adult works alongside the child creating their own projects then they can inspire children and demonstrate techniques. They will be able to encourage children to develop their projects by asking questions
What happens if…..?
Have you tried this……?
What else could you add?
persuading them to try different materials and techniques.
If you log children’s comments and questions, displaying them alongside finished pictures and photographs of the process, it will help to show the value of process oriented art.
In my previous post about using clay with young children , I mentioned a project where the children had closely observed their faces, drawn self portraits and then created clay models from the portraits. It was a really successful project at nursery and the level of detail in both the drawings and models was astonishing. Children love to look at themselves in the mirror, exploring expressions and actions. I thought my children would enjoy examining their faces in this way.
The girls like to make a present for their dad on his birthday and as this was a special birthday, I wanted to them to make something that he could keep. When I suggested the self portraits to the girls, they thought it was a great idea.
I gave the girls small hand mirrors and we looked at our faces in them. We talked about the shape of their face, the shapes of their features, we looked closely at any marks or scars they may have and then they began to draw.
As they drew I prompted them with further questions such as
What shape are your glasses?
Don’t forget your eyebrows.
Does any of your hair go on your face?
Can you see your ears?
What shape is your chin?
Can you see any scars or freckles ?
Would you like to draw your teeth or have a closed mouth?
I would recommend doing this activity on a 1-1 basis to help the children to make the drawings detailed. My 9-year-old became really frustrated. She felt that the drawing didn’t look like her and worried about the shape of her eyes, nose and mouth. I suggested she take a break and come back to it later. My 4-year-old had no such anxieties. It is interesting that in the development of children’s drawing anxiety about realism in drawing occurs from the age of 8, and this dissatisfaction increases as they get older. I assume this is why most adults believe they can’t draw.
The girls used the portraits to create their clay faces
The most difficult part was their long hair because it kept breaking.
When the models were dried, I asked the girls if they would like to paint their models or leave them as they were. They really wanted to paint them. I helped them to mix skin tones, hair and eye colours.
I’d love to find a way of displaying them alongside the portraits. Making the faces on a tile might make this easier.
The girls love exploring expressions. We have a series of photos of the girls copying their dad’s expressions. We could extend this into a photography project about expressions.
Read the book ‘Making Faces’ by Nick Butterworth and explore some of their favourite expressions from the book.
Draw portraits of their own or one another’s faces making different expressions.