Tag Archives: clay

How Should You Teach Preschool ‘Art’? Process Versus Product

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

I've chosen 3 colours
I’ve chosen 3 colours

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.

salad spinner painting

3. Spin

salad spinner art

4. Check results

salad spinner art

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?

salad spinner art

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

salad spinner paint
It makes a kind of bumpy pattern

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

marble and salad spinner paint
It looks like a puzzle

The next attempt came out differently

salad spinner art
When we put marbles in it makes a noise. Sometimes they get stuck in the sides and we have stop.

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.

salad spinner plates

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


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.

Examples of Process Oriented Art


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Why is Clay an Essential Material for Preschools

Self Portraits Using Pencil and Clay

clay portraitIn 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 Portraits

The girls used the portraits to create their clay faces

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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.

Next Steps

  • 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.
  • Translate these into clay models.

Why Clay is an Essential Material for Pre-Schools

clayWhen I taught at nursery school, clay was readily available to the children on a daily basis. I’ve seen very few pre-schools since that use clay daily.  Most settings use dough, but why not clay?

It may be that it is too expensive, dough can be made very cheaply but air drying clay is an expensive resource. If clay is stored and looked after properly however, and used to enhance the children’s play rather than simply to make models to take home this needn’t be the case.

How to store and look after air drying clay

It is essential to keep your clay damp.  Store  it in a bucket or  lidded container and place a damp flat rock in the bottom.  The clay should then be moulded into cubes smoothing out any cracks. Make a thumb sized hole in each cube and fill the hole with water.  Occasionally spray the clay with water.  The clay will keep for a considerable amount of time like this. Should you feel the clay drying out cover the clay with water and leave for 48 hours.

It was a rare exception when children asked for their creations to be dried, painted and taken home. Mostly they would build the blocks of clay on top of each other, stick things in it, roll it out, and bash it with hammers and were happy to put it back in the clay bin at the end of the session.  Occasionally we would have a focused activity on techniques like pattern making, how to join 2 pieces of clay together or moulding around wire. A group of 4-year-olds worked on a long-term project about self portraits . They looked closely at their faces in the mirror and drew a number of self portraits with adult guidance to enhance the detail. These were transferred to clay models. The accuracy with which they translated their drawing into the representation in clay was astonishing.

The Benefits of Playing with Clay

  • Clay inspires creative thinking
  • Clay is far stronger and more malleable than dough which makes it far better for modelling.
  • Children (and adults) find working with clay engrossing
  • Clay can offer children emotional contentment, they can knead and manipulate the clay to ease anxieties.
  • Children with lots of energy or displaying aggression can dispense some of this on a large block of clay. You can hit a piece of clay with force without it disintegrating to nothing.
  • Children are able to problem solve by making mistakes and working out how to fix them.

The Developmental Stages of Working with Clay

0-2 Years 

For these children large blocks of clay are best, the bigger the better. Lay a piece of plastic sheeting on the floor and allow the children to experience the clay with their whole bodies, they can sit on it, make impressions in the clay and pull pieces off. It might be better served as an outdoor activity with this age-group but it depends on your space. Allow the children to explore the clay with their hands, build towers with clay blocks or offer tools if they are reluctant to touch it.

2-3 Years

Experiment with the different things that clay can do. Let them build, flatten, roll, pile and stick objects in the clay.  A finished product is not necessary at this age, allow them to integrate loose parts from the environment. Investigate what happens when you spray the clay with water.

3-4 Years

Some children will be ready to make simple models so you could begin to demonstrate how to join 2 pieces of clay together. Many children will prefer to use clay in their imaginative play, making cakes or lots of tiny peas. Include small world objects with the clay perhaps rolling out a flat piece for the play people to walk on or build a rocky swamp for the dinosaurs. Continue to introduce natural materials.

4-5 Years

Children will now begin to build things for their small world play, chairs for the house or shelters for the animals.  Once the children are confident you could set them projects like build a bridge for the Billy Goats Gruff or a bed for the 3 Bears. Clay can now be used to support mark-making teach children to draw and write on clay with sticks, twigs or blunt pencils.

5+ years

The children will be keen at this age to make a finished product. Show the children examples of clay sculptures as inspiration.  Encourage them to translate both imaginative and observational drawings into clay models. Support group work, building one large co-operative model.

You will see in the gallery below how my children of different ages play with the clay. My 9-year-old goes straight into making a model, while her 4-year-old sister starts by making a pizza, practicing rolling and cutting. She soon copies her sister and starts to make a bowl. Both girls encounter problems with their models and work out how to fix them. My 2-year-old is happy to squish the clay, making marks with knives and then moves the pieces around the garden, collecting loose parts and piling blocks together.

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