Tag Archives: using clay with children

Art Lessons: An Introduction to Clay

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.

clay exploration
I made a shape. The clay makes my hands messy.

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.

flattening clay
I can squash it flat

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.

clay a sensory pleasure
For some the wet clay was too messy but others revelled in the feeling of squishing it between their fingers.

I then showed them how we could use tools and everyday objects to make patterns and textures in the clay.

Suggested objects

  • clay tools
  • shells
  • cocktail sticks/toothpicks
  • bottle tops
  • pine cones
  • mesh
  • stampers
  • straws

The children explored and we put the clay in a bag for the children to take home and explore further at home.

I can make patterns with my fingers

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.

painting glaze

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.

The finished products at the art walk


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.