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Creative Diaries: Clay Work in the Early Years

One of the most exciting dimensions of art that I facilitate in my art workshop for teacher trainees is clay. For very many it is the first time they have used clay and they find it very daunting and associate the term ‘messy’ with it. Upon asking trainees to reflect on the use of clay in settings and classrooms, there is always a consensus that clay is difficult to handle, messy, hard to store, requires expensive equipment to mention a few. However, after their first initial exploration with it, trainees usually get very excited by what to create using their own processes, and start seeing the value of clay work with children beyond the ‘mess’. Trainees start building their own skill set in how to manage clay, how to handle it and know the simple properties of it, they share the struggle and understand it’s not easy. The trainees invest a lot of themselves in the process and begin to understand that children do exactly the same and more. Having worked with children and clay for many years, I am still aware that we are not introducing clay early enough to children neither often enough. From observing children using clay, I can say that apart from teaching children the skills to use the medium to form three dimensional works, understand shape, form and perspective, it gives them ‘another language for expressing their thoughts, ideas and emerging working theories about their world’ (Ministry of Education, 1996). You could say ‘making their thinking visible’ (Project Zero, 2001). This is what I aim to help trainees recognise when working with clay and its vital importance in using it with children.

Historical origins of clay:

I normally go into a little history with the trainees about clay and have a few items to show them that they can explore and discuss. Clay is a natural resource used for the creation of art objects by humans for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found evidence of people working with clay going back to early human civilisation. In fact, ceramic art is one of the oldest art forms in human history. The potter’s wheel probably dates back to 4,000 BC. So you could say that almost all of a human’s time on the planet, we have been makers of things, making things has been hardwired into our brains! The act of making and creating things is what makes us human (Post, Date unknown). A mass of clay can be taken and through an amazing connection between the brain and hands an idea can be given life. Early uses of clay to make things has been as follows:


  • To embellish or add a visual element to a story
  • Religious ritual
  • Effigies (representation of a person in remembrance)
  • Containers to store crops, water, seeds
  • Bowls to eat and drink out of
  • Pots to cook with.


What is clay and how is it formed?

Using clay can connect children to an important natural resource that has been used for the creation of objects for thousands of years. When I ask trainees the questions ‘What is clay?’ and ‘How is it formed?’ I always get blank faces and the odd ‘mud’ and ‘from the dirt!’ I explain to trainees it is a part of their curriculum subject knowledge to be able to know how clay is formed and to then explain this in simple terms to the children. Clay is a soft, earthy material of fine mixture of decomposed igneous rock minerals and organic matter. I know, what a mouthful! However, this is all I tell the trainees, as I am telling the readers of this article. It is then up to the trainees to work out what this means and put it together in appropriate terms for children to understand. I guess I use the oldest tool we have of scaffolding. Scaffolding to give enough structure to learn something new while at the same time allowing them to build and create understanding for themselves. So how is clay formed? Clay most commonly forms due to erosion or weathering; both methods involve rocks coming into contact with something, such as air or water, to form the clay from existing minerals on the ground. This is then collected and cleaned up to produce the clay that is in your settings or classrooms. It also provides us with different types of clay to work with. Knowledge I also expect my trainees to have!

Types of clay:

While there are thousands of clay types available for purchase, the three basic types that are commonly used in clay work are earthenware, stoneware and porcelain.

Earthenware – usually red terracotta clay, although can be grey, pink or white in colour. It is dense in texture and the most commonly used in settings and schools as it is air drying and can be painted with poster paints when dry. Some PVA glue glazed onto the finished product gives it a shine.

Stoneware – this can be grey to dark brown in colour and can be worked with like earthenware but needs to be gently fired up in order to dry, i.e. heated at a certain temperature for it to form and harden. This is also commonly used in some schools.

Porcelain – white in colour and probably the most expensive clay. It fires up in a kiln to become ceramic bone china in nature. When dried, glazes can be used to decorate it. A kiln is a furnace or oven that is used to heat clay objects. This may be available in secondary schools.

Tools for clay:

In settings and schools there is no requirement for expensive specialist tools and equipment, and this as an excuse to not use clay with children is not really a reason with substance. The best tools are the hands, these are what are needed to develop skill with using clay. However, other tools to assist can be simple as rolling pins, knives, forks, scrapers, bowls for water, graters (which trainees love using to produce hair and moustaches), sponges to smooth clay surfaces and cracks, pens, pencils, tooth picks, bamboo picks and lollipop sticks which can be used to do detailed work on clay or to add marks and textures. Clay can be modelled onto any hard surface, such as a desk, or a wooden plastic board, so your tables are the best.

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Processes to get started:

Most young children when given a piece of clay are instinctively motivated to explore its inviting soft responsive sensory qualities. Therefore take away tools – just clay! Children need lots of time working with clay and their hands. Pounding, pushing, rolling, squeezing, poking, pinching and twisting. It is almost like using the language of their hands to realise the effect of clay and how it responds to their manipulation. Each time children act on the clay, the clay adjusts and responds, these changes for a child are magical. Children are naturally fascinated, motivated, and empowered to then keep experimenting. They are learning how clay behaves and how they can use it to make their imaginings take shape and form – imaginative expression. They also learn that the heat of their hands can quickly dry the clay out. This is the beginning of the technical skill of hand-building. 

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Hand-building is exactly what it sounds like; using your hands to form an object out of clay. It encompasses some other, more specific, forming methods as well, like coil building and slab building (see below). In order for trainees to start on the hand building technique, I ask them to take a piece of clay 5cm in diameter, roll the clay into a ball, whilst in the palm of their hand, they are to use their thumb to pierce a hole in the middle and start to use the technique of ‘pinch and push’ to create a thumb pot or pinch pot. Seems simple but I have seen trainees struggle with this.

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Coil building – another hand building technique where children use clay and roll them out with their hands to produce coils, which they then attempt to form rings with on top of each other. I get my trainees to produce coil pots using this hand building technique.

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Slab-building – a process whereby slabs of clay are rolled or pounded out, either by hand, with a slab roller, or rolling pin with wood sticks either side (see image). Trainees are asked to use a slab and cut out a tile and work on it either to make a face, or design, or patterns etc.

It is through these hand-building techniques that children will be able to develop their skills in order to manage the forming of clay into items. Children need lots of experience before forming something. Skills don’t just grow in one session. In order to become skilled at anything you have to have repeated exposure to it. Therefore you should have clay available regularly so children learn how to master the skills and techniques over time (Kolbe, 2007), one off experiences are not enough.

Part of the hand-building process, teaching also involves children learning how to stick two pieces of clay together, this is as the ‘scour and slip’ method. Scour is the creation of criss cross marks made on two sides of the clay that need to be glued together. ‘Slip’ is then spread onto it and the two pieces joined, once attached it can be smoothed over with some water to seal the join. Slip is made using one part clay with three parts water until it becomes a soft buttery texture, this is the glue that sticks clay together. It can be stored in a separate container over time.

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Along with children exploring clay and the various hand building techniques, it is vital for them to be engaged in discussion too. Engage children in a discussion about clay, as I do my trainees:

  • Ask children if they know what it is. Ask children where they think clay comes from, seek out prior knowledge and dispel any myths.
  • Discuss the uses of clay in both art and everyday living. Talk about and explore the different cultures that use clay. Talk about clay items in the classroom and in their homes, in their natural environment. How are these items different from the lump of clay in their hand?
  • Have a lump of clay on the table, give children the time to look at the clay under a magnifying glass or microscope and discuss it before they handle it.
  • Leave a lump of clay in a glass bowl with water, leave another lump of clay next to the bowl on the table. Encourage children to observe what happens to both the clay in the water and the clay drying out on the table. Record their responses.
  • While using the clay, employ expressive language to describe what the clay feels, smells, looks like. Encourage children to do the same, to verbalise their response to the clay –is it sticky, hard or cold? “It’s cold, it’s wet and squishy, and it’s heavy!” Discuss what happens when we put water on the clay. Talk about what happens when the clay dries out. When using tools or objects to make impressions in the clay, ask children to describe the marks they make, the textures or patterns formed. Encourage them to talk about what they have done, to describe what they have made.

As practitioners and teachers we also need to demonstrate and teach children how to care for clay. Clay of the right plasticity should be stored by wrapping tightly in plastic bags and sealing thoroughly or it will dry out. The best thing to do when you open a bag of clay to pass around to the children, is to have a separate empty bag to collect the clay they don’t need. The clay will be out in the air all during the session and many children will over work the clay drying it out. When they return the clay to the empty bag, blast it with a spray bottle with water in it. Close the bag and let it sit overnight. Use this bag first the next time you need clay.


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Clay is a magical material in the eyes of children, it can become anything they choose to make. It is also one of the few things children get to control from start to finish. Practitioners and teachers must work alongside children to scaffold developing skills. Use rich language with children when discussing their clay work, form, texture, colour, line – technical terms coiling, modelling, sculpting, wedging, pinching, poking, etching, decorating, slip, glaze, firing, and kiln. Teach them the relationship between two dimensional shapes and three dimensional forms. Teachers should always get their hands dirty alongside children!

Final Thought:

“Clay reigns supreme as the greatest and most marvellous toy possible…Clay is something that is nothing…but which can become anything and everything.” (Making Learning Visible – Project Zero)



Kolbe, U. (2007). Rupunzle’s supermarket: All about young children and their art. Australia: Peppinot Press.

Minsitry of Education (1996). Te Whariki: He Whariki Matauranga mo nga Mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early Childhood Curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media.

Post, J. (Date Unknown) Observations by John Post in Jacobson, M., (ed) Clay in Schools, essays by five successful teachers of ceramics in the public schools.

Project Zero and Reggio Children. (2001). Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.

Ruksana Mohammed
Ruksana has developed and leads the current Early Years ITT provision at the University of East London. Prior to this, Ruksana led on the Early Years Professional Status (EYPS) and lectured on the BA Hons and Masters in Early Childhood studies. Ruksana is an experienced early years practitioner and manager, and has over 15 years of experience and expertise of working in the field of early years, including the setting up of early years environments and developing practitioners. Her experience and work include developing management and staff practice in working with children, creation and delivery of early years curriculum for children, staff management, building links with parents and working closely with external agencies such as OfSTED, Sure Start, local authorities, schools and FE colleges.

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