Exploring the properties of clay

Pottery shard found in Torrence County, New Mexico.Finding bits of clay pottery made and discarded by people hundreds of years ago reminds me of how this useful material can be a valuable addition to a preschooler’s experience. Of the earth but not commonly found on playgrounds, clay could be regularly provided in a bin for sensory experiences or building material. It can be made into almost anything! I wrote about the process we used to introduce clay work in the Summer 2015 issue of Science and Children.

Children tentatively begin working with potters' clay.When children first encountered the clay indoors at a table, they were immediately drawn to this new material. After working with the clay, children realized that it stuck to their hands, and some began to purposefully coat their hands in a way they could never do with playdough. This same property made other children avoid the clay. Having a system to rinse off hands in a tub of water after clay work, and before washing them, helped children feel comfortable with the “stickiness” of clay, and saved the excess clay so it didn’t get washed into the drains. Because the children were so used to the feel and texture of playdough, it took some time for them to capably shape it into balls, snakes and castles.

We made sticks available and the children incorporated the two materials. It was interesting that the class of older twos and the class of fours both approached the materials in the same way–sticks stuck into a base of clay. In the fall I will introduce the clay on the playground and see what the children do with it as they have even more time to learn its many uses. It can be used to model 3D forms, draw on its surface, and paint with in a watered down form. Will they incorporate sticks and leaves, decorate it with pinecones or knead in sand to create a new building material?

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