Preschoolers and the Language of Clay

In the Art Studio at PSA, we have begun to use a lab model, where the whole school spends extended weeks exploring a particular medium or language. Since September, we have been working with the language of clay. The choice to use clay as our first language to experience was made with great intention and thought, based on clay’s expressivity and grounding properties. It is a perfect medium to explore and hone motor ability, dexterity and skill. 

As with learning any language, before moving into complexity, it is important for the children to have formative experiences building their relationship with the medium through their senses. For the first week art experience of the year, the only tool the children used for this first experience was their hands.

Clay, like water and sand, has a natural appeal. Children enjoy working with these basic mediums because there is no separation between them and their work. Children are instinctively motivated to explore clay’s inviting soft and responsive sensory qualities. They poke it, squeeze it, hit it, pick it up and pound it down. Each time they act on the clay, the clay adjusts and responds.

“I made it into a sign!”

“Row row row your boat, gently down the stream!”

“Let’s try squeezing it, everyone!”

After spending time just exploring the clay with their hands, the children were presented with specific tools.

Clay tools alter the clay in different ways than hands – sometimes in ways that change it’s very integrity, sometimes in ways that are much more nuanced. Because clay is a three-dimensional medium, it tends to foster exploration and building of three-dimensional objects. It holds great potential for thinking about, exploring, and reacting to the forms in our world.

Like all artistic tools, traditional clay tools each have a specific purpose. It is our goal that by introducing tools and their purposes slowly, the children are then able to select and use tools with thoughtful intention. We offered clay tools gradually, the first tools being those that have the ability to alter the clay in a big way (sponges and water, rolling pins, slab slats), and then tools for finer detail work (ribbon tools, wood carving tools, and ribs).

“Look what I did…Now it’s flat and smooth!

These variations provided a lot of interest to the children, who began to see that they have the ability to change the clay’s very make up. As they explored with the clay tools, their work displayed pre-logical thought as they followed  their intuition and tested their ideas. 

“It’s easier to move now!” 

Over the weeks in the studio, the children began to have more defined ideas about the properties of clay–what it can do, and what they can do with it. As the number of available tools increased along with the children’s fluency with the clay, we observed more thoughtful consideration in tool selection. We saw children asking themselves “What do I want to do? And what tool can do that job?”

“I’m changing the clay!”

Once the children had time to explore the clay with different tools, we posed a question: how can we attach clay together to form a strong bond?

Often, we will use children’s books to help illustrate a concept. We read the book, Many Shapes of Clay by Kenesha Sneed, which tells the story of Eisha, whose mother is a ceramic artist. Eisha’s mother helps her to create her own special shape from clay, which Eisha treasures and decides is a lemon. However, her fragile creation hardens and cracks into pieces when Eisha accidentally taps it too roughly. The book’s theme of attachment and creativity helped to provide a context for the children as they worked in very different ways to explore and test out ways of bonding clay together. 

Next, we tried scoring the pieces and adding slip before attaching them together. The children discovered that the slip joins were strong and sometimes even more stable than the clay by itself. They were then invited to investigate and explore this process for themselves.

Some children worked piece by little piece, scoring and slipping their shapes one by one. Others scored and applied slip in large areas- working to cover their whole surfaces before attaching their clay.

“When you paint on your lines, the lines disappear. I’m going to make a new design.”

“My big piece is stuck, I can’t get it off!”

“I patched up the hole!”

After many weeks using grey stoneware clay, we introduced the children to buttery soft terra cotta clay. We also introduced the children to the method of coil building–to create pots and so much more.

When we introduce children to new vocabulary, it is important to us that they have a connection point to prior knowledge and concepts. For example, when we talk about creating slabs we might refer to them as “clay pancakes” and then introduce the children to the word slab as “what a pancake is called in clay language.” 

When talking to children about making clay coils, we tap into their prior knowledge–shapes we know they’re already familiar with; a worm, snake, or noodle. In clay language these shapes are called a coil.

“It’s so soft…I can make a river with just my finger!”

The soft and pleasing texture of the terra cotta clay made it easy for the children to use their hands and fingers to manipulate and change the clay and to grab off pieces to squish, flatten, rip, stack, poke, and roll.

When the children expressed an interest in learning to make very long coils, we talked to them about how to accomplish that by making sure they press and roll at the same time. While rolling a long coil might seem very easy to do, it actually takes a bit of thought and motor planning. Just rolling clay between hands and/or on the table produces a coil that is round but without length.

We asked them to focus on pushing while rolling and they all seemed eager and interested in trying it out. And, they began to roll many long coils.

We observed the children making pot after pot, and experimenting with the pot’s outside texture, the size of the coils used to make each ring, and the height of the objects that they could create. They then began to see how they might use coils in different ways. 

One student created a bicycle after seeing a coil on the table that had been rolled into itself from both ends. He worked for a while making a few variations of handlebar and seat designs and tried them out on different spots along the found wheels. At last, he decided that he did not like the size of the wheels in relation to his chosen handlebars and seat, so he removed the wheels and rerolled the coil to the size he wanted.

Just like expanding vocabulary by building on prior knowledge, connecting a broader cultural and historic context for this work is also important for building the children’s fluency in clay. With this in mind, we introduced the children to Nampeyo. 

Born on ancestral Hopi lands in Arizona in late 1859, Nampeyo became the first internationally renowned Native American ceramic artist. She used the coil-building method and terra cotta clay to revive the Hopi art form of pottery. Her pottery, with her signature intricate and geometric designs, is still cherished today.

If we think about our experiences with clay as developing a language, then would working on a collaborative piece be participating in conversation? And, how would such a conversation unfold?
We asked the children: What does it mean to work together?

“It means to help each other out!”

One week, we presented the clay to the children on the ground, on mirrored tiles, intending to promote collaboration. Interestingly enough, the mirrored surface had little impact on how the children engaged with the clay or each other. They noticed it and looked at themselves briefly, but the main draw was how the clay was set out and the bigger ways that they could use their bodies while working with the clay and each other. 

With their workspace spread out on the floor, the children used the ample room to their advantage: they moved around freely, collecting the clay they needed, offering each other assistance, collaborating in their creations, and telling stories with enthusiasm. 

Being on the floor also invited some whole body discoveries- many children seemed interested in seeing how they could make marks into the soft clay with their shoes.

“We’re trying to find our stomps!” 

“I’m making a city.” 

Our intention is to help children develop the skills and knowledge that will allow them to use clay with ease and confidence to express their ideas and experiences. When we teach children a new language… we don’t offer them a few words and let them fumble their way through their efforts to communicate. Offering suggestions about technique and inviting young children to revise their work so that it more fully expresses their intention is a sign of deep respect.” – Ann Pelo, The Language of Art

After many weeks working with clay, our hands and bodies, and traditional clay tools, we invited the children to explore and use a variety of objects with the clay in order to create texture and interest. By offering the children these non-traditional tools and loose parts, we hoped to provide them the  opportunity to think creatively about what they might do with such objects, and how using these things might aid in making their creations more detailed. 

Loose parts and non-traditional tools create infinitely more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials and environments. Offering children materials which can be moved around, designed and redesigned, tinkered and experimented with taps into children’s unique curiosities and capabilities as there is not one “right way” to use these materials.

We were interested to observe the differences in approach to the nontraditional tools. Observing the children work, one could see them pondering…What can I use this for? Many children were less interested in making anything representational and focused instead on the ways the new tools could impact the clay.

Some focused more on what they could make with the clay or an idea they already had and  looked for tools they could use to bring their idea to fruition.

“I’m making Devil’s Lake!”

“It’s a birthday cupcake with a candle.”

While for others the tools available seemed to guide their narratives and ideas more then the clay itself.

“I’m making a locked door! Ding-dong! Open the door! – a student, using a key.

After many weeks of learning the language of clay, the children children were invited to create self-portraits. We began by talking about the features in our faces that would be important to show, and by reviewing the clay work techniques we had explored in the previous weeks. We discussed the ways that we might combine these techniques to create the features and details we desired. This work would draw upon all of their previous work and knowledge in working with clay to utilize the different techniques with confidence and playfulness.

The children worked on creating isolated facial features as a way to hone in on the forms and details of each…eyes, nose, and mouth. We used “face slabs” to give the children a defined space to create their features. This helped them focus in on those details and allowed them to change and alter the shapes and their features as a way to convey different emotions.

Each child’s creative process and the work that resulted from it seemed to capture their unique qualities and essence of spirit. They were all extremely proud of what they had accomplished, as were we. We were impressed at how carefully the children created their face shapes out of slabs and worked to create the details the saw in their faces.

“A self-portrait is an intimate, bold declaration of identity. In her self-portrait, a child offers herself as both subject and artist. When we look at her self-portrait, we see a child as she sees herself. The story of self-portrait work is a tender story to tell.” – Ann Pelo

Reflection by Kelly Blondin, Jo KaLhoun and Rasha DeIuliius, Art Specialists

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