A 3-year-old explores real pottery clay for the first time.





by Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. in Art Education
© 2006


Most toddlers, when given a piece of ordinary soft pottery clay, are instinctively motivated to explore its inviting soft and responsive sensory qualities.  They poke it, squeeze it, hit it, pick it up and pound it down, and so on.  Each time they act on the clay, the clay adjusts and responds.  These changes mean very little to us as adults, but for a toddler these changes in the clay are magical.  The child is naturally fascinated, motivated, and empowered to keep experimenting.


Every child needs experiences that match his or her developmental level, and a simple piece of soft clay is a perfect match if the child is ready.  Children that are old enough to squeeze your finger can squeeze a piece of soft clay. If they can notice a change in the clay, they are learning that their actions have consequences.  This is empowerment. It encourages more experimentation. The child’s brain is taking shape along with the clay.  Such self-initiated activity can be the perfect match for the developmental needs of the child.  Clay stimulates the child’s curiosity. Intelligence, imagination, and creativity are engaged and fostered.  Many new neurons and synapses in the brain are being generated when a child is engaged by the immediate tactile and visual feedback provided by clay.

Manipulating a piece of clay develops the child’s large and small muscles. Clay play fosters eye-hand coordination.  Soft clay is receptive and responsive to all kinds of emotional expression.  Clay is so fascinating that some children work for long periods without any adult motivation to maintain their interest. It can be a great way to extend the attention span of some children.


A pet rabbit inspires a preschool
child to add ears to his clay lumps


This clay dog is the first recognizable animal made by a young boy. A lot of thinking about the animal and experimenting with clay goes into the assembly of a dog like this. The same boy made the birds at the end of this essay.

Why Clay is Basic

Archeologists and anthropologists find evidence of clay work as an instinctively human endeavor dating back to the earliest human societies.  It is easy to understand why clay play would be a natural humanizing endeavor in virtually every human society.  While adults used clay to form vessels for storage and cooking, the children made similar things to be used as playthings and toys.  Adults made sculptures to represent foods, decorative objects, and things magical.  Children enjoyed making clay dolls and animals to play with as toys and game pieces.

Today’s urban toddlers come with the same instincts and motivations as children in any tribal village.  A toddler’s mind has the same needs to create imaginary tools, cooking vessels, animals, dolls, and so on.  These are used in imaginary play as they learn about and practice coping with the worlds into which they are moving. A child that learns at an early age that anything that can be imagined can be created is more likely to be more creative and intelligent than a child that only plays with manufactured toys that have been designed by adults.  Clay, like almost no other material, allows the immediate materialization and realization of the imagination at virtually any developmental level. Many toys are well designed for pretending and imaginary play, but not many are good for imagining and creating new objects and new toys.


When giving clay to a very young child the first time, I do not instruct the child on what to do with the clay except to clarify that it is to play with—not something to eat.  Other than making sure they do not eat it or throw it, I simply watch to see what hey do with it. Good adult supervision consists of observing and encouraging self-initiated experiments that correspond to reasonable limits of play.

Some children are ready to plunge in and try anything and other children are shy. Young children are very good at reading us.  They imitate our actions. If a child is too hesitant, I let the child watch me explore the lump of clay myself.  I encourage them that it okay to pinch it, poke it, pound it, and so on.  Since some children have learned to avoid getting messy, I show them how easy clay wipes off my fingers with a moist cloth or sponge. Sometimes they will just practice wiping the clay off their fingers at first. This is fine. It is learning. If the child is very young, it may be best to wait and try it again each month until you feel comfortable with the child’s responses.

The child will love to do things that make you happy, so express your satisfaction and joy with any exploration, experiments, and activities that the child invents.  They do not have to make a piece of pottery or sculpture to make us happy.  We just want to see them enjoying themselves.

Children that are too young to walk might be in a playpen or sit strapped in a small table.   This is also a way to confine them if they are prone spread the mess too much. If I do not want the child to throwing the clay, I will explain that the clay is too messy to use as a ball. I will encourage a different experiment like making holes in the clay, pounding the clay, or sticking pieces of clay together instead.

Once children begin to make things from the clay, I might ask, “Can the clay be a baby?” “Does the clay like to look at its mommy?”  “Can you make eyes in the clay?”  “Do you think the clay likes to eat things?”  “I wonder how the clay could play or walk?”  I want to see if the child can invent dolls, toys, and so on with the clay.  I can use questions to help direct the child’s thinking in a positive mind building direction.

I avoid being negative. If anything negative happens, I divert the activity to positive alternatives rather than using punishment. I can move directly to questions that remind the child of positive and constructive ideas (see questions under Motivation below).  These questions use the knowledge that every child already has and helps the child focus this knowledge on a constructive creative activity.  As they see their clay take shape, it stimulates their imaginations to take it the next step.  As an observer, I am able to ask the next open question to motivate an imaginary play sequence. 

Motivation for Thinking and Creativity

Most of the time I keep my hands off the clay. Very little instruction is needed. The things they make are generally not kept or fired. If something is fired, it can be glued after firing if it comes apart. The clay is kept soft between sessions by adding a small amount of water before storage in airtight plastic bags or containers.

As adult observers, caregivers, or teachers, we can play the role of artist’s muse.  With a little thought and practice, any adult and even an older sibling can learn to lead a child’s creative thinking.  Toddlers create from what they already know, but our questions help bring appropriate details to their consciousness as they work. As muse, I do not show children what to do or what to make. As muse, I am not really trying to teach them how I would make something—I am trying to inspire them to develop and express their own ideas. I am coaching the child in thinking. I want to raise possibilities by asking open questions (questions with several answers).

With just a lump of clay, my open question helps the child turn it into a person’s face invented by the child without me saying anything about a face. Using the child’s name, I might ask, “Is this Amy? How does Amy look at things?”  Often a child will poke the clay and make one or two eyes. I might ask, “That’s nice. How many eyes does Amy have?”

This boy is pleased to explain his work for me.
I do not expect first efforts to be easy to recognize, but I affirm them. Sometimes I cannot tell what the child is trying to make. I say, “This is a good job. Can you tell me more about it?”  I do not ask, “What is it?” because I do not want to insult the child.

When the child has advanced a bit and created a head with legs (a baby, a self, or a doll), my open question might ask, “Whom would the baby (or girl or boy) like to play with?”  Soon the child will be busy creating a playmate. 

The child may then carry on a dialogue between the two clay toys.  With a bit of practice, this kind of creative thinking and making becomes second nature for the child.  Adult supervision can become more and more passive—only needing to express profound wonder and amazement to urge the child to continue the creative play with the pretend theater of characters. With more open motivational questions, it may soon become elaborated with props such as clay cooking pots, cars, trucks, and so on all made as needed.

Often children do not need any of the motivational questions.  If I notice that a child is intently working, I hang back.  I watch from a distance and wait until the child seems finished. 

These birds watching their nest are an example of work done by the same boy who made the dog above. These birds were made several years later.

He filled the nest with baby birds. When the baby birds are removed (below), we can see that the nest also has eggs in it. This kind of work is evidence of his interests in the birth of birds. The work reflects his experiences and his ability to think about these things. He is learning to experiment and solve problems of how to make them with clay.

The child who created these clay pieces is now a leading scientist. He has discovered how genes are switched off and on in living things. He says that working with clay while growing up was one of the ways to learn how to do experiments. "You could try anything with clay and see what would happen."


Clay and Kids - more essays on this topic by Marvin Bartel
Scribbling by Toddlers   
The Preschematic Drawing stage

How to Draw an Orchid
at age 4
The Schematic Drawing stage

Teaching Observation Drawing to Young Children

An economical online book with eight ways to Learn How to Draw (for kids who are able to read).

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. Where to get clay? Search Pottery Clay to Buy on Internet and check local yellow pages for ceramics. Prepared clay is sold to potters in 25 pound plastic bags, two in a box ready to use. You do not want slip clay. It is used to pour into molds. You want pottery throwing clay, handbuilding clay, or sculpture clay. If it is not fired, clay can be soaked and used repeatedly forever.

2. How to prepare the clay that has become too dry. This page also tells about digging your own clay. How to wedge and mix clay.

3. What about firing the clay? Kids pieces are for the experience of making them, but if you want to fire them check with a local potter, art teacher, or hobbyist. Offer to share the cost of fuel. Be sure you can say what the maximum firing temperature is for the clay being used. If a child-made piece is thicker than a half inch, it requires slower firing because thick clay explodes at 212 F. as it forms steam inside the clay. I make thick pieces easier to fire by poking holes (nearly through the clay) up from the bottom of the piece so it has an open vent hole every half inch. I poke it with a piece of coat hanger wire while the clay is still moist. Older children can learn to make hollow sculpture and vent the piece with one small hole from the bottom.

4. Is it safe to eat clay? Clay is similar to dirt in the back yard. It may have bacteria and parasites. Some people eat clay, but this author does not recommend it. It would be safer if first baked hot enough to kill possible pathogens. It has no nutritional value, but it may absorb or dilute toxins in some foods. Many pills are made by using sterilized clay as a binder.

5. How to safely clean up? Use wet sponges and water. Do not make clay dust. Avoid vacuum cleaning. It puts the finest dust in the air we breath. Use wet methods.

Notice: 2006 Marvin Bartel. All rights reserved.   If this copyright is included, you may print one copy for personal use.  Those who wish to make more copies or publish any part of this electronically or otherwise must get permission to do so. Your responses are invited. Updated: July, 2011.

the author -- Author bio

Visit these pages for many more ideas.
Art Education Links
by the same author
Teaching Ceramics Marvin Bartel
  Marvin Bartel Home