Saturday, August 18, 2012

Pre-School Bell Project

At the beginning of August I visited my daughter's pre-shool class to do a clay project with the kids. The project was to make and decorate a bell. The kids in the class range in age from about 3 to 5 years old. Half the kids were in the class last year when we did a different clay project. During this year's project I noticed that the kids who did the project last year had a higher level of comfort with the clay and were better able to follow the directions. Of course these are also mostly the older kids.

I prepped this project by throwing some hollow shapes on the wheel. I originally tried the project at home with my daughter and discovered that open-topped forms would work better for the younger kids than closed forms. It is easier for the kids to put in the little noise-making bits of clay from the top than to fill in the space before attaching the base. 

thrown test forms for pre-school bell project
During the project each kid picked a clay form and also got a slab of flat clay for the base and a ball of soft clay for the top and for decoration. The thrown form and the slab were both leather-hard so they would keep their shape when the kids handled them. I also prepared some tiny balls or bits of clay to put inside. Once the clay dried, the little bits would rattle around and make noise. 

The first thing I had the kids do was score the bottom edge of the thrown form and the top of the slab. Scoring means scratching the clay where it will attach to another piece of clay. I provided some scoring tools (like tiny forks) as well as knives for this task. With older kids or adults I would have them measure the bottom slab first and score only the edge where the top clay form would actually touch. Given that this was a one-time project, I just told the kids to score the slab generally. My daughter, of course, measured and scored just the edge because she's done this before. In general the older kids scored a solid circle or hollow ring on the top of the slab. The youngest kids scratched fewer random marks on the slab or cut the slab.

kids scoring slab and bottom of thrown form
After they scored both pieces, I had the kids put slip on the bottom edge of the thrown piece and stick it to the slab. The slip acts like glue for the scored clay so we only wanted it on the bottom ring or the noise-makers would also stick (and not be able to rattle around and make noise). Only one kid slipped the entire bottom slab but she came in late, so she missed some of the directions. Luckilly I caught it and was able to cover the wet clay slab with a small circle of paper so that her noisemaking clay bits wouldn't stick to the floor.

scoring the slab and bottom of form
Before we started the project, I explained to the kids that clay needs to be scored and slipped when attaching one part to another. I also explained that slip is wet clay and that scoring means scratching with a scoring tool, knife, fork or whatever is available. Between each step of the process I kept asking the kids to repeat what we needed to do to attach clay pieces together. One of the kids very excitedly pointed to the slip each time I asked this. After they attached the slab to the bell form, I held up one kid's bell and asked all the kids if it looked okay. They said we should cut off the extra clay sticking out around the bottom (which is what I was hoping they'd say).

kids cutting off excess clay slab after attaching thrown form
Once most of the bells had bottoms and were somewhat cleaned up, I asked the kids to put in the noise-makers. I'm glad I prepared these bits ahead of time, since some of the younger kids seemed to be nearing the end of their ability to follow instructions. I don't mean they were misbehaving, they were just very excited and ready to play. My daughter and another boy were both very excited to put the noise-makers inside the bells. They finished preparing their bells before the youngest kids were ready.

kids cutting slabs and tearing off cut clay
Earlier, before we moved to the table, I introduced the kids to the clay and the project, I shook some different bells for them and asked them to listen for the different sounds made by a few balls of clay or many balls of clay. These example bells had already been fired. I also brought in a jar of unfired balls of clay and asked them to listen to the different sounds made by the raw clay. I explained that their bells probably wouldn't sound like anything until they were dry and fired. Interestingly, later in the project when their teacher pointed out that the bells weren't making any noise, the kids were quick to explain to her that they wouldn't until they were "cooked."

a tray of texture and surface decoration tools
Once the balls of clay were in the bells, they used a (hopefully) small amount of clay to close the top. I then brought out a tray of various items with which to decorate their bells. The results were quite varied. One boy sliced his bell almost to the point of breaking apart. Another stuck many many small bits of wet clay all over the surface of his bell. The girl below collected all the little balls of clay that were left-over from the noisemakers and stuck them on the top of her bell.

a bell decorated with lots of noise-maker balls on top
I didn't give the kids a lot of guidance on using the tools, though I reminded them how to attach clay to clay (score and slip). For function, there was only one more requirement they needed to know before they finished. Some of them fulfilled this requirement on their own. During firing clay shrinks. Air, on the other hand, expands when heated. If a clay piece contains a fully enclosed bubble of air, the clay piece is likely to explode during firing. All the kids needed was to put a tiny hole into the enclosed section of the bell. Some kids punched multiple holes in the bell. Others had to partially cover their holes because they were so big the noise-makers would fall out. 

some plastic tools stuck into the bells at the right
A few kids understood that that they could use any tools but didn't understand that they were supposed to take the tools out of the clay. At once point I walked to the end of the table and discovered a couple of plastic tool and clay porcupine bells. I laughed and then had to ask the girls to remove the knives and scoring tools before firing or they would have a burnt plastic bell. Another kid on the other end of the table inserted a small plastic disk into a big hole in his bell just before I reached him. I had to cut apart his bell to retrieve the plastic disk. 

punching a hole (or decoration) with a wooden "knife"
This project had quite a few steps for a big group of very young kids to follow, especially when most of the information was new to them. Last year I explained to the kids about forming clay shapes, attaching wet and drier clay and firing. I also warned them against using clay pieces that were too large because they can explode in the kiln. This year I needed to to tell the kids about attaching wet and drier clay (scoring and slipping), using tools to decorate clay, adding clay inside to make sounds, leaving an air escape hole, and firing. I didn't have time to explain why they couldn't use thick pieces of clay. One girl  did add a thick piece of clay on the top, but I was able to fire it very slowly so it didn't explode.

bells with incised, added and stamped decorations
The kids all completed functional bells that were ok to fire. The teachers were a little worried about one of the bells that had been sliced during the decoration stage. The bell had started to collapse a little bit during the project, but it dried and fired in the right shape. It was actually a neat effect the kid achieved with his excessive cutting.

adding surface decorations and cutting or scratching the bells' surfaces

After all the kids had a chance to finish and decorate their bells, I put away the cutting and stamping tools and brought out some underglazes and brushes. Underglazes are like paints, in that the color in the jar is the same as the color after firing. They don't get shiny on their own like glazes because they don't flux (or melt) during firing. They also don't stick to the shelf if kids paint them on the bottom of their bells.

applying underglaze
applying underglaze
After the project, I took the bells home to dry and fire. I let them dry for several weeks (since we went on vacation after the project). After the first firing (bisque firing) the bells were stronger and the underglazes were adhered to the clay. I painted a shiny coat of clear glaze over each kid's bell. The glaze will make the bells shiny and the colors a bit darker. (I will post results soon when the bells are out of the kiln).

applying underglaze
applying underglaze
All the bells drying and ready to fire

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