Monday, May 5, 2014

Kinder Clay

The other week I went with some of my students to a local elementary school to do a clay project with a kindergarten class. The kids don't have art in their school, at least not at the kinder level. Earlier in the week the kids had apparently discussed what clay is, comparing it to Play-Doh, but most of them still hadn't experienced clay first hand before our visit.

Kinder class clay projects before firing. In most one can see an egg on a leaf, then a caterpillar, a chrysalis, then a butterfly. shapes, lengths, and orientation vary.

I started the lesson by handing them clay and having them squish it, flatten it, and shape it into a long coil to get a feel for it. I asked them to describe the clay (wet, cold, squishy). I was surprised when several of them suggested "hard" as a descriptor. Since I think of wet clay's primary characteristic as plasticity or workability, "hard" seemed counter-intuitive. However, when compared to Gak or Play-Doh or silly putty, I suppose clay is hard.

Officially, the project was to have the kids create a life cycle of a butterfly. However, my philosophy with regard to kids, especially, is that the most important thing for them is to get a sense of clay's characteristics by squishing it, stamping into it, shaping it and attaching pieces together. I also think it is valuable for them to understand that wet squishy clay becomes hard immovable ceramic because it is fired in a kiln. If they don't quite get the firing and the kiln part, at least they see that their clay has changed when the teacher took it away for a few days.

I arranged the slabs randomly in the box to transport them, but I like this set because of the juxtaposition of the minimal with the overloaded and highly textured surface. I also think the butterfly with antennae on top is pretty neat.

My YVCC students prepared for the kids project by rolling out slabs of clay for them and punching holes in the slabs so that later the kids can string them up or hang them on nails. My instructions for my students also asked them to create paper templates of leaves and butterflies for the kids to trace, but I was out sick most of that week and apparently college students don't read written directions. We ended up cutting paper butterfly templates on the fly at the school.

This kid had this butterfly on long before we had discussed how to make it. Some kids really needed the help of the paper templates to trace, others were content to work without it. This is one of only a few butterflies that is raised up from the surface of the slab.

Before we got around to adding the leaf and egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly, I gave the kids some time to push stamps and rollers into the clay. Some of them also decided to add clay elements they created themselves. The amazing thing about kids this age is that most of them don't really care about following specific instructions or making it look "correct"--they just figure it out. And that's great. Sometimes I have trouble getting my adult students to take those sorts of risks, rather than following a prescribed pattern.

This kid was intent on making a person mowing the lawn, complete with house and path. I think she stuck on the butterfly life-cycle just to show she followed the directions. This kid needs to have more access to clay.

After they kids had some experimentation time with the clay, and before they could destroy the form of the slabs, we talked about the life cycle of the butterfly and I asked them to make suggestions for how we might make the different shapes. They've been studying butterflies and caterpillars in class, so they were all excited to tell us about them and to show us the little live caterpillars they had in the classroom. They were also more than capable of figuring out how to squish clay flat and cut or shape it into a leaf. We talked about "scoring and slipping" to attach one piece of clay to another and they all followed this instruction. Later I and my students checked to make sure the pieces were secure and we didn't really have to fix any pieces.

After tracing and cutting out the butterfly, this kid used a sort of shell tool (used for decorating cakes, actually) to add this surface decoration.
The whole lesson took about an hour, with some kids finishing up a bit early and others working right up until the end of our time. None of the kids got particularly frustrated and all seemed to enjoy the project. It was also neat to see the kids' personalities show up visually in the clay. Some were precise and restrained in their decorations, others piled on every bit of clay they could until the surface of the slab was nearly covered. Some kids wanted my student helpers to be very involved, others plowed on ahead without much assistance. The kids sitting with their regular teacher stayed very close to the directions I was giving, while the kids at some other tables were only vaguely aware of the whole butterfly life-cycle part of the project.

After they were finished adding the butterfly, the kids were encouraged to add their initials or names, some just played with the letters, some put the letters on the back. I think some put on letters and then piled on more clay.
After the kids finished building and helped us clean up, my YVCC clay students took the work back to school and later fired it for the class. Helping the kids make the work, seeing their process and building the work through the firing process is, I think, beneficial for my students. They get to apply their knowledge of clay in a new context and act as the instructor.

After the work was fired, I brought it back to the elementary school so that the kids can paint it and take it home.


  1. The pieces produced by the students are great. What an incredible array!

  2. Wow! What a great idea for a young class. I love the pieces!


Tell me what you think about my work or this post