Clay in school

Another in the very popular arts series by Chris Graham

Primary-school children find clay a wonderfully tactile medium to tell their stories.

The manipulation of clay has a universal fascination for children. When given a tennis-ball sized piece of clay they immediately poke, squeeze, stretch, and roll it into a variety of forms. They add or pull out legs, arms, wings, and horns.  With pinched out lips, noses, scales, buttons and attached pellet eyes, hair and spikes, their clay models possess a directness and dynamism that only this process can provide.

Snakes, birthday cakes, cups, fish, dinosaurs, clowns, hearts, butterflies, birds, kangaroos, trees, rugby balls, surfboards, and flowers will soon abound.

Generally primary-school children do not add particular detail to these spontaneous forms apart from those developed by fingers. However, further texture and pattern experiment can be encouraged with the use of found objects such as old pens, ice-cream sticks, screws, nails, plastic forks, and knives to impress and incise designs on clothes, hair on cats, feathers on birds, and so on.

Clay offers opportunities for personal expression for children of all ages, however, there are real difficulties for the busy teacher who has to deal with a messy material like this. Sound classroom organisation and an understanding of modelling processes, as well as preparing, drying and firing, is vital for success. A very helpful guide can be found in Sculpture – Exploring the Visual Arts in Years 1-6, pages 22-25, a Ministry of Education booklet held in every primary school.

Clay is readily available from suppliers of school art materials. It should be as soft as possible without being sticky. Children can store individual allocations in a plastic bag inside a closed plastic ice-cream container. A damp sponge inside the plastic bag will maintain a moist atmosphere and stop the clay drying out and becoming unworkable. Unfinished models can also be stored in this way and reworked as children find time.

A class collection of textural tools can be stored in a bucket and made accessible when required. Plastic rods are very useful. The ends, corners and edges can be used to make an infinite number of impressed patterns in clay surfaces.

Because clay shrinks as it dries, legs, arms, heads, handles, spikes, and spurs are liable to fall off completed models. It is essential that children learn effective methods of joining. Surfaces should be roughed up with an old toothbrush and joined with slip (a paste made with clay and water). If a hole is made in the body with a stick or fingers and arms and legs then inserted, the joint will be strengthened.

An exercise for the imagination

Inspired by Finding One’s Way With Clay by Paulus Berensohn

To reinforce children’s spontaneity and encourage those who are diffident, the following warm-up, skill-building activity is useful and should precede every project.  Give each child a tennis-ball sized piece of clay and a few clay tools. Lead the session with a series of instructions and suggestions. Be sure to encourage children’s efforts as they work. For younger children simplify the instructions and make suggestions based on familiar shapes and forms:

  • Prepare ten small amounts of clay: round balls, squares, egg shapes, or just pieces
  • Pick up your first piece. Begin to push, pull, pinch, and roll your clay to make something. This may be a free form and not look like anything you know
  • After two minutes put down what you are working on and start another
  • Let your fingers work fast and try not to repeat yourself
  • There are no rules. Don’t criticise what you have done, just keep going
  • Can you tear the clay, pleat it, twist it, plait it, wrap it, or fold it?
  • Use your fingers and the clay tools to make patterns
  • If you don’t know what to do next, look around the room until something catches your eye that you can translate through your fingers into the clay: the clock, the seven-times table, the globe
  • Or imagine things being placed in front of you as you work: a book, a sandwich, a pear, a cat, a lampshade, a button, a basketball, a buttercup, or a beetle
  • Can you make a quick three-dimensional sketch in your clay of those lines of that pear?
  • When your time is up and you have completed ten forms, spend a minute or two deep breathing and stretching
  • Now look carefully at your models and choose one that seems the most interesting. You might combine two or more of them.  Tell a partner why you made your choice.

A series of planned lessons should follow the previous experimentation. They should develop children’s skills and extend their ability to tell their stories through a sound understanding of the processes involved when modelling with clay. These lessons should teach children to:

  • Take a creative approach through a confident and relaxed attitude free from fear of failure
  • Solve problems and use clay in increasingly inventive ways
  • Use expressive qualities in their models that indicate personal thoughts, feelings, and narratives
  • Develop the skills necessary to work successfully with clay.


Slabs depicting small animals arising from a science study are a good starting point.

Use a rolling pin or dowel to roll out a hand-sized slab about a centimetre thick. (Use your thumb as a guide.)  The edges can be trimmed to provide clay for building on to the slab. Thin pieces of clay are shaped and joined to form a bas relief (low-relief) model. Small coils and pellets of clay can be added for details with texture and pattern impressed into the surface with various tools.

 Story Pots

Children enjoy making story pots that include words, bas-relief images, and models.

They often arise from the language and social studies programme.

A straightforward instructional framework helps children develop a sequence without dictating an outcome:

  • Roll out four slabs about the thickness of your thumb
  • Use small coils to make a word and join them to one of the slabs
  • Now make a picture from thin pieces of clay to illustrate your word
  • Attach it to the second slab
  • Carefully join the slabs together and join to a base
  • Add a figure or any other contextual objects to tell your story.

With experience, these basic ‘story pots’ develop in complexity and become vessels, carrying sophisticated cultural narratives.


Working in the round  

Children enjoy making three dimensional models. Pets and animals, real and imaginary, are always popular. Impressed patterns can indicate a cat’s fur or a dinosaur’s skin.

Older children are more successful in dealing with the complexities of figure modelling. A suitable narrative arising from the language programme can be utilised.

Developing an idea:

  • Consider a situation, real or imagined, in which you have felt particularly tired and dejected or relaxed and happy
  • Position yourself in a way that depicts your mood at the time
  • Carefully observe your body position and employ this information when creating a modelled figure or figures if you’re portraying a relationship: mother and baby or victorious team members for instance
  • You could work in pairs to do this.

Modelling the figure:

  • Divide your tennis-ball sized piece of clay into four fairly even pieces
  • Roll one piece into an oval cylinder to form the body (torso)
  • From the second piece roll a coil about four times as long as the body and about half the width. This coil will become the legs
  • Now for the arms roll another coil about the same length as the legs but a little thinner
  • The fourth piece can be used to make a neck, a head, and details for clothing, and so on
  • Assemble the figure making sure all joins are secure (use a toothbrush and a small amount of water to roughen and wet the surfaces to be joined)
  • It may be seated, kneeling, or reclining. If standing the model will need support – leaning against a boulder perhaps
  • It must show a mood: relaxation when reading a book, sunbathing, or playing the guitar, happiness when opening a present, fright when the dog barks, surprise when something unexpected happens
  • Consider head and shoulder positions, tilt the head to suit the pose
  • Think about the position of the back, arms, and legs, use small pieces of clay to build up shoulders, chest, legs, and arm muscles
  • Flatten the ends of legs and arms for feet and hands. Indicate fingers and toes or shoes
  • Use small pieces of clay to add hair, features, and clothing details – sleeve and trouser cuffs can be added and smoothed to suit. Create folds and creases
  • Attach your model to a suitable slab
  • Develop your story by creating at least two associated contextual objects –  suitcase, pack, stick, dog, blanket, guitar, rock, log, ball, beach towel, book …
  • These forms must be joined securely to the figure and/or one another for stability
  • Work on a piece of card turning the model frequently so that it shows the mood from every viewpoint.

Sunbathing at the beach


  Reading a book                                                                                    Pets


Children’s concentration and engagement in the task and sheer enjoyment when working with clay makes this an essential part of all primary school classrooms.

                    [Thanks to all the children whose work is featured here.]

This entry was posted in Curriculum, Schooling, Teaching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Clay in school

  1. Pat Newman says:

    Neat ideas. I’d forgotten this stuff. Well done.

  2. Bruce Hammonds says:

    I wonder how much clay could be bought for the price of one computer? Such fun and real creativity – a real messy experience that would be more worthwhile than the virtual world.

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