What Children Learn From Clay

When I greet my students in the hall and announce that today will be a clay day, they immediately begin to cheer.  Clay, is hands down one of the most favorite media of every elementary student with whom I’ve worked.  Some students need a little coaxing, but they get there quickly.  Clay is one of the most forgiving of the art mediums.  It’s squishy, cool, and is easy to put back together with just a bit of water. Above all else, it’s fun!  Where else do you get to smush, bang, splat, and roll with abandon?  Clay is magical.

The magical powers of clay are too numerous to count.  Working with clay increases dexterity and fine motor skills.  It creates situations where students problem solve in alternative ways.  Clay gives students a chance to work from a 2-dimensional concept and turn it into a 3-dimensional product.  You can reach students who are impulsive and those who are planners.  Clay brings students who have sensory issues into the realm of controlled messiness, with the understanding that they will be able to control their environment and clean up at the end, even though they will be getting their hands dirty.  Clay gives students a chance to make the biggest mess ever, but one that is purposeful and productive.  Clay is amazing.

With my younger students, I give them a chance to play in the beginning.  The Kindergarteners have an entire class period in which they get to roll out clay, pinch it, pull it, smash it, stick tools into it, and create pizzas or tacos or snakes (or whatever they come up with).  The joy and focused work that comes from that class is impressive.  You can feel their energy when you walk into the studio.  The best part of it?  We smash it all up at the end of the class and it goes back into the clay bag.  They start to learn that art does not have to be kept forever, and they learn to experiment to try different things.  Clay is freeing.

With my older students, I give them the freedom to create whatever they want- with the caveat that it can’t explode in the kiln.  My fourth graders brainstorm and sketch out ideas that have ranged from shoes to hockey sticks to animals to food to a full baseball stadium complete with players.  Once they’ve sketched out their ideas, they make a plan for how to construct their sculpture.  How will they build something that won’t explode? How will they combine pieces together to create a form that looks as if it was sculpted from one large piece of clay?  What will they do to create the texture of fur, or the surface of a hamburger?  What small details will they add that takes the work from just okay to spectacular?  As a group, they brainstorm the techniques they’ve learned over the past few years, and then make a step by step plan (either in drawing or list form) of how they will construct their piece.  They work completely independently, hollowing out large forms, attaching pieces together, stuffing newspaper inside something to act as armature- working as real artists and creative problem solvers.  Clay is challenging.

The clay process provides one of the most important and accessible aspects of a young artist’s development.  A student doesn’t have to be able to draw beautifully to find success in clay.  A student can make a mistake and quickly fix it- or decide they want to go in a completely new direction.  Clay can reach almost every student, and each of those students can find success and enjoyment through the process.  Clay is inclusive.


Click here to learn more about Lower School art at St. Paul’s.

Camille Gammon-Hittelman

Camille Gammon-Hittelman

Camille Gammon-Hittelman, or “Ms.G-H”, as her students call her, is the Lower School Art Teacher. She began teaching at St. Paul’s in 2005, and started her teaching in Baltimore County two years before that. She can be reached at chittelman@stpaulsschool.org

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