The teachers experienced a shock when the children were each given a ball of clay. The children became, in the teachers’ words, “primitive, primal, little savages: they punched the clay, they karate chopped it, they threw it on the table, they were loud and boisterous”.
When later discussing these observations, the teachers surmised that children no longer have a large spectrum of experience with different types of materials. For many, everyday play has been much constrained by commercial toys and their time has often been captivated by ubiquitous electronic devices. A telling remark made at a later date but which resonates here was “Let them play, they’ll never be allowed to do this at home”. From infant/toddlers centers, in good daycare situations to preschool services, the children should have had continuing opportunities to discover how materials present themselves and can be transformed. They should have acquired knowledge of a variety of materials – form, texture, shape, colour, smell, appearance, etc. – to learn that they can be used in many different ways and, eventually, how they can be used to give shape to their own ideas. But the teachers realised that they could not count on this having happened and it validated for them the importance of continuing this type of open play exploration in preschool.
Because this was pure exploration, without any expected outcome, the teachers naturally adopted the observer stance as they interacted with the children. They became very conscious of the quality of their questions and their comments. Asking “What are you making?” was definitely taboo! Their objective, among other things, was to help the children develop a vocabulary of the gestures of clay work to help them talk about it. The might ask, “What are you doing right now?”, or they might provide vocabulary by saying “I see that you pinched the clay. Can you show me how you do that?” To help vary their questions, we created a set of open-ended question cards - ( Download) they could put on a key ring. The same open-ended questioning strategies were used when came time to introduce tools: “What do you think you could do with this XYZ?”, “Tell me about the imprints you made in the clay”, “What else could you do with XYZ?"
Observing carefully and listening to the children helped the teachers see how the children learned with materials so that they could better support them along the way without interfering in that process.