Based on their first experiences in the Kandinsky art project, the team decided to focus on the exploration of materials and to do it through playing with clay (Plastisial Clay) - Go to site

Their choice might have been influenced by the perception that this fell under the heading of Art activities with which they are comfortable. They also were greatly inspired by the work Professor Sheryl Smith-Gilman who had worked in an indigenous community and used this medium extensively with stellar results. They had no experience whatsoever with clay, but with Sheryl’s experience, with additional documentation, and their years of kindergarten teaching experience to bank on, they forged ahead.

Connecting With and Exploring the Materials: Letting the Materials and the Environment Lead

This time the most important thing for them was to give the children ample opportunity to explore clay as a medium. Sheryl’s experience had made very clear how important it is for the children to become familiar with how clay feels, how it reacts, what happens when… you flatten it, you roll it, you add water to it, etc.

The children explored the medium freely.


After the exploration of clay, Pottery Tools were introduced

Download a list of readily available tools.

Discovering the Power of Materials

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”.

The teachers instinctively resisted the urge to control this behaviour, allowing the children instead to explore in their own way. Soon the energy in the class came down. The children became focused and concentrated. The clay even had a calming effect on children who were normally agitated. The teachers noted “their mind, body, facial expressions just became calm”, a rare occurrence for some.

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.

Gathering the language associated with the materials used

Teachers both provided and collected the words the children used to talk about clay and about making with clay. They created Vocabulary Cards ( Download) with the children's words. From the pictures taken during the exploration phases - completed by other images taken from the web – a Book of Gestures ( Download) was created. Creating such a booklet related to materials offers the children (as well as adults) “some ideas of the potential of a material without communicating too tightly how it is to be used.” 1 It inspires without constraining.

In the same vein, teachers again enriched the environment by providing a Book of things I can make with clay ( Download) which connected the children’s clay gestures to techniques and productions. They observed how the books inspired them to take on new challenges in their explorations. The “first edition” of the Book of things I can make with clay was created using images of children’s work taken from the Internet. But with the images the teachers took during the exploration, it could now be “re-published” using the classroom productions.

This exploration lent itself to gathering vocabulary and making a book of gestures because the exploration phase was an intense “technical” discovery of both the behaviour of the material and the tools. Because they were working on their own and then sharing their explorations, the need for vocabulary was natural in this context.


1 From: Baker, P (2015) The story of a Studio in a Southern Arizona School. L. Gandini, L. Hill, L. Caldwell, & C. Schwall (Eds.), In the Spirit of Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia. (pp. 145-148).  New York: Teachers College Press Go to site

The Material as an Expressive Tool

Teachers described how, while exploring ways to manipulate the clay, the children spontaneously created shapes. They made a tree, then morphed it into something else, then modified it again: their ideas flowed into the clay, ever-changing. This confirmed for the teachers the importance of letting the materials drive the exploration. In the end, there may or may not even be a precise creation goal. The whole exploration could be open-ended without a “final uniform challenge”, letting the children use the clay instead to express their own ideas.  

This process which they observed happening in their class is beautifully described by Charles Schwall in  “The grammar of materials”. 1

Aesthetic choices that depend on the desires of the individual maker usually take precedence in the work. The process begins when one becomes familiar with the materials and the first attempts are made. The material resists, and the creator must find the strength to push the work forward. The imagination is engaged as hands carry out the work. At some point, the work begins to take physical form; this may happen instantly or very slowly. Ideas emerge only after the material is manipulated for a period of time. As the material begins to take shape, a mental image grows. Awareness of the intended audience may further define the work. Again, there are no prescriptive paths in the creative process.


Combining this approach with a guided exploration, Natalie presented the children with a simple technique for creating a “pinch pot”, a small bowl created by shaping a clay ball with a pinching technique. Then the children explored using tools and water to smooth, add patterns or shape their pots. This gave them a further sense of how clay works and reacts when you try to shape it.





The teacher invites Jake to explain how he is making his bowl
bigger while providing some vocabulary for him to describe
his process.


The teacher invites the child to explain how he smoothes his
bowl with water. His response demonstrates how important it
is not to make assumptions on children’s intentions and understanding.  


With Christmas fast approaching, the children in all three classes pushed their
explorations to completion by creating a Christmas gift to bring home.

Snowman Person
Cookies and Bowl Family Hearts
My Family Sun



1 From: Schwall, c (2015) The Grammar of Materials. L. Gandini, L. Hill, L. Caldwell, & C. Schwall (Eds.), In the Spirit of Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia. (pp. 145-148).  New York: Teachers College Press Go to site

A Path Full of Challenges

This project presented many challenges for the teachers. Learning to deal with clay as a pedagogical and as an art material was top and foremost.  As Christiane K. Said “Honestly, that was working on my personality: I LOVE THINGS CLEAN. This was WAY out of my comfort zone. Even in the cleaning up: they made a ball with a little hole in it and came up to the sink to fill the hole with water. When they closed it, the water squirted all over. Then they placed it in their Ziploc bag and put it in my bin, …  and the bags were all slimy. I had clay all over, on my clothes, in my hair.



They were dealing with practical class and materials management aspects while at the same time being very conscious of their pedagogical interventions and documenting the learning process (theirs and the children’s).   

Though they laugh about it, it was definitely out of their comfort zone. Yet, surprisingly, it piqued the interest of kindergarten colleagues in their school. Perhaps because the pleasure they had observing and interacting with the children shone through when discussing with these colleagues.

This exploration provided them with insight about the importance of allowing the children to explore the materials so they can gain that experience which allows creativity to flow. But even further, they became aware that some types of interactions could easily close the doors to creativity. It is tricky not to be drawn to praise a lovely crafted object or not to remark on children’s comments in such a way as to make some seem right and others wrong.

Resources and References

(1) Plastisial Clay - Go to site

(2) Pottery Tools: homemade versions - Download

(3) Question Cards - Download

(4) Clay Tools Vocabulary Cards - Download

(5) Clay Gestures Book - Download

(6) Baker, P (2015) The story of a Studio in a Southern Arizona School. L. Gandini, L. Hill, L. Caldwell, & C. Schwall (Eds.), In the Spirit of Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia. (pp. 145-148).  New York: Teachers College Press Go to site

(7) Things I can make with clay: a book of ideas - Download

(8) Schwall, c (2015) The Grammar of Materials. L. Gandini, L. Hill, L. Caldwell, & C. Schwall (Eds.), In the Spirit of Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia. (pp. 145-148).  New York: Teachers College Press Go to site


Follow this link to continue on to the next case study: Marble Run - Children as Engineers - Go to page