Using Clay to Nurture Young Children's Development

As a ceramic and early years artist, I have been lucky enough to be working with children in the Eureka Nursery, a lovely space and people, developing ways of working with clay. I thought I would share a little of my philosophy of working with this age group.

Clay has been part of my own life for a very long time as a maker and a teacher. My passion for it comes from seeing the benefits it brings to all ages and abilities. As an artist working in early years, I work with a wide range of processes and materials, but wherever possible I will always begin by introducing clay.

It has so many endless possibilities and can be a really helpful indicator of children’s level of development in manipulative skills, confidence, vocabulary, concentration and imagination. I tend to offer it on a big scale (we had three builders trays full of clay in my first session at Eureka!) with a range of open ended resources - anything from builders blocks to plastic tubes and small world objects.  The intention is always to work in a child-led way initially, to observe, interact and then respond to the children’s interests as I get to know them.


Clay has slow-burn learning benefits compared to other materials. By this I mean that children can access it at their own level of confidence and development. For some, the experience of gaining the confidence to handle clay is a big step, while others may be ready to get stuck in and stretch, squeeze, roll and fully immerse themselves in the tactile exploration. It’s a gentle approach of exploration and observation and a fantastic material to learn about how individual children comfortably work best.

In the under two’s group last week, Charlie wasn’t confident in touching the clay, but was very interested in the drainpipes I brought with me. Seeing this, I rolled a ball of clay and sent it down the pipe to appear by magic at the other end. This fascinated him and became the game for a while - the game was the means to get him to touch the clay and before long he was manipulating the clay himself.

The objects we put with the clay are as important as the clay itself for young children. Using open-ended loose parts and small world objects can both trigger imaginative play and also engage children who aren’t confident with the texture of the clay. Once imagination takes over, clay soon becomes a means to a creative pursuit and the newness of the material is forgotten.

Clay doesn’t have the instant wow factor of some materials, or range of bright colours and textures possible with paints, fabrics and other art processes.  It can appear to be a pile of mud, but there might be a myriad of ideas and thoughts that are being processed and imagined while the children explore the clay. It’s great for messy play and combines construction with the exploration - a valuable resource as a learning material especially if it’s on hand for children to access on a regular basis.

Clay seems to have a calming and a grounding effect on many children I’ve worked with. Because of its nature, children can change it, manipulate it in a range of ways. It’s possible to create endless ideas that suit the transient ways that children develop, alter and re-visit their ideas and so concentration levels can be significantly increased. No idea has a finite end.

Last week we experienced children under two years concentrating and engaging with the clay for the best part of an hour while Emily, from the older group, continued to draw her flower sculpture after the session ended. I am back this week to do some more exploring, taking what I’ve learned to develop ideas further for both staff and children.

My last two sessions in the nursery and at Eureka were quite different and just as much of a joy as the first sessions. I took my potter’s wheel with me, a brand new experience for all of the children. The blend of curiosity and excitement meant all the children wanted to be involved and that meant we had to follow procedures and learn about safety.

The potter’s wheel is a real tool/machine, so we took great care to help the children understand when it was safe to put their hands in the clay, when to stand away. I firmly believe that children learn and experience a great deal from using real tools, rather than plastic imitations, wherever safe and wherever possible.

Real tools are often well–crafted and have a quality, a feel and texture that has been developed to hold and manipulate by years of experience of artists, potters, and craft workers. Working in clay, I tend to use turned wooden tools that enhance the handling experience as well as do a better job.  Enabling children to experience tools safely means respect and self-care naturally becomes part of the process.


The steps to making a pot are in a sequence that the children picked up very naturally and quickly just by being so engaged and involved in the process.  I had just cleaned the wheel when one of the children brought a lump of clay and carefully placed it on the wheel, in the centre. Having seen me do this, she was making it clear she was ready for us to make another pot.  I hadn’t anticipated that sequencing would become part of the learning.

And finally, having worked with staff to build skills and confidence in using clay with the children, we worked together at the Makers Faire at the Eureka Museum. Parents, carers, grandparents and children from babies to early teens joined us to create characters, castles, trees and endless experiments with clay and other materials such as pipe cleaners, straws, sequins. There wasn’t a moment when the table was empty of participants of all ages. And the results were amazing.

If you are thinking you’d like to use clay more often with your children, please do give it a go. It is one of the cheapest and most reusable resources.  Keep it in plastic bags or air-tight containers with damp cloths over it, and don’t be afraid to pour a cup of water in and let it soak before it dries out too much to use.  Let it soften, knead it like bread and you are ready to go again!

Ammie Flexen, Ceramic and Early Years Artist


Image Credits: Ammie Flexen at Eureka Nursery