Using clay to scaffold and understand children’s expressions

One of the most exciting dimensions of teaching the visual arts education papers that I coordinate for early childhood teacher trainees at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) is getting the students to use clay for their own art making. Often it is the very first time these adult students have used clay so they find it a little bit daunting. However, after their initial explorations with the medium they usually get very excited by what they create and, through their own process, start to see lots of possibilities for using clay with young children.

Whilst the students need to create an individual piece of work for their assignment, there is usually a lot of chatter and sharing of ideas as they proceed. One of my students remarked, when she was reflecting about using the medium with young children, “I think clay is a great way to get people talking … I found that I was talking a lot with the other students around me about what we were creating. Clay is a modelling tool so I think it allows children to … express their thoughts and ideas with others at the table” (D Pilay, 20 May 2014).

This student’s observation of how working with clay facilitated the sharing of ideas and thoughts is certainly something I have often observed when working with young children in an early childhood environment. From many anecdotal observations of children using clay I feel strongly that, apart from teaching young children the physical skills required to use the medium successfully to create three dimensional artworks, using clay gives children another language for expressing their thoughts, ideas and emerging working theories about their world (Ministry of Education, 1996). In other words, helping them to make their thinking and learning visible (Project Zero and Reggio Children) through another valuable art medium.

This image shows a teacher actively engaged in young children's exploration of paper clay
This image shows a teacher actively engaged in young children's exploration of paper clay

It has also been my observation that the ability to make something solid that has a ‘back’, ‘sides’, ‘front’, ‘underneath’ or ‘inside’ seems to motivate young children to use clay to create objects that interest them. The technical problem-solving that is required for complex clay pieces provides stimulating and creative challenges for children. As children work to solve technical problems with clay they often collaborate, sharing their skills and knowledge with each other. However, teachers also need to work alongside children in order to scaffold some of these developing skills.

Whilst there is no concrete research evidence that I have found to support my anecdotal observations, I do think that clay is a medium that seems to attract boys to engage in this form of art-making. I have also seen how much toddlers enjoy using clay and delight in its sensory and tactile qualities, enjoying interchanges with teachers as they use it.

With all age-groups it is important to use rich language with children when discussing their clay work. For example, teachers can comment on specific elements - such as form, texture, colour, or line, and use technical terms - such as: coiling, modelling, sculpting, wedging, pinching, poking, etching, decorating, slip, glaze, firing, and kiln ( see also 'Claywork – some terms and notes from Ursula Kolbe'). This is another reason for why it is important that teachers engage alongside children with the medium and to get their hands dirty too!

It is really important to have clay available regularly so children learn how to master the skills and techniques over time (Kolbe, 2007). One-off experiences, in my view, do not give children the opportunity to extend and deepen their skills, or experiment with new ideas using this material.

To conclude, in a world where there is growing concern about sustainability and using our resources wisely and well, using clay can connect children to an important natural resource that has been used for the creation of art objects by human beings for thousands of years.  The ability to reuse and recycle clay is an important benefit of using this art medium with young children.

Lisa Terreni is Senior Lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington’s Faculty of Education, teaching in the early childhood education degree programmes.



  • Kolbe, U. (2007). Rapunzle’s supermarket: All about young children and their art. Australia: Peppinot Press.
  • Project Zero and Reggio Children. (2001). Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.
  • Ministry of Education. (1996). Te Whariki: He Whariki Matauranga mo nga Mokopuna o Aotearoa: Early Childhood Curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media.
  • Terreni, L. (2010). Clay, an environmentally sound alternative to playdough. ecARTnz, 3, 6-8. Retrieved from

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