Clay and Kids: the natural way to learn

by Marvin Bartel

This article first appeared in the June 2002 © issue of Studio Potter . It is reprinted here by the author.
Thomas Aquinas (1) defined "human" as, "a being with brains and hands. As such our greatest joy comes when we can employ both our brains and our hands simultaneously in ways which are creative, useful, and productive." As a potter, father, grandfather, teacher, artist, and art educator, I have a longstanding interest in how much children love to work with clay. Most children, up to ages six to eight are by nature curious and self-confident about everything. While they instinctively love to use their hands, many children have been acculturated to worry about getting "dirty." I show them how easy it is to rinse and sponge the clay off their hands and they lose all inhibitions and plunge in.

The author's daughter at 30 months. She is having some fun imitating dad.

photo © Marvin Bartel

Toy companies, in attempts to sell more stuff, do their part to ruin creativity in childhood by suggesting too many answers and by including too many gadgets. I have no problems with Play Doh® and similar modeling products as materials. However, gadgets like extruders, molds, cookie cutters, or any design suggestions or pattern books take original thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Too often when it is modeling time in a pre-school or a kindergarten the children rush over to the rolling pins and cookie cutters. If I want children to respond to clay in healthy creative ways, I first hide or trash the gadgets and any tools that limit possibilities.

A 3 year-old boy adds ears to his rabbits while the rabbit takes a break in one of Bartel's stoneware bowls nearby.

2002 photo © Marvin Bartel

Is learning a process or a product?
Children who have become discouraged by their own drawing ability often find clay much less threatening. Fortunately, there are fewer adult "experts" who are anxious to make insensitive corrections in a child's clay work than in drawing.

Once young children have some experience with clay, all they need is some clay. I try not to give suggestions, but I have learned to phrase open questions. If a child is sculpting, "I am playing with my dog, Shaggy." A much richer piece develops when I ask, "What games do you and Shaggy play? What things does Shaggy like to play with? How does Shaggy feel when you rub her neck? What does Shaggy like to chew on?" This is a standard method also known as accretion. The same ideas that work with drawing also work with clay. When I ask open questions, I am, to use Viktor Lowenfeld's ( 2 ) terms, "Making passive knowledge active." It works well when children are making sculpture based on their own experience.

In most cases it is most natural for younger children to make things by combining pieces of clay. Lowenfeld called this the synthetic method where a child often begins with a body and adds legs, head, tail and so on. In what he called the analytic method, the child is asked to begin with a single lump and squeeze the parts from it.

How to emphasize the third-dimensional
If I am working with children of six or older who have never made three-dimensional artwork, I find it helpful to have them start with a simple sculpture that can be formed in their hands without setting the clay on the table as they work. Using a comfortably sized lump of soft clay, they are encouraged to keep turning it in their hands so they can see it from every direction as they work. Younger children will generally need to make sculpture by the "synthetic" method of sticking lots of pieces together like bodies, legs, tail and head. Three-dimensional quality comes naturally for these children. I sometimes simply have them turn the piece around. Turn it upside down to check the bottom, and so on.

What content is appropriate for children?
Young children do most of their work from their own experiences . Select "I and my" topics. "I am playing with my stuffed kangaroo." "This is my family." "This is my baby sister."

Observation is the second good source of inspiration. I go to the thing observed. We discuss it before starting. I will use my pointing finger, and ask questions. I will call attention to the attributes in some detail. I point to various parts and ask detailed questions about form and size relationships, about surface and texture, and about point of view, attitude, feeling, and so on. I will turn the model or have the child move around the subject of observation. Children will benefit more if they learn to make their own observations and interpretations of what they see. I do not want to limit their creative options by making them dependent on copy work from clay objects - especially not mine. I avoid doing demonstrations, but I encourage them to experiment. I want them to become self-sufficient in visual thinking and problem solving - not just in their clay making skills.
This child is adding texture to her rabbit sculpture based on a rabbit she is taking care for a neighbor who is out of town. She made observations while feeding the rabbit and is now remembering the experience.
photos © Marvin Bartel

Imagination is the third source of inspiration for sculpture. I believe that very different parts of the brain are developed in each of the processes of observation, memory (working from everyday experiences), and imagination. All three are developmentally important. Imagination is our brain's way to test our words and our actions before saying or doing things. Our imagination is what allows us to empathize with others. Of course we all use all three ways of thinking in every activity without ever thinking about thinking.

Imaginary sculpture topics might include monsters, creatures, life on other planets, things in the future, and adaptations from real object to make them funny, dangerous, more like humans, more like toys, and so on. Making clichés from comics, television, movies, and so on, do not help develop imagination. It creates a subtle form of dependency. When working with children who have gotten stuck on clichés, I might start with an observation project and then suggest that they convert them to imaginary projects by suggesting a change in the method of locomotion. A dog becomes a dog-bird, dog-fish, motor-dog, or jelly-dog. Caricature is also a great way to lighten up the mood.

Designing craft items
Children also enjoy making useful objects and vessels from clay. Pinching and coiling are intuitive. Designing functional work is another way to develop the imagination and visual thinking. Very little demonstration or instruction is needed. Demonstrations can easily give children the impression that following directions is more important than invention. Instead of demonstrating these things to young children, I like to ask them how they want to do these things and how they want the things to look. I then encourage them to experiment.

I ask questions about what they think the piece can be used for, how easy it will be to clean, how easy it will break, and so on. This helps them clarify design problems, but does not solve the problems for them.

If they neglect to smooth the surface, I might ask them if they like it better when it is bumpy or smooth. If they say smooth, I might ask if they can think of ways to smooth it. If they are hesitant to try things, I suggest they take another piece clay and try some things on it. If they say that they want it bumpy, I might ask if they like texture. If they say yes, I might give them extra clay to practice making textures. They then select one for the piece of pottery being made. They are learning to experiment, to invent, and to think. Their product is not being designed for me, but for them. I am the consultant, not the director. If I see them make a joint that seems inadequate, I might ask if they would feel bad if it came apart. I might them ask if they can figure out a way to make the joint a bit stronger.

With older children, I have them practice making good and bad joints, testing how strong they are by immediately pulling on them to see how easily they come apart. This encourages them to be "scientific" as well as artistic. I might have them make five handles on one cup and then leave only the one or two they like the best. I want them to learn to make choices and how to learn experientially.
Should children learn to throw?
Throwing can be learned at any age just as the violin can be learned at any age. However, it takes a skilled violinist who understands children to help a three-year-old learn to play. In my opinion, only a skilled potter who understands children should attempt to help a three year old learn to throw. I am not convinced that learning to throw at young age has the same benefits as learning to play violin at a young age. I learned to throw in college. Most potters that I know were able to learn the skill at a fairly mature age.

The author is helping a 4 year old who is learning how centering is done.

photos © Marvin Bartel

I will say that my best college student throwers have been those that had a good throwing teacher during their early teen years. Several of my best students have been the younger siblings of one of my pottery students.

With young children, I spend time getting to know them. Sometimes we snack together using some nice pottery cups and bowls. As we work, I talk everything over withthem as we do it. We use very soft aged and perfectly wedged clay, so they can feel some control. I help brace their hands and fingers when they first learn so that they kinesthetically sense the force that is needed. I give them many choices about shape, width, height, and so on. I explain each force that is being applied so they understand how each force has an effect on the clay. I explain that every piece of pottery we keep will have both our names on it until they are able to do all the work by themselves.

I coach them. If the top is getting very thin, I ask them if they would like to make the top a bit stronger to avoid chipping? If so, I suggest sponging it down a bit so it will thicken and not chip too easily in use. When something is about fall, I warn them to avoid too many failures. When mistakes happen, we learn to say, "Oops." Last December my granddaughter at age four was shopping with her father at pottery guild. She was looking for a gift for her preschool teacher. A potter was showing her a mug. She examined the mug and said, "The potter who made this cup needs a few more lessons. The top is too thin. It would get broken right away."

How to critique children?
In a critique of children's work I have them compare two or more of their own things. They can make choices and explain why they think some things look better to them, work better for them, or express better what they wanted to express. I might add a few observations of my own, but mainly I will point out specific aspects or attributes that I think are working well.

I am careful to avoid negative criticism. Sometimes I can think of a way to gently raise an issue with a question, but even this needs to be done with care and sensitivity. The best way we learn is to keep working. There is no useful purpose served if the child's motivation to work is damaged by my comments. If a child expresses disappointment in something, I encourage more practice and experimentation to solve the problem.

Working to help children develop their creativity requires that we refrain from being overbearing or too directive, but it does allow us be concerned expert coaches, articulate inspirational artists, and encouraging helpers. When it comes to fostering creativity, good open questions are priceless. Good crafts grow out of good thinking, intrinsic desire, and lots of practice; not from external rules.


1 I am sorry to say that have lost track of where I found this quotation attributed to Thomas Aquinas. If any reader knows where to find it, please send me an e-mail.

2 Lowenfeld, Viktor. and Brittain, W. Lambert. Creative and Mental Growth, 4th ed. 1964. MacMillan, N.Y.

Note: I do not think that Lowenfeld uses the phases, "making passive knowledge active" in his book. However, Dr. Phil Rueschhoff, told me this phase. He was a student of Lowenfeld and he told me that he learned it directly from Lowenfeld.

Links to other Art Education essays by this author | Meet the Author

Links to other Ceramics and Pottery pages by this author

Learning toThrow | The Goshen College Art Department

E-mail the author