learning a process or a product?
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.
to emphasize the third-dimensional
content is appropriate for children?
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.
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.
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.
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."
to critique children?
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.