A parent recently asked me if we had been working on shapes because her two-year-old was quite knowledgeable about the topic. I just smiled, because we work on shapes all day long, starting with breakfast. Would you like circles (Cheerios), squares (Chex) or hexagons (Crispix)? Math is embedded in many of your daily activities as well. We just need to train our senses to find the math!
So, where is all the math in this clay area that we are creating?
When a new child joins our clay table, only to discover that there is no clay to be had, the children in our group know that they can each contribute a bit of their own clay to make a nice clay ball for their friend.
This is decomposition! The children have learned that a whole can be decomposed into parts.
This is problem-solving!
This is adding parts to make a whole ball of clay for their friend.
And you, my friend, aren’t even coming to my table because you are “allergic” to playdough and clay—the same way that I am “allergic” to glitter. Ha! Gotcha!
I promised you lots of tips to make this an easy and successful setup. I wouldn’t be writing a blog about clay if I weren’t passionate about it. Honestly, it’s THAT good! Come , let me share my clay with you.
More about trays
We talked earlier in the month about trays. Adding a tray full of loose parts is as important to the play as the clay itself. Look for trays that are big enough to hold heavy clay and loose parts. I really like wooden trays with sections, but we use baskets filled with empty yogurt cups. We LOVE the new Oui yogurt glass containers! I love the transparency and beauty of these. You will not believe how strong these glass containers are. Ours have fallen onto our hardwood floors and outdoor deck without a chip or a nick. They just add to the sense of beauty with the wood that I think adds to the calmness of our clay.
I dispensed with cookie cutters years ago because I believe that they restrict my students’ creativity. The use of open-ended loose parts and small objects triggers imaginative play and prompts children to investigate new ideas. The more time that children spend playing with clay and objects, the more confident they will become about their creations. The trays and shallow baskets that we use to organize our clay and loose parts also come in handy when it’s time to clean up. Trust me, it won’t look as beautiful as when you started, but everything can be put away quickly, which is priceless for every teacher I know! Designing, creating, building, arranging and restoring order will come naturally to children through their clay time. You will see patterns, symmetry and shapes explored. When we use trays with separate compartments, this helps foster the development of early math skills and encourages children to put loose parts back where they came from.
Clay for sensory kids
For children with sensory issues, we have used popsicle sticks, chopsticks, toy cars, toy dinosaurs and other materials to coax them into the clay zone.
If the clay is too hard when you first bring it out, it’s likely cold. We warm it up by making snakes. We also stretch the clay and make it LONG and THIN instead of SHORT and THICK. By starting the younger students out with flattened clay (think of a pancake), you are saving yourself time. The older, stronger students can begin with a ball to really work those hand muscles, but save yourself some time and start flat with the little ones.
On a ninety-degree day, this clay will remind you of crayons that melt in the hot sunshine. We tried working with clay outside in the sun on a hot day and ended up with clay soup. I’m sure the clay is fine when it cools down, but mine and everything that was stuck to it went straight into the trash. We’ve played with pliable clay in the shade on very hot days, but take my advice when I tell you to avoid direct sunshine—or you will be writing to me in the comments section below!
If your winters are cold, this is a great time to keep your clay stored in flat pancakes, not balls. I try to keep the clay in a warm area such as the top cabinet above the stove. Avoid cold basements or porch areas—and please don’t try to warm it in the microwave. (Just trust me on that.)
Thick, thin, make it again
Clay snakes are also a great lead-in for this activity, which we then extend into classifying and organizing. The rolling strengthens little wrists and the small muscles of the hand and builds arch development, which will increase children’s endurance for writing and coloring in the future. We often introduce scissors with this activity to cut the snakes into chunks. The clay is firm enough that the child can focus on scissor coordination, rather than struggling with flimsy paper. We also create “fat sticks,” which are actually just clay snakes held vertically, but we try to rotate the clay and twirl it between the thumb and fingers. It works different muscles; call it anything you want!
Mirror, Mirror on the Clay
I recently added unbreakable mirrors to our clay tray, and the children requested them all week long. Mirrors add a new perspective to clay activities. I also think children like to use anything that gives them a base or framework for their projects.
Time, time, time
Clay is calming, always inclusive and always developmentally appropriate. Whether you are dealing with mixed ages, sensory issues or different language-skill levels, clay will meet your students exactly where they are! Each child will interact with the clay at their own level of imagination, confidence and curiosity. Clay responds to rolling, poking, stretching, squeezing or patting. When you are three years old and you don’t get to control much in your life, manipulating that clay can be immensely satisfying! Give them lots of time!
It only bothers you and me. The children honestly don’t care that their yellow, green, blue, pink and purple spiral is slowly turning brown. Ugly brown. I looked at it for months. Only the older, school-aged siblings asked for new clay. Finally, I could stand it no longer. I put it away and started over. Now, when I put out fresh clay, I put out colors that will blend together beautifully. Red, yellow, orange are blending cheerfully. Red, blue and purple is a nice combination. We also used this as a chance to create sets of colors and combinations and patterning of colored balls. Embedding math, that’s our goal.
Dollar Tree stores often sell wooden numbers that you can add to your clay when your students are ready. But don’t rush it. You are building math environments. It will come!
The many benefits of clay
Let your students build their math and science skills through clay. You will see that, by working with clay, children develop eye-hand coordination as they build the small muscles in their fingers and hands. I like to imagine that each child’s brain is taking shape right along with the clay. Neurons and synapses in the brain are generated each time a child explores new ideas through their tactile and visual experiences with this soft, pliable material. Clay also has a uniquely therapeutic quality that settles and calms children. I have seen the busiest children spend an hour or more at our clay table. It’s truly magical—and it’s math. Have fun!