These are all useful ‘plastic’ materials though very different from each other. Young children enjoying with them although one or two in every group seem to find the texture distasteful. They may or may not overcome this during the preschool period. The question of when to introduce them depends very much on mother and child but from eighteen months onwards a fairly firm consistency of dough or clay is found very satisfying.
This may be bought in powder form but for nursery group and home use is usually bought ready mixed. It is relatively cheap to buy although it has to be bought in quantities that sound huge because it is so heavy. Half a hundredweight would not be too much for family use and for nurseries at least a hundredweight is necessary. One can buy either grey or terracotta colours. The terracotta clay seems to keep its soft consistency better than the grey.
For young children it is best to keep it in the pliable but non-sticky consistency in which it is delivered. Every time clay is used it dries out a little and it can become too hard to manipulate easily so water must be added while it is stored. The easiest method is to roll it into balls about the size of an orange, dig in a finger or thumb to make a hole large enough to take about two teaspoons of water and then cover over the hole. Some kind of waterproof container, a plastic bucket is probably the easiest, with a tight-fitting lid will prevent more moisture being lost. Another method is to put flat pieces of brick or wood in the bottom of the bucket and add water to almost cover these. The pieces of clay are piled on top, not touching the water but being kept in the damp atmosphere. For a very small quantity of clay a stout plastic bag tightly fastened is adequate.
Older children may enjoy using really sticky clay or if it is very dry adding water to a point where it becomes malleable again. With clay which has really dried out there can be an enjoyable game smashing it into tiny pieces to be put in a bucket and covered with water – then the mixture is stirred vigorously to give a thick sludge. By the next day the water at the top will be clear and some can be poured away. This happens every day for a week or so until the mixture at the bottom is smooth and thick. At this point it can be spread out to dry on a suitable surface and gradually the material is restored to its former texture.
It is this indestructible quality of clay which makes it so useful. Children who are feeling aggressive can thump, bang and pummel it without doing any real damage. It can be moulded and used then squashed together again which suits young children.
There is not necessarily any right or wrong thing to do with it or even any correct consistency provided that the procedure for controlling mess is followed fairly carefully. Cover-all waterproof aprons, floor protection and reasonable restriction of the area in which it is used are sensible. One of the problems of clearing up is that specks of wet clay are difficult to see on a floor but make quite a large powdery mess when dried out. The best technique is to wipe with a wet sponge, wipe with a damp cloth and then rub vigorously with a dry cloth.
Obviously the surface on which clay is used is important. A formica top is ideal but, depending on the consistency of the clay, even a wooden surface can be used if it is scrubbed down later. Some groups offer clay boards which are merely pieces of hard-board suitably sealed and used on the rough underside. If the clay is very sticky some means of washing children’s hands – or at least sluicing off most of the mess – near to the clay table is useful.
There seems to be a dichotomy of opinion about whether to produce tools for children to use with clay. Young children do not need them although if they are used to having them will ask for them if they are not put out. So much can be done with clay just by using hands it seems a pity to spoil this opportunity. If the children go and find something for themselves with which to make a pattern then obviously they are ready for this stage. Simple tools like a wire cutter, lolly sticks or a blunt knife, a roller made from a piece of broom handle may be helpful. None of these however do more than help to use the clay. For older children, approaching or over five, who have handled clay with confidence it may be useful to show them the simple technique of rolling a piece of clay between two similar slats of wood to get an even thickness or slip-trailing (a slip-trailer works rather like an icing pump) to make patterns if this is going to extend their.
Quite often the clay table is a good place for conversation either between children or, if an adult can spare the time, between an adult and a small group of children. This is the point at which most adults have to watch that they do not get inveigled into the ‘show me how to make’ or even ‘make me’ situation. Once this has happened, at best the children copy our not necessarily very good model or at worst become very dis-satisfied with their own efforts. On the other hand what do we do about the small child who is getting very frustrated about not being able to make a reasonably round ball or an even sausage shape because of some simple mistake in where he is putting pressure or the amount of pressure? At this point one might decide that this child has a clear idea of what he wishes to achieve and it could hardly be regarded as interference or limiting his ideas to make a simple suggestion which will help.
It is fairly rare for a child to wish to keep what he has made. For the odd child who does wish to make something specific it might be worthwhile providing one of the new modelling substances which set hard without being fired.