Children love clay. We go through about 300 lbs of the amazing stuff each year in our art studio and it offers so many facets of learning it's hard to measure the value. Simply sharing the history and the chemistry of clay is a fascinating story for kids and the pleasure of holding a heavy, glossy creation in one's hand is nothing short of magic.
Although kids instinctively love getting their hands on firm natural clay, I use my own version of play dough for kindergarten and first grade. It's softer, cleans up quickly, and gives lots of practice in basic concepts like shaping, joining, and standing - essential for later success with natural clay. I keep a 50 lb bag of all purpose white flour and 25 lbs of salt under the sink and mix up a new batch every couple of weeks. I used to use Kool-Aid to color and scent the play dough, but dropped the scent because of a sensitive five year old nose several years ago. I also found that I could buy the primary colors of food color in 32 oz bottles at a local restaurant supply store, as well as large bottles of potassium hydrogen tartrate (aka cream of tarter) to keep on hand for easy access. I love cooking up a batch when kids are around - they're always impressed with the relative gloppiness of the mixture. My short skeptics never believe that the mess I've dumped out on the table will end up looking anything like play dough but after I've kneaded it a while (insert discussion about kneading for kids' vocabulary stores here, adding the fact that their great, great, great grandmothers all knew how to knead bread) voilà! It's lovely, soft dough, suitable for any use a six or seven year old can imagine.
To help the salt and the acid from the cream of tarter preserve the dough, we do a ritual hand washing for all play dough artists, both before and after going to the center. I don't worry too much about infection when we're careful about hand washing. Big kids get to use play dough a couple of times a year when the regular natural clay is halted before the holidays and at the end of the spring semester when I'm either out of natural clay or have shut it down to ensure firing of all dried projects. We keep the simple recipe on hand for anyone who wants to try the recipe at home, too. Fun!
Though play-dough gets high marks for gooshiness and fast transitions from one critter to another, nothing beats the deep satisfaction of designing and creating an artwork out of natural clay. My demos are fairly simple. The first day I open the center, I intro the tools we use, talk about safety considerations (sharp tools and powdery clean up of work spaces require thoughtfulness) and both slab rolling and how to join using scoring and slip. The second day is devoted to pinch pots and coil bowls with more examples and reminders of appropriate thickness. We use the classic "hang ten" hand sign to remind us not to go thicker than our thumbs or thinner than our pinkies.
Samples of past clay creations live in a tub close to the clay table. In it are some examples I created to try to explain how important "hollow but strong" is to clay work. Frankly, hollow is an elusive concept for many kids. They need lots of examples - small bowls, demos of Too Thick bowls sliced in half for observation, and comparisons with hollow balls and other toys to begin to get the concept. As is always the case, I seek out better ways to teach the techniques to children and assess how effective the instruction is by what is presented for drying in the kiln.
Even though there are only four seats in the clay center, projects multiply quickly, and keeping track of what's drying and what's ready for the kiln takes some steady attention. I ask students to bring completed items to me so I can scratch their initials and class code on the bottoms - both to assess the piece's survival chances and to make sure I can read the marks. Since greenware is so fragile, I do all the handling and keep track of where in the drying process projects are.
It's hard to be patient, and I've had more than a few second graders (finally old enough to work in natural clay) come to me five minutes after I've put their work up high to dry, asking, "Can I paint it now?" That giddy impatience is part of the reason that second grade and some casual projects are painted with tempera or water color. That way they can go home the same day they're painted and don't require another run through the kiln, like glazes do.
I love watching kids work through their own "scribble stages" with clay techniques, moving from simple slabs and bowls to more complex boxes and animals or action figures that can stand on their own. There simply is no other way to understand clay than to spend the time poking it, prodding, scratching textures into it, stamping it, pounding it, scoring it, and exploring its limits with strong fingers. I'm inspired when as they share their discoveries with peers and persist, solving problems as they go. Clay presents quite a few serious challenges - materials that dry quickly, what happens when too much water is applied, how to balance four-legged animals, how to protect damp projects until our class returns again, and what to do about a stubborn art teacher who won't let a person write love notes or gang signs all over slabs. Adults - can't do a thing with them!
Our favorite play-dough recipe:
2 cups flour
1/2 cup salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons cream of tarter
food color (depends on the mood of the art teacher!)
2 cups water
Note: I triple this recipe to yield four large, grapefruit-sized globs - enough for four play-dough sculptors at my clay center. If you're using the same table for natural clay and the dough, be intentional about keeping clay tools out of the mix - the two substances don't do well together. My kid-powered clean up crews are great about leaving the center set up for whatever age is scheduled to use it next. I'm also a bit of a bear about using only fingers and brains for tools in play dough. I get more interesting figures that way instead of three hundred matching "cookies."
Combine all ingredients in a heavy sauce pan over low to medium heat. Stir frequently until heated through and the dough is the consistency of lumpy mashed potatoes. Remove the mixture from the stove to cool a bit. When it is cool enough to handle, turn it out on a floured table that won't mind oil or moisture. Knead the dough, adding flour if you need to (at the end... be patient.) This is best when performed in front of an audience of children so you can hear, "Wow!"
Divide the lovely, warm play dough, run all child hands through the washing process, and smile. Fresh play dough is also great therapy for stressed adults, too.