The magic of clay play in early childhood development
Did you know that clay is not only a fun material for children to play with but also incredibly beneficial for their development?
What’s fantastic about clay is its open-ended nature. There’s no right or wrong way to play with it, giving children the freedom to explore and express themselves. Whether they’re rolling it into balls, flattening it into pancakes, or creating intricate sculptures, each action reveals something unique about them. It could be their level of focus, their creativity, or even how they approach problem-solving.
You might be surprised to learn that playing with clay hits multiple developmental milestones. It’s not just about getting their hands dirty; it’s about building essential life skills. Here’s how:
- Children develop hand-eye coordination by squeezing, patting, and pounding the clay
- They also develop finger and hand muscles by poking and pinching the clay
- It allows children to be creative and learn about texture, shapes, and forms by manipulating the clay by rolling, cutting, and shaping it
- It gives children experience making three-dimensional objects that can be reused or recycled when dry
- It allows children to socialise with others while working on collaborative projects or sharing ideas
- Children can learn to express feelings and ideas in a safe and engaging way.
These are all important skills for children, especially as they prepare to move into formal education. The benefit of using clay is that it’s a natural, moldable medium that can be used as a cement, an adhesive and even a paint.
The Experts Weigh In
Paul R White, an American clinical social worker, has been using clay as a therapeutic tool for over 30 years. In his book, CLAYtherapy, he talks about how clay play can naturally facilitate meaningful conversations between children and adults. He developed numerous unique aids and techniques that have assisted him in teaching children to cope with stress, express feelings and to solve problems, including through the use and manipulation of clay. White also presented a paper on clay therapy to the World Congress of Child Play Therapy and Child Psychotherapy in London, England.
He has used clay in his practice as an ice breaker, as an aggression reliever and as a primary tool in treatment.
In his book, White says “Through mutual clay play, a conversation between child and counselor automatically emerges. Dialogue doesn’t have to be forced or fabricated, but happens naturally when the counselor is revealing, demonstrating and teaching this dynamic and engaging clay process and the child is asking, learning and experiencing his or her own trial and error. This manner of interaction links the adult with the child through a hands-on, verbal, nonintrusive, problem-solving counselling process.”
Lisa Terreni, a senior lecturer in early childhood education, also champions the use of clay. She believes it gives children another language for expressing their thoughts and ideas.
“From many anecdotal observations of children using clay I feel strongly that, apart from teaching young children the physical skills required to use the medium successfully to create three dimensional artworks, using clay gives children another language for expressing their thoughts, ideas and emerging working theories about their world,” she said in a blog post for Early Arts.
Marvin Bartel, a professor of art at Goshen College in the United States, says in a blog post on his website that ‘clay is so fascinating that some children work for long periods without any adult motivation to maintain their interest. It can be a great way to extend the attention span of some children.’
According to experts from Pennsylvania State University, children will show many parts of themselves through clay experiences:
- Approaches and reactions to a new material (imagination, steps of involvement, temperament, feelings)
- Initiative, curiosity, and problem solving
- Technique and manipulation (what they do and what skills they use)
- Physical development (small and large motor skills)
- Ideas in representational forms (connecting ideas to meaning, symbolic demonstrations)
- Expression and communication (language, literacy, and social and emotional skills)
- Interactions and progressions over time (with other people, other materials)
Fine and Large Muscle Development
One of the lesser-known but incredibly important benefits of clay play is muscle development. When children manipulate clay, they’re actually engaging both fine and large muscles, which is crucial for their physical development.
- Fine Motor Skills – Actions like pinching, poking, and rolling small pieces of clay engage the smaller muscles in the fingers and hands. These movements are essential for tasks like holding a pencil, buttoning a shirt, or tying shoelaces.
- Large Muscle Skills – When children knead, pound, or push the clay, they’re using their arms, shoulders, and even their core muscles. These large muscle activities are foundational for skills like lifting, pushing, and pulling.
What the research says
One study in Iran aimed to examine the impact of clay therapy and narrative therapy on reducing anxiety levels in pre-school children. The study involved 30 kindergarten children who were divided into three groups: 10 in the clay therapy group, 10 in the narrative therapy group, and 10 in the control group. The study found significant differences in anxiety levels among the groups. Both the clay therapy and narrative therapy groups showed a reduction in anxiety compared to the control group. The clay therapy group had a mean score of 3.63, and the narrative therapy group had a mean score of 2.83, both of which were significantly different from the control group’s mean score of -0.71. However, there was no significant difference between the clay therapy and narrative therapy groups in terms of anxiety reduction.
The study concludes that both clay and narrative therapies are effective in improving self-esteem, school performance, and sociability of the children, as reported by the parents.
Another study out of Kenya, looked at how clay play supported children who lost access to schools during the pandemic, affecting children’s right to education and their psychosocial wellbeing.
The study, published in the East African Journal of Arts and Social Sciences, looked into the psychosocial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and how play, particularly with painting and clay modelling, can be a therapeutic and educational tool. The paper argues that these forms of play can help children cope with the stresses and traumas induced by the pandemic, while also promoting cognitive and social learning.
The study argues that play with art forms like painting and clay modelling can be powerful tools for cognitive and social learning. They can also serve as therapeutic activities to counter depression and violent behaviour. Activities such as clay modelling and painting are described as non-serious activities that free the mind and are excellent for expression. Clay is described as a malleable material that can be easily manipulated, while painting offers a colourful medium for expression.
The study suggests that these art-based activities should be integrated into the curriculum, especially for children aged four to six, to enhance their psycho-motor and creativity development.
Fine Motor Skills
An Indonesian study investigated the impact of constructive play with clay on children’s fine motor skills. The small study by researchers from STKIP Kusuma Negara included two groups of 11 children each, one as the experimental group and the other as the control group. The study used test observation techniques for data collection and employs both descriptive and nonparametric statistical analysis. The results indicated a significant difference between the two groups, suggesting that constructive play with clay positively impacts children’s fine motor skills.
In the study, the authors highlight the physical aspects of working with clay.
“Working with clay fosters large muscle and fine motor control. Clay is fairly resistant and will need to be kneaded and worked to make it pliable. Children can stand or sit while using clay. Standing provides the advantage of a whole-body muscular reaction to the clay. Hard clay provides solid resistance the child must overcome. This will involve using the shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers. Playing with clay develops large muscles and fine motor control because the clay is quite resistant and kneaded to make it soft.”
The benefits of clay play in early childhood development are supported not only by expert opinions but also by a growing body of scientific research. From fostering creativity and social skills to enhancing both fine and large muscle development, clay play serves as a multifaceted educational tool.
‘Play with clay’, Penn State Extension
‘The Effect of Constructive Play with Clay Media towards Fine Motor Skill of Children‘ by Nirwana, Laila Maharani, and Miftahul Jannah.
Excerpt from ‘CLAYTherapy‘, Paul R White