Authentic Art Materials for Toddlers: Introducing Clay

Posted In: Arts & Crafts

Authentic Art Materials for Toddlers: Introducing Clay

Kate from An Everyday Story is here to share the first in a series of posts about introducing authentic art materials to toddlers. Today she is exploring clay as a medium and I am sure that by the time you are finished reading you will want to get your hands “dirty” right along with the young artists in your life.

What’s so special about clay? Why not just use play dough? They serve similar purposes, don’t they? Sensory exploration, sculpting, working fine-motor skills, developing hand and wrist muscles; play dough can do all that. And, play dough doesn’t get all over your handsโ€ฆand everything else.

Clay is natural, it comes from the earth. It is cool to the touch and soft on our skin. It has a deep earthy smell which invites you in. Clay can be sculpted far more intricately than play dough. Just by covering it over, clay can be returned to day-after-day, added to, sculpted, encouraging sustained inquiry and creativity.

Clay is strong, it can be sculpted higher and higher, on a much larger scale, encouraging problem-solving and critical thinking as your child tries to negotiate how to build a roof, or determine why their bridge keeps collapsing.

Authentic Art Materials for Toddlers: Introducing Clay

But clay isn’t just for children to sculpt into visual representations (an elephant or a rocketโ€ฆ) The relationship with clay can start much younger. What does clay feel like? How can you manipulate it? What happens when you poke it, squeeze it? What happens when you add a little water? What sound does it make between your fingers? Is it cool to the touch? What does it smell like? It starts with the senses.

The wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experiences.

~ Loris Malaguzzi, founder Reggio Emilia Approach

So grab yourself some clay. I bought ours from a local Potters’ Society (much cheaper than an art supply store). For my daughter Sarah (23 months) her first experience with clay was purely sensory. Have a bucket of water and a towel ready for clean up and then let your little one explore. No tools, no creating figures, just explore.

During the exploration you can encourage your toddler to…

  • Poke the clay
  • Lift the clay
  • Feel its weight
  • Scrape the clay with their fingers
  • Pinch it
  • Press their whole hand into it
  • Watch it change shape

Authentic Art Materials for Toddlers: Introducing Clay

After a few initial explorations, why not introduce a few simple provocations such as…

  • Putting a mirror underneath
  • Presenting the clay differently (maybe a flat slab or several small balls) to see how this influences their interaction with the clay.
  • Adding a little water. How does water change things?

Authentic Art Materials for Toddlers: Introducing Clay

It will probably be another year or more before Sarah starts to create visual representations with the clay. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile her using clay; quite the contrary I think. Through exploring clay freely with her senses she is developing ideas and discovering possibilities as she shapes the clay in her hands, stacks pieces on top of each other, squeezes it through her fingers and rolls it with her palm.

Each one of these important steps is building towards a gradual mastery of skills as she learns how to form clay, roll coils and balls and eventually, joining pieces together to create a model or a sculpture.

Toddlers enjoy using authentic art mediums and clay is a wonderfully sensory medium to explore.



Kate Gribble lives with her husband and two little ones, Jack and Sarah, in Canberra, Australia. She is a former high school teacher but now spends her days happily homeschooling. Kate likes to dabble in a bit of photography, is a hopeless but aspiring kitchen gardener, and loves a bit of crafty goodness. You can find more inspiration over at her blog, An Everyday Story.



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  1. I loved reading this post but I mainly enjoyed looking at the images. They brought back really vivid memories of my own of playing with clay. I haven’t done it since I left school. Can’t wait to introduce my daughter to clay.

  2. This is fantastic! Idon’t know why I hadn’t even considered using clay with my kids. This totally makes me want to run out and grab some. Thanks

    1. You should. Run out now ๐Ÿ˜€ But seriously, it is so great. And the clay was really quite inexpensive. I think I paid $5 for 5kgs from a local potters’ society. They also have such a wonderful range of clay, all different colours. They are beautiful.

  3. Beautiful post Kate. R explored clay for the first time a few weeks ago (at his request). It was just as you described – exploratory, sensorial play. It wasn’t about representational sculpting. It was so new to him, so cold, and with that deep earthy smell. He usually doesn’t enjoy getting messy but he loved this so much.

    1. The coldness was one of the first things I remember Jack noticing when he used clay for the first time. It really is a completely different experience to playdough, isn’t it? I think he was expecting it to be warm, as our playdough usually is. We love it.

  4. Love this post! I have so many fond memories of using clay as a child. I loved how it felt the first time you touched it and how you were able to mold it into whatever you wanted with just a touch of water. Must have made a gazillion pinch pots in my day! ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Beautiful. I’ve nearly bought clay the last few times I’ve been to Lincraft!! But keep putting it off… will now approach it with more confidence to just explore. Love those clay filled hands! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I really agree with you Kate. The wider the experiences we offer our children, the richer will be their interactions. I think it also shows them that art is valuable and achievable for all of us, not just the gifted few.

      1. Yes! That’s it Kate. That “art is valuable and achievable for all of us, not just the gifted few.” Sadly, to my complete dismay, that’s how I felt in school that it was just for the gifted few.

  6. Wow. Just WOW. I love the idea of introducing clay to my little ones. Now just where to find some natural clay here is the question, but I will be hopeful and search my best. I too love the pictures !! I am excited now. Thanks for the inspiration. I will be looking forward to the future posts on authentic materials.

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