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In the Early Childhood School’s Atelier, Clay is a Magical Learning Tool

Early Childhood School students have been hard at work using clay in the school's Atelier, benefiting from all the rich learning that results from the process of creating. 
By Dr. Jennifer Hardison, Early Childhood School
The Early Childhood School’s Atelier, or art studio, provides artist-quality materials for children to further engage in their own creative works. Early School students at St. Margaret’s are both artists and scientists as they investigate materials such as paint, drawing tools, paper, clay, and wire. Students are given time to work with each material repeatedly over extended periods of time, so that they can construct an understanding of the properties of each material, how the materials work, and how they can be used to help children represent their thoughts and ideas.
For the past few months, students have been working with clay in the Atelier, using the same natural clay used by ceramic artists. The clay can be glazed and fired in the Atelier’s kiln, which was funded through a generous PTF grant.
Students explore the properties of clay as they use their hands to smooth, flatten, and shape it. Students are learning on their own about the unique properties of clay—how it can hold weight, how It can be pulled apart and put back together. How it can be pinched, poked, rolled, squeezed, squashed, and stretched. Manipulating clay requires strength and muscle. Strong hands and fingers are needed to push, poke, and pinch clay. “It is harder than Play-Doh,” one student mused. 
It takes a lot of practice to figure out how to manipulate and sculpt with clay. At this stage, Early School teachers encourage the students to notice what happens to their clay as they manipulate it. How the clay reacts to the pressure of their fingers, how it holds the marks they make, and how it can be transformed over and over again.
The students begin their clay work with clay and water, and teachers allow plenty of time to build a physical, experiential knowledge of clay. Using water with clay is a very messy, but essential step in students’ research in clay. Students observe how water changes the movement and texture of clay. Words such as ‘slippery, gooey, sticky, slimy, wet, and mushy’ enter their conversations. Some children immerse themselves in a full-on sensory exploration of clay’s qualities…dissolving the clay into a gooey mess.  
As children investigate the impact of water on the clay, they are experimenting with cause and effect. When children understand that every time they add water to their clay it gets slippery, and every time they leave clay out, it gets dry, they are noticing the patterns in clay work. As children begin to understand that adding water makes clay slippery, but easier to manipulate, they are experimenting with energy and matter. And through continued research, children experience stability and change as they come to know that wet clay can be remolded, but dry clay becomes hard and breakable.  
With time and practice, students begin to attempt more sophisticated clay work. When students begin to build up with clay, they must construct an understanding of how to build up so that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. Through these experiences, students grapple with scale, proportion, and quantity, as well as structure and function.  And eventually, with patience and perseverance, as students work through the process of building, drying, firing and painting or glazing their works of art, they experience the systems in place when working with clay.
Our youngest learners create works of art as they combine scientific investigations with their own amazingly creative ideas. Said perfectly by a 4-year-old student, “Look, I made a masterpiece!”
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