Lesson #1: Learning about Clay

Part of the unit: Discoveries in Clay |


What can we do with clay?
Students will be able to:
Use their hands to change clay: stretch, press, pull, pinch, poke, roll, flatten, add and subtract.
Create 3-D clay forms that stand.
Use language to describe their actions.
Students will understand that:
Clay is a natural material that comes from the earth.
Clay is maleable when moist
Air-dry Clay: one 2" cube per student, work surfaces (canvas, plastic, masonite, or styrofoam plates or trays), wire clay cutter, chart paper, marker, everyday objects made of clay, some intact, others broken to show both the glaze surface and the inner clay (floor tiles, mugs, bowls, etc.)
Sit with students in a circle on the floor. Place clay objects in the center where everyone can see them. Keep a record of students' findings on chart paper.
  • What do you know about clay?
  • Which of these objects is made out of clay?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
Explain that all of the objects are made of clay.The shiny surface of some is created by dipping a clay object in a special kind of liquid clay and then baking it in a very hot oven called a kiln.
  • Where do you think clay comes from? (Clay deposits are found in the earth near streams, rivers and seas)
Pass out clay and work surfaces to students.  Ask students to share what they notice as they handle the clay.  Explain that you will record their finding on chart paper.
  • What do you notice? Smell, temperature, weight, wet, dry etc.
  • What can you do to change its shape?
  • Can you make a shape that stands on your work surface and doesn't topple over?
  • How tall can you make it?
Invite students to share verbs such as poke, pull, squeeze, pound, roll, pinch, smooth, etc. Use expressive language to help students connect specific actions with specific results. Example:"You rolled it to make a ball." "You poked it with your finger to make a hole." Help students notice that different parts of ones' hands do different actions (Fingers, thumbs, palms, knuckles) and that a single piece of clay can be divided into two pieces and then reunited into one. Clay can be added to and subtracted from.  
Students can take this time to explore the clay on their own. They should be reminded that this day is for exploration only; the products of the worktime will not be saved. As interesting discoveries occur, the teacher can hold up the work and invite others to try the technique themselves. Students should be reminded that they can keep changing the clay as often as they like making 3-D shapes.   Students sitting at the same table can be invited to combine their clay explorations and build a single form. (This can make giving the clay back at the end a little easier).
Discuss the work produced by the exploration, focusing on the techniques rather than the products.
  • What part of the artist's hand do you think made this mark?
  • How do you imagine the artist made this shape?
  • Do you think this piece was pulled from the main piece or do you think it was added on?
  • The clay we used today is soft. The clay objects in the center of our circle are hard. What happened?
  • What do you think will happen if we leave a piece of clay to dry? Let's find out!
Design an experiment with the students' input. Place one piece of clay in a ziplock bag and leave another out in the air. Be sure to choose a piece to leave out that has several small pieces attached. These delicate bits are likely to fall off as the piece dries. This will set the stage for a lesson on attaching and a discussion about the limitations of air-dry clay.
Read From Mud to House, by Bertram Knight, 1998. This visual narrative describes how bricks are made and used in buildings and shows where clay comes from.