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Blog: Creating with clay

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Friday, 3 February, 2017

I love visiting places where children love to play, create, collaborate and use clay. To find all these elements in one place was a real pleasure when I recently visited Rachel Keeling Nursery School in Tower Hamlets, London E2. The nursery is tucked away behind the main road and blended into a tower block. There was no problem finding it: the gleeful sound of children playing outside drew me there.

Creative, purposeful, playful pedagogy

I arrived slightly early and was invited to wait in the large open area where there is a cosy and welcoming lounge area with a sofa and bookcase. What was fabulous was how very soon two children joined me and started to ask questions to find out more about me (once vetted and identified by the reception team, of course). One sat with me on the sofa telling me about their family. The other shared a book with me. The children freely and independently moved between rooms, through the atrium where their coats and bags are kept, into the lounge area and outside. Becky, their headteacher, was clear about their rules and rights: the children's right to choose is paramount. They encourage children making choices and trust them to make them. 

She proudly showed me around the school and shared with me the wonderful range of learning that had been going on over the past few weeks. We did not have to look very far to see wonderful experiences shared everywhere. It was happening as we watched the children play and we saw it in the shared art work, displays and nursery-made books. The children also came and shared their learning, approaching Becky eagerly to show her what they were doing or to tell her an important piece of information. I was struck by the dynamic, creative, purposeful play opportunities the children were able to experience and the interesting and experiential ways they were learning. We noticed with interest the childrens' sustained learning as we walked around: whether mastering two wheeler bicycles, making circuits, creating books, cooking with independence or creating woodwork models. 

Play with clay: collaboratively creating a sculpture

Gladly, my visit was on the day when a group of children were putting their finishing touches to a collaborative sculpture they had been creating.

This creative learning journey had begun three weeks ago with children discovering, playing with and exploring clay. Maria, the deputy head explained how they learnt about and experienced first hand ways of working with the medium by pinching, twisting, rolling and hammering. Their senses were engaged and their creative ideas were embraced. Children were supported in their creations by looking at images of sculptures by other artists as stimulus and inspiration. They then created their own clay sculptures which they talked about openly with each other, creating stories and illustrations supported and facilitated by their teachers Lize and Nazma. 

In the last week of of this project a group of children had worked collaboratively with the clay. They had talked, listened, problem solved, reflected upon and embellished a large piece of shared art and sculpture. They had created a thing of great beauty which during my visit they had just finshed painting. Once it had been painted, the children were thinking about giving their sculpture a name. When consulted about valuing their stunning piece, Maria their deputy head told us that the children thought it should cost from between £4 to £24 to £60 to £100 to buy. However, the team at Rachel Keeling said that they felt it was priceless! Certainly the learning journey and experiential learning over the three week project was invaluable.

You can view the project and their final clay sculpture on their blog (see below for the link). 

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...

Further links

Please contact the school if you would like to find out more about working with clay, their creative projects and creative leadership

Become a member of Early Education like Rachel Keeling Nursery School to support your pedagogy, share ideas and inspire your practice. 

Cathy Gunning, Pedagogic Lead