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Clay is a fantastic medium for teaching 3-D art to children. It's inexpensive, safe, easy to manipulate, and strong when fired. It's also versatile and can be used to make decorative and functional pieces.
So what are some projects that can bring children into the wide and wonderful world of ceramics? Here we have 7 simple projects using hand building and slab building techniques to teach kids the basic skills of working with clay.
The whole animal kingdom can be made in clay, so don't feel limited to the humble caterpillar, but it is simple to make and teaches kids one of the most fundamental skills of pottery: attachments.
Start by having your students roll out 5 to 10 balls of clay, each about the size of a ping-pong ball plus one a little larger for the head and 2 smaller ones for the eyes. Have them score and slip the ends of the balls and attach them into a series, encourage them to try to make a series of segments in an arch, like the caterpillar is moving.
Let them be creative and add feet to each segment, or antennae, a mouth or big bug eyes. As important as it is to lean to make strong attachments, it's more important to learn to make each piece your own.
Pinch pots are the first functional pieces most potters make and doing so teaches us about the mechanics of working with clay, but most students will get more out of the idea of being able to make something they can actually use.
The process of making a pinch pot is as simple as can be: start with a ball of clay that you can hold comfortably in one hand, take one of your thumbs and push it into the center of the pot and repeatedly pinch the clay between either your thumb and palm or your thumb and fingers while rotating the clay.
Every time you make a full rotation, move your hands outward and pinch farther and farther up the rim until you have a cup, bowl, vase or whatever you want.
Coil pots are the next logical project after pinch pots and caterpillars, students will work clay by hand and use the scoring and slipping they learned from making caterpillars in order to make a functional vessel. Just about anything can be made using coil construction, so let your students come up with their own form, but you can build much larger pieces using coils than by just pinching, so give them a minimum height to shoot for.
First, have your students roll out their coils (preferably a little thicker than a pencil and as long as possible, but new coils can be attached) and then roll one end into a spiral as large as they want their base to be (making sure to score and slip for waterproof joints) and then build their vessel one layer at a time, scoring and slipping between each one, until they have a finished product.
Tips: For larger vessels like vases or bottles, fill the insides with crumpled or shredded newspaper to give the wet clay support (it will burn out in the kiln).
Clay jewelry is great for kids because they can make it, wear it and show it off to their friends without having to carry around a flower pot. Clay pendants are also a perfect introduction to slab building!
Either have your students throw/roll a slab, or have them rolled out and ready for them, then let your students pick out a cookie cutter or round biscuit cutter and cut out 3 to 5 shapes (good idea to make extras because they are prone to breaking before firing) and then take a hole punch and make one or two holes in the top for the string. Make sure to have lots of options for decorating available.
Tiles are more or less the same as pendants but larger and can make great group projects, like murals and collages. Either use a tile cutter to make your own tiles or buy bisqued tiles and have kids decorate them. You could have each kid make the first letter of their first name, or assign one letter of the alphabet to each student and make an alphabet wall, or make a sign out of the letters. Or you could have the kids tell a story with their tiles, or just let everyone make their own and take it home.
Once they have some experience working with slabs and attachments, your students should be ready to move up to building complex shapes out of slabs. They could absolutely build cups or square mugs, or anything else for that matter, but boxes (especially with lids) present some unique challenges that will teach kids a lot about clay.
Ideally, the slabs used for building a box should be leather hard, so have your students make them the day before and cover them with a single layer of wet paper towel. Use fettling knives (which are totally dull and safe for kids to use) to cut the sides of the box. Instruct your students to be especially careful cutting the edges so that they line up – if you have rulers then have them cut along the ruler, that way they will get straight edges with uniform lengths.
To make the joints, they can either attach the edge of one slab to the face of another, or cut the edges to 45 degree angles and have them meet edge to edge (which should be stronger). Either way, it is absolutely necessary to score and slip liberally and dry slowly. The best thing to do would be to mist each box and wrap it in a damp paper towel and cover it with plastic for two or three days.
For a challenge, have them make a lid with a foot and handle. For a bigger challenge, have them make birdhouses.
Slump and Hump Molds
Making large pieces out of slabs on a slump or hump mold is more expensive than any other project, since it does require purchasing a slump or hump mold, but it is an opportunity for kids to make a large piece that looks extremely professional.
The process is as simple as can be; roll a large slab (large enough to cover your mold with plenty of overhang) and drape it gently over or in your hump/slump mold. Use a sponge or soft rib to smooth the clay into the mold, then cut away the excess with a needle or fettling knife. Allow to dry to leather hard for at least a few hours or overnight and gently remove from the mold.
Tips: Instead of using a slab, you could build a coil pot inside of the mold, which is a great way to make a large and regular coil pot.
Learning to make pottery is fantastic, but making it on their own will be what your students remember, so here are two ways to make sure your kids go home with something that is truly unique.
Small stamps can be used to make a pattern or a signature mark on a pinch pot or a coil pot. Medium and large stamps can be used to make an impression on a pendant or tile and rollers can be used to give patterns to slabs for use in larger projects.
Painting with Slip and Underglaze
Colored slip and underglaze can both achieve the same results. They can be painted on, splattered on or dipped on, the big difference is that colored slips should be applied with a piece is green (unbisqued) and underglaze can only be applied after a piece has been bisqued.
For more in-depth information on slips and underglaze, take a look at our other tips: