Educational benefits of playing with modelling clay or pottery clay

Educational benefits of playing with modelling clay or pottery clay

Playing with modelling clay or pottery clay can help children develop important skills and competencies. The information in this document was compiled by Marie-Élaine Dupont, an early childhood education consultant, to illustrate the “potential contribution [of such play] to the development of the target competencies of the Quebec Education Program for the preschool level.”

Educational benefits of playing with modelling clay or pottery clay, as linked to the target competencies of the Quebec Education Program (preschool education)

Competency 1: To perform sensorimotor actions effectively in different contexts

The child:

  • Acquires a sense of his/her body by creating representative models (clay figures)
  • Uses his/her senses of touch, sight and smell
    • Tactile perception: hot, cold, smooth, rough, hard, soft, slippery, sticky, gooey
    • Visual perception: matte, shiny, smooth
    • Olfactory perception: different kinds of clay have different smells: some are scented, and you can scent modelling clay yourself; pottery clay has a distinctive earthy smell
  • Develops coordination
  • Perfects the dissociation of the hand, thumb and fingers from the forearm (necessary for writing)
  • Builds strength in arms, wrists and fingers
  • Improves fine motor skills and dexterity by manipulating the tools and the clay
  • Broadens his/her repertoire of actions: squeezing, pinching, stretching, digging, crushing, hitting, shredding, tearing, flattening, rolling
  • Situates himself/herself in space and time: anticipates the tools that will be required, adjusts his/her activities according to the time available

Competency 2: To affirm his/her personality

The child:

  • Learns to recognize his/her tastes and interests
  • Learns to recognize his/her feelings and emotions
  • Learns to trust his/her instincts
  • Expresses his/her creativity
  • Experiences success
  • Makes decisions
  • Makes choices
  • Takes responsibility
  • Demonstrates autonomy in thoughts and actions
  • Learns form her/his mistakes
  • Becomes aware of his/her increasing proficiency
  • Develops independence
  • Sees himself/herself as a resource for others
  • Learns to concentrate
  • Builds self-esteem: acquires a sense of competency, power, and control over his/her environment (transformation)
  • Relaxes: working with clay is very calming
  • Strengthens his/her emotional stability: therapeutic aspect of working with clay: self-expression, making, un-making (destroying), pounding and hitting are good ways to let off steam

Competency 3: To interact harmoniously with others

The child:

Shows an interest in others:

  • appreciates the similarities and differences between individuals (compares his/her achievements to those of others)
  • pays attention to other people’s work, ideas and feelings
  • identifies with his/her social and cultural environment (shares experiences with others, talks about his/her background)

Participates in group activity:

  • initiates contact with others
  • communicates and listens (children have conversations about all kinds of things related to the lesson topic or their own experience)
  • learns to compromise (shares with others)
  • self-regulates behaviour
  • collaborates and cooperates with other children (by, e.g., sharing material, creating joint projects, pooling results); requests and accepts help, offers to help others, shares
  • values other people’s work

Competency 4: To communicate using the resources of language

The child:

  • Understands and absorbs meaningful information
  • In discussing the classroom activity, relating his/her experience, and requesting help (with tools and materials), the child:
    • improves his/her communication skills (comprehension and expression)
    • listens to what the other person is saying, stays on topic, tells a story (understands concepts of time, space and sequence—beginning, middle and end), describes an event, delivers a message, asks questions, offers opinions, and expands his/her vocabulary (by identifying actions and materials, making associations, expressing thoughts and feelings)
    • develops various language functions: instrumental (“I need a bigger piece” or a piece of a certain colour), regulatory (“Try this, you’ll see, it will hold”), interactive (“The thing you made is really nice”), personal (“Well, my dog …”), heuristic (“Why?”), imaginative (“So your dinosaur likes to …”), representational (“How is a dinosaur made?”)
    • with help from his/her peers and the teacher, improves syntax and expands vocabulary (enrichment, alternatives); learns technical terms (coil, slip) and words related to the theme of the activity
  • Shows interest in written language: reads a book with pictures of modelling clay murals, or books on subjects related to his/her model (e.g., a farm, boats); spontaneously recognizes or creates letters (“Oh! I made the first letter of my name! See? It looks like a V!”)
  • Identifies with stories he/she has read or heard
  • Makes up stories based on his/her clay model and those of others

Competency 5: To construct his/her understanding of the world

The child discovers different forms of culture, learning areas and concepts:

Visual art

  • Colours
  • Textures
  • Technical processes
  • Characteristics of materials (e.g, some kinds of clay can be used to build tall shapes, while others can’t)
  • Solving representational problems (perspective)
  • Aesthetic satisfaction
  • Lateral thinking
  • Balance
  • Symmetry, asymmetry

Natural sciences

  • Impressions of natural objects (pine cones, leaves, seashells, peach pits)
  • Models of animals, insects, birds
  • Concept of evaporation (some kinds of clay dry out if exposed to air)

Social sciences

  • Represents his/her surroundings: a parent with a baby carriage, a farm, bakery products (tools and materials of other professions), different kinds of houses …


  • “I made a mountain / a lake / a river / a pond / a volcano!”


  • Volumes (3 dimensions): cylinder, sphere, cube, etc., and irregular forms
  • Shapes (2 dimensions): drawing or carving on rolled-out clay
  • Constancy of quantity (e.g., concept that a certain quantity of clay stays the same whether it’s rolled into a ball or stretched out into a snake)
  • Addition (adding a piece)
  • Subtraction (removing a piece)
  • Counting and numbers (especially when the clay is used to model household items: “I made green peas / I made sausages: there are x of them on the plate.”)
  • Perspective (various views of the clay model)
  • Juxtaposition, layering, alignment
  • Balance
  • Division (dividing into pieces)
  • Length (of a strip of clay)
  • Width
  • Thickness
  • Surfaces and shapes (when the clay is rolled out flat, for instance)
  • Comparison (sizes, dimensions volumes)
  • Inside, outside, over, under (understanding and applying concepts of inside / outside)
  • Organizing and classification (e.g., arranging balls of clay in order of size, or according to one or more properties)
  • Duration: modelling time, drying time
  • Weight (“It’s too heavy, it’s falling over!”)
  • Problem solving (“It’s too heavy, it’s falling over!”)

Other learning outcomes

  • Explores his/her surroundings and formulates ideas
  • Observes facts, objects, variations in the material (cause and effect: the warmer the clay, the more malleable it is), seeks explanations for physical phenomena (Why is the clay all dried out and cracked? Why won’t it hold together?)
  • Investigates possibilities and gathers information (e.g., “How is an airplane made?”)
  • Handles objects and instruments
  • Formulates hypotheses (“Maybe if I add a bit here, it will hold together”)
  • Experiments
  • Makes choices
  • Shares his/her experience with others (“If you add some at the bottom, it will hold together better”)
  • Demonstrates persistence—or lack of persistence (“I’ve had it with this guy—he just won’t stand up!”)
  • Develops work methods
  • Demonstrates creativity: uses the materials in an original way, shows imagination, expresses his/her ideas

Competency 6: To complete an activity or project

  • Planning an activity or project
  • Perseverance, dedication, applied effort (working in a sustained way)
  • Anticipating next steps
  • Presenting final results, describing difficulties encountered and solutions found
  • Evaluating the overall experience (relationship with classmates, project method, degree of satisfaction with the final “product”)
  • Expressing degree of satisfaction

Bonus: By making your own modelling clay, you can add a culinary component to the competencies described above:

  • Mathematics: concepts of volume (size of mixing bowl), measurement (one cup of flour …), order and sequence (first add this, then add that)
  • Science: experimentation (number of drops of food colouring and the resulting colour), combination, transformation …
  • Understanding written language: following a recipe (recognizing symbols, associating written and spoken words with images, materials and actions)
  • Language: visual and auditory memory
  • Fine motor skills: dissociation of wrist movement when mixing the dough

Working with pottery clay develops all the skills listed above. As well, its distinctive properties present additional learning opportunities:

  • It illustrates the phenomena of water absorption and saturation.
  • It presents challenges in terms of adherence and bonding (getting the pieces to stick together can be tricky with this kind of clay).
  • It needs drying time: concepts of temperature (the clay dries faster in a warm location) and time (it takes a long time!).
  • It has to be worked in stages: for instance, it must be left to dry before being painted, then left to dry again (helps develop the ability to interrupt and resume a task).
  • In sufficient quantity, it can be used to build mountains, dig tunnels … as a group.
  • It has different textures and colours (grey, brown, tan).
  • It presents specific challenges and problems (e.g., “Why did this piece crack?” [it dried too quickly, we forgot to cover it with a damp cloth to protect the surface]) and requires specific techniques.

Content based on the work of Anne Gillain-Mauffette, a retired educator from the Outaouais region of Quebec.

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