Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Work of Many Hands

What do children learn when they meet clay with their fingers?

During their first encounters with clay, children throughout the center discover many ways of exploring it with their hands. P., a young toddler, begins with soft, gentle pats, feeling the cool, smooth surface of the clay without trying to change it. J., an infant, explores the clay in a similar way, slapping it with energy, then leaning forward to get a closer look. They are learning about the exterior of the clay and the touch of it on their skins. They are learning that a light touch will not make a big change in the clay's surface. 

Many children - preschoolers and toddlers alike - break into the clay with their fingers and nails. They scrape and score long rows in the gray lump. They are learning about the texture of the clay below the surface, as well as about one of the many ways they can change the clay from a solid block into something else. They learn how to change the outside by making it ridged and "bumpy." They explore the inertia of clay, learning just how much they have to push and pull to make an impression on its surface. 

What happens next? 
Scraping the clay may cause little pieces of the material to roll up on the fingers doing the work. Harlan, an older toddler, is surprised by this, and he shakes and shakes his hands, sending the pieces flying. He enjoys this so much, he reaches down to scratch more clay and repeat the gesture. Gaia, a preschooler, has a similar reaction, which she describes with the words, "Ah! It's sticking to me, get off, get off!" They are learning about the feel of clay on their hands and under their nails. They learn that clay can stick to your skin, and they learn how to get it off - by shaking! They also discover that the clay they shake off does not simply fall, but soars through the air. Most of the pieces land on the floor, but a few stick to the wall with a "thud." Through this, they learn even more about the "sticky" properties of the clay. 

For M., a young toddler, these little pieces allow her to share the clay with her friend, D., before he has reached the clay lump. She digs her fingers in deeper to grab an even bigger piece of clay to bring to him. She is learning that she can separate the clay into pieces, and she is figuring out the best way to do this. She is also learning about the reactions her friends have to the clay she brings them, as D. smiles and reaches for the gray handful she offers. 

J., a preschooler, explores the scoring motion with greater intent. "I want to make a slide," he says, using one finger to trace a long, curving line down the side of the clay. Another preschooler, R., also carries out a purposeful project, digging into the clay and shaping it up into an archway. "I'm making a tunnel," she explains. Her friend, Susan, smooths a part of the clay with both hands nearby. "Yeah, and we're making it so smooth, cuz we're making a house, right?" Having discovered the clay's malleability, these preschoolers are making use of this property to build or engrave marks of their own choosing. They are learning about the architectural possibilities of clay.  

A first encounter is a meeting place. We leave our mark on the clay, and the clay leaves its mark in our memories. Every touch of fingers to clay communicates something - be it about the clay itself or about the work needed to change it. Through these moments, we are beginning a relationship between these fingers and this clay. How will the things we learned shape our second meeting? 

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