Friday, September 21, 2012

"What about our feet?"

What do children learn when they encounter clay with their feet?

Touching a material with our feet sometimes reinforces what we learn with our hands. The touch of a material against our skin will probably feel very similar whether we use our palms or heels. The feeling of the clay against our toes might be cold and smooth, just as it is against our hands. Fingers and toes can also have similar effects on the clay. L. and Y. (two preschoolers) describe the action of dragging their toes through the clay as "digging" and "scraping" respectively, words that also describe work that their fingers do. G. and Jone (two toddlers) notice that some of the clay sticks to their feet, just like it does to their hands, and they explore this property by squishing even more clay with their toes, trying to stick pieces of clay to their feet, or scratching at their clay-covered limbs to get the stuff off. In these instances, our words and actions around clay remain very much the same, whether our hands or our feet are being used. We are learning about the clay, but also about the similarities our toes and fingers share - their ability to scratch and scrape, to feel, to stick...

However, exploring clay with our feet can also teach us new aspects of the material itself. Working with a part of our bodies that is less prehensile then a hand, we can discover exactly how much control and pressure it takes to make a mark in the surface. When Ariv (an older preschooler) stands on the clay, he finds that wiggling his toes causes them to burrow into the clay. It doesn't take much effort on his part to sink his feet into the soft surface. However, in order to sink them deep, deep into the clay, he needs to press harder. He kneads his toes into the clay so deep, it's as though he is balancing en pointe. He is exploring the give-and-take of the clay in a different way than he could with his hands. He learns that the clay is at once pliable enough for his feet to sink through and strong enough to hold them in place (and the rest of his body up) once they are lodged inside.

In some ways, feet are better tools than hands for exploring the impressionable nature of clay's surface. If we press hard with our fingers, we make holes in the clay. If we press with our hands, we might make a slight mark in the clay. When we step across the clay, though, we lend those steps all of the weight of our bodies. The mark left behind is therefore much deeper, much more clear. Many children notice this as they run across the clay. "I make a toe," says N., pointing out the indents of his toe-prints. He runs across again, looking back to see if there are even more. He is figuring out how to leave his mark on the clay, discovering that even the action of stepping onto the clay (perhaps without the intent of changing it) has an impact.

Interacting with the clay through our feet can also lead to a greater awareness of our bodies and the way they move around this material. When Molly (a young toddler) tries to step onto the clay for the first time, she wobbles and steps back onto the ground. The tall clay with its squishy, slippery surface provides a tricky obstacle. She tries again, testing her weight on the clay a few times before pushing up and onto the clay. Once there, she wobbles a little before centering her body on the clay. "Balance! Balance!" She is proud and excited by her accomplishment! She is testing her own body's limits, using the clay as a tool to improve her own control and strength. 

Harlan (an older toddler) has a similar encounter with the clay and his feet. The first time he tries to step onto an uneven lump of the material, it shifts sideways under his feet, causing him to quickly step off. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! It bounced!" He tries stepping up onto the clay several more times, discovering which steps cause the clay to shift beneath him, and which steps help the clay to stay strong. He is learning about the potential leverage of the clay, but also about the powerful effect his body can have in enacting this leverage.

Soon, the older children at our center will begin to work with clay at a table, using their hands and building up their competency with various clay tools. Why was it important to provide older children a chance to visit the clay in this fashion first? How do you think the children will react differently to the clay when it is set on a table, rather than the floor?

Many of the younger children will continue to encounter the clay on the floor, with the option of exploring it with bare feet. How will we extend their investigation of this material? What tools will we introduce? 

What tools would you like to try with clay if you had the chance?

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