Intentionally Simple Art

simple  clay



I like to keep things simple. When it comes to creating an environment or play opportunities for children, I plan straightforward things. I’ve come to learn that what one person considers to be artistic effort does not always match my own.  While I could not determine the worth of an art experience for someone else, I do make very specific choices when offering art experiences for my daughters. 


When I come across what looks like an irresistible play experience, I try to consider the quality of the proposed experience from my daughters’ perspective. So often, I have spoken with parents and educators who get excited by fun ideas, and naturally want to share these with children.  Adults are eager for children to have novel experiences – fun times. My interest is in giving my daughters time to learn about materials, to have ample time to get beyond their novelty. To do this, I keep things simple – very simple.



At 2 years, 2 months, Greysen is now regularly transforming clay lumps into other ideas. I have, on occasion, given Greysen sculpting tools for her to use with the clay. Sometimes she uses them, sometimes she doesn’t.  I have recently decided to stop giving her tools to use with the clay. She was reliant on her hands and didn’t need them, and she has not used playdough spaghetti strainers, cookie cutters, or molds at home, or any other art-related tools that presume that she needs them in order for her to “make” something.


The more that she relies on her hands, the more I notice that she is confident she can transform clay into anything. A lump is labeled “cat,” “cake,” or “bird.” She does not look to me to create things for her, nor is she even dissatisfied because something she molded does not look like someone else’s idea of what it should look like (i.e., as with molds).


I take the “necessity is the mother of invention” approach to setting up art for toddlers.


Recently, I’ve been explaining my choice to keep things simple in our art group. Simple does not equal boring. Well, I guess it could, but rather than define “boring” by an adult’s familiarity with the materials, I try to put my expectations aside and watch the children’s hands at play. Do they seem bored?


Simple blues. Simple intrigue.


I put a high value on offering the familiar art mediums, like paint and brushes, over and over and over again because children, especially infants and toddlers, need loads of time to discover before they have a working knowledge of the art material. Once they develop an internal knowledge of the art material, the play and the ways in which they use the material will transform from exploratory to expressive.


Am I uncommon in this thinking? Do you offer novel art materials frequently, or do you relay on a handful of tried and true mediums?



Clay or Playdough for Infants?


Recently, Moon used clay for the first time! As excited as I was for her to use clay, I was admittedly just as excited for Greysen to have a regular play partner aside from me. Moon has just started to show interested in how her sister plays, so I thought, let’s pull the clay out and see what happens.

 Moon, 6 months,  and Greysen, 21 Months, at Play


Clay versus Play dough for Infants


Both clay and play dough have their pros and cons, but for young infants I prefer clay to play dough for several reasons.


1. Clay is a wonderfully firm art medium. Sturdy yet pliable, infants can make impressions on it, yet it will mostly hold its shape. In these exploratory years, clay and play dough are not yet a means to express ideas. They are for patting, pulling, and rolling.


2.  Unlike play dough, clay doesn’t break off in chunks with a tug, and for infants who still put everything in their mouths, this is an important consideration. It takes a scratch or good pinch to pull off a small piece of clay from a mound. In my classroom experiences, play dough is more likely to be eaten.


Note that I say eaten and not tasted. I think all things tangible are equally as likely to be tasted. Moon tasted her fair share of clay this day, but like homemade play doughs, clay is made of natural material and since it wasn’t gobs of clay I wasn’t too concerned.


3. Clay is a high-quality art material, used by artisans who take their work seriously and whose work is valued. Doesn’t that describe an infant at play perfectly?


The following point is not in comparison to play dough, but a reason in and of itself why I like it so much.


4. Most importantly, to me clay is natural medium, earthy in its appearance, smell, and feel. Anytime I can give the girls a chance to connect to the outside world, I’ll do it.


5.  Clay comes in a few colors, but terra cotta is my favorite. Very much like the neutral wooden non-detailed people, red clay beckons for a child to impose their ideas on it.


6. It lasts and lasts when properly cared for. We have had this block of clay for just about a year now and its still in great shape. Its a bit of an investment at first at about $20 for 25-lbs., but over the last year I think the HOURS of play that we have gotten from it has been well worth the price.


In some ways, clay and play dough are like acrylic paint and washable paint – each valuable and purposeful, but at times better (or worse) for a particular project. Does anyone else have a preference when it comes to using clay or play dough?

First Friendships: Developing Relationships Through Clay

Infant Friendships
Playing with Clay

I started to offer Greysen clay when she was ready to use it without constantly putting it in her mouth.

This Moist Red Clay in a 25 lb. quantity is soft enough for her to scratch, poke, and squeeze.

Most of the time, Greysen uses clay at home on her own, or with me as her play partner.

Playing with the clay is a full body experience for Greysen. She leans on and over the clay, indicating that she notices how she changes the clay by her hands, feet, and torso.

I have also put the clay out for her and her cousin to use on occasion, which results in a fun time for all.

I think that the educators of the Reggio Emilia best describe the phenomenon of deepening relationships through play. They explain that play – in this instance using clay – is the place and time in which Greysen and her cousin are getting to know one another. Playing with clay is about the sensory experience, but because they are both interacting together, it becomes a shared memory. They are learning about clay, but they are also learning about each other and from one another.

Infant Friendships