Exploring Children’s Connections between Clay and Nature

‘It’s cold play dough’

Project author:

Project summary:

An observational study of children’s responses to clay across different environments (indoors, garden, nature kindergarten).


Clay is offered within our setting as a key experience indoors. It is, however, rarely offered in nature (garden/nature kindergarten) despite this being the origin of clay. Exploring the Froebelian occupation of clay and building upon the principles of unity and connectedness, my purpose in undertaking this project was to learn:

  • If children in our setting link clay with nature.
  • If different environments affect children’s responses to clay.
  • How to strengthen children’s connections between clay and nature.


The setting for this research project already has an embedded Froebelian ethos. Clay is therefore an integral part of our daily offering as one of the key Froebelian occupations. Due to COVID-19 restrictions surrounding clay and staffing, our indoor clay offering has not been as consistent (not daily) since the pandemic. Children as a result are familiar with clay but are not currently engaging with it consistently. Children are less familiar with using clay in outdoor settings than indoors. Practitioners as a result of these factors may also be less experienced in the use of clay alongside children.


Research was conducted qualitatively through observations. Six observations took place: 2 indoors (workroom), 2 in our garden and 2 at Nature Kindergarten. Each observation lasted approximately 1 hour and was recorded on an IPad (notes and video).

In each observation, both clay and water were made available to children. The spaces in which clay was offered varied in each observation. Sometimes clay was given directly into the child’s hand and other times it was placed on a table or ground. This decision was based on how the child chose/wanted to engage with the clay. Only in the workroom were additional ‘clay tools’ readily accessible on the table, in other spaces children had to seek out materials to incorporate within their clay.

Observations included informal conversations with children and the questions ‘what is clay?’ and ‘where does clay come from?’ were asked in each space to children who were choosing to engage/observing others engage with clay. Observations were then discussed and reflected upon alongside other practitioners within the setting to gain wider interpretations of findings. Only children, not practitioners were observed.

Children’s consent was obtained through their choice of choosing to interact/not interact with clay. Parental consent was obtained through permission forms.

Despite interacting with clay in nature, the majority of children often did not connect these ideas. It appears for many of the children there is a disconnection between clay and its origins in nature and the properties it shares with the natural world.


Initially this research project sought to examine children’s creative responses to clay in indoor and outdoor spaces. It became apparent however after the first observation that many children within the setting, who chose to engage with clay, did not know what clay was, where it came from or could relate its properties to the nature that surrounded them.

When asked ‘what is clay’ across indoors and in nature (garden and Nature Kindergarten sites) children responded with some of the following answers:

  • ‘clay is a type of cold play dough’
  • ‘painted play dough’
  • ‘it’s a type of play dough’
  • ‘it’s play dough’
  • ‘it’s cold play dough’
  • ‘just find it… indoors and outdoors’
  • ‘’its play dough and then they paint it and make it harder and it makes it clay’
  • ‘builders glue it then they paint it’
  • ‘dig deep into the ground and you find clay’
  • Is clay the same as play dough? ‘yes’ Where does play dough come from? ‘they make it [from] flour’
  • ‘to make clay they get play dough and leave it in the air’
  • ‘clay comes from Edinburgh…where all the flowers are’

Despite interacting with clay in nature, the majority of children often did not connect these ideas. It appears for many of the children there is a disconnection between clay and its origins in nature and the properties it shares with the natural world. This is important to address as Froebel stressed the significance of unity, connections and interrelationships (Tovey 2020:3).

In children’s responses to ‘what is clay?’ the answers relating to play dough took precedence. This referral to play dough could be due to the lack of consistency of the offering of clay versus a very consistent offering of play dough. Leaving little opportunity for discussion and deeper analysis over long periods of interaction. Play dough is offered daily while clay is currently not.

Clay currently arrives in our setting wrapped in a plastic bag, delivered by a vehicle. It is therefore essential to provide further context for children to assist them in making deeper connections between clay and nature.


There appears to be a ‘disconnection’ between clay and nature for the children within our setting. To address this ‘disconnection’ and strengthen links between clay and nature for our children I plan to enhance children’s understanding of the properties of clay through:

  • Exploring the potential for extracting and using clay at Nature Kindergarten sites alongside children.
  • Creating a photo display for children that show origins and properties of clay.
  • Procuring books, which explore the origins and properties of clay.
  • Sharing findings with other practitioners to enhance children’s connections with clay and nature.
  • Support practitioners’ confidence in exploring clay alongside children.

Dissemination/Impact Report

View a video of Rebecca talking about her research here.

Research implications

To be completed

Practitioner enquiry

To be completed

Leadership learning

To be completed

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Karen Leslie
    Karen Leslie
    29 May 2023 at 2:19 pm

    This is a very interesting project, it is very thought provoking and has made me consider my practice potentially taking clay outdoors. I especially enjoyed your dissemination, thank you for sharing ☺️

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  2. Naomi Forbes
    Naomi Forbes
    30 May 2023 at 2:58 pm

    I too had not made the connection with clay and nature. Prior to reading this project, I went straight to considering clay as an indoor choice but this has opened my eyes to its link with nature and how interesting the use of it outdoors could be. Thank you!

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  3. Kerry McCormack
    Kerry McCormack
    08 Jun 2023 at 1:54 pm

    I like that you have identified common practice and thought . . .What if? This has also provoked my own reflective pedagogy in many areas of my daily practice. Your discussion around the difference in the end product in relation to the environment is also interesting and I am quite intrigued to explore this.

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