Exploring Clay in an Early Years Setting

How children develop their understanding of the world around them using clay as an open-ended material

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Project summary:

This project explored the open-ended use of clay as a resource which promotes symbolic representation which Froebel believed to be fundamental to the learning of young children.


Why clay?

Through his occupations, Froebel advocated the use of clay to ‘help develop the child’s understanding of the two and three dimensional form, for developing problem solving skills, supporting physical development, creative expression and for communicating and representing ideas’ (Parker, 2020).  Clay is a natural material which is flexible and allow for trial and error and experimentation. It affords children opportunities for the symbolic representation which Froebel believed to be fundamental to the learning of young children.


Our setting is a small ELCC in an area of high deprivation. The majority of our children live in SIMD 1&2, and there are high levels of child poverty. Practitioners had observed the impact of poverty on the development of children’s vocabulary, and were seeking ways in which to extend the use of imaginative and rich vocabulary through play experiences.

In our setting, we value extended periods of time for play, knowing that children need to develop their ideas. For the purposes of this project, clay was offered as a core daily experience, using the following resources:

  • clay, in small pieces, suitable for small hands
  • a table with transparent plastic surface, allowing children to observe their creations from a range of angles and perspectives
  • metal bowl and muslin cloths to store clay with a little added water
  • natural, heuristic objects which children can add to clay in line with their interests


Consent from parents was gained through making them aware of the aims and rationale of the project.

'A new world of ideas and objects opens before him. For one begins to understand that which one strives to represent' Friedrich Froebel, in Tovey, 2020)


Through their play with clay, children demonstrated their own experiences and understanding of the world, developing their own symbolic language. Adults observed this through skilled observation. Clay allowed many of the children to create pretend worlds, but also showed that play echoes real life in many ways. Fossils and hedgehogs were created, as well as representations of dinosaurs and the children themselves. Some used clay to act out prior experiences and to make sense of them. Others explored clay as a material, taking it apart or adding small pieces, breaking it down and building it back up again. Playing with clay offered opportunities to develop fine motor control through cutting, rolling and shaping this malleable material.


Through the senses and movement, and real and direct experiences, children are able to develop their understanding of the world and demonstrate this to adults (Bruce, 2012). Their play with clay enables us to observe and develop our understanding of the ‘whole child’ as described in Realising the Ambition (2020). Continued provision and observation of clay in our setting will promote open-ended play and creativity, and opportunities for children to develop symbolic representations. As a result of this project, children in our setting will continue to benefit from high quality play experiences and interactions with adults. Clay is a resource with infinite possibilities.

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

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