Exploring Clay in the Early Years

Enhancing Children's experiences of clay through a Froebelian lens.

Project author:

Project summary:

The aim is not to make sculptors out of the children but, drawing on Froebelian principles, investigate the extent to which using clay can unearth deep, rich learning to awaken children’s feelings, language, frustrations and desires.





The project investigates using clay as a medium to promote creative play experiences for children.

  • The project’s approach is underpinned by the following values:
    • children are regarded as mature, competent agents
    • learning is active, it draws on real experiences
    • sensitive adult guidance ensures that children and adults learn together as equal partners leading together
    • children are given the freedom to be the masters of their own timing, demonstrating their own exploratory styles



The research situates itself within the Froebelian principles, in particular freedom with guidance, in a middle-class nursery with children aged 3 – 5 years..

The project aligns itself within the  the paradigm of the new sociology of childhood and view children as social actors and active agents in their learning (James et al. 1998). Froebel valued the importance of play which takes the form of activity. Brehony (2012) describes Froebel’s theory on play as one of “self-realisation” through activity (Brehony, 2012:26).

In any study the researcher’s ontological and epistemological perspectives determine the approach taken to the project (Waring, 2017). My position is one which recognises and acknowledges the creativity and competence of the children.

The project therefore lends itself to a qualitative approach as is does not seek a fixed reality, nor quantifiable data (Crotty, 1998; Hamilton & Ravenscroft, 2018; Mukherji & Albon, 2018). A qualitative methodology supports the intricacies and mutations of ELC (Mason, 2017).


Prior to starting the research, consent procedures and forms were approved and returned in line with the University of Edinburgh ethics committee. Confidentiality and anonymity were respected. All research adhered to anonymity with the use of pseudonyms. Participants were made aware that they could withdraw at any time.

No risk was foreseen in carrying out the research project.

Tisdall et al. (2008) note that a reflexive approach is a key ethical consideration and provide a helpful definition of reflexivity for the research: The thoughtful reflection of a researcher upon the impact of her or his research on the participants, their social world, on the researcher her or himself and on the knowledge produced. (Tisdall et al., 2008: p.229).

Tisdall E.K.M., Davis, J.M. & Gallagher, M. (2008) Researching with children and young people: Research design, methods and analysis. London: Sage.



  • a skilled adult who guides, rather than interferes, will not destroy or hinder the child’s work
  • open-ended materials offer rich scope for creativity and imagination and underpin Froebelian principles
  • when a child is allowed sufficient time for exploring and experimenting he masters the problem and extends his capacity for problem solving
  • the environment plays an important role, “the child’s inner thoughts are demonstrated in the outer”; (Whinnett, 2012:127)



To conclude:

  • clay is an excellent medium to enable the children to “be taught, not with a view to training artists but as a means to a full all-rounded development” (White, 1907:61)

Next Steps

Continue to develop children’s space within clay to provide a rich environment within the clay area to investigate children’s creativity further through a Froebelian lens, freedom with guidance and a sensitive practitioner using a dialogical approach.

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?

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