Easy Art: Air Dry Clay

creative kids clay

Material: Air Dry Clay

Have you ever noticed that kids don’t need a lot of bells and whistles and fancy stuff to get creative, have fun, and feel on top of the world? Yesterday we foraged some cardboard boxes from a neighbor’s move because 4-year old Nutmeg has a vision of building a space station.

Today I’d like to introduce you to ONE material that helps build creative thinking, and share some tips on how to use it. The idea is to keep your life simple while supporting your child’s curiosities.

creative kids clay

Crayola makes a wonderful product called Air Dry Clay. You can buy it in 2.5 or 5 pound containers. The 5 lb. container is about $10, and if you store it properly it will last for ages. I’ve had our 2.5 lb. tub for about 5 months, we use it about once/month, and it’s still in great shape.

But why buy clay, if you have play dough?

I’m an enormous fan of play dough (here’s the BEST play dough recipe if you’re looking for one), but there are some unique benefits to clay:

  • In terms of squeezing, building, and inventing, clay and play dough serve similar purposes, but the texture of clay gives children a different sensory experience.
  • Kids will enjoy learning that clay is a special kind of dirt that can be molded and dried at high temperatures to create dimensional objects
  • Clay is more dense and requires stronger muscles to mold it and work with it.
  • Adding water to clay creates a slippery material that many children love to play with. In the real “clay world” a mixture of water and clay is called “slip” and it’s used to attach one dry clay piece to another.
  • Clay can be molded into sculptures and objects that can be saved and later painted: pinch pots, bowls, alligators, rockets, etc.

How we use it

We always pull all the clay from the bucket and divide it in two, so that each of my kids has a hefty piece. Our table is covered with a plastic table cloth,, and at the end of the project clean-up is easy with a few wipes of a rag or sponge.

To begin, I usually give my kids a pile of clay…and that’s it!

I like to scaffold my projects, meaning that I’ll slowly introduce materials to them. I do this because I find that extending a project like this improves their ability to fully explore phenomena and keeps them from being done in 3 minutes flat. You’ve had that happen right?!

Once that runs its course, I’ll give my kids a small bowl of water so that they can add it to the clay to moisten it. Older children will probably dab the water with their fingers and add it to the clay as needed. My monkeys, on the other hand, are champions of bowl-dumping. And that’s fine. If the table is getting too wet I’ll limit them to “x” number of bowls. They love playing with the clay when it’s wet…it’s a totally different sensory experience.

creative kids clay

And finally, I’ll introduce them to a simple tool such as popsicle sticks, toothpicks, wooden knife, glass marbles, etc. Again, I usually try to keep this to one material so that they’re not overwhelmed by choices. Having one material to add to the clay invites them to push their imaginations and test multiple solutions to problems.

When they’re done, the clay goes back into the container. While this clay is designed to “air dry” we solely use it for the purpose of sensory play, fine motor development, and imagination-building.


I wipe the table down with a clean, damp terry cloth rag. Any clay that gets on the clothes should wash right out. Put clumps of clay back in the container or in the trash. It’s important that clay doesn’t go down your sink, or it will clog your pipes.

Other Materials

I’m planning to write about other art and exploration materials: is there anything that you’d like to see me write about?


mr. rogers celebrates arts

Mr. Rogers Episode 1763: Celebrates the Arts. Mr. Rogers meets potter Dolly Naranjo who forages clay from a hillside, mixes it with volcanic ash (with her foot!), and shows us how to make a coil pot. If you have Amazon Prime, you can screen it for FREE by clicking on the link.

Clay and Children: The Natural Way to Learn. By Marvin Bartel at Goshen College Art Department. A wonderful resource by a potter on teaching children about clay.

What is clay? on KinderArt. Kid-friendly definition of clay, words used in the pottery studio (wedge, kiln, slip, glaze, etc.)

Make Air Dry Pendants, from Melissa at The Chocolate Muffin Tree

Circular Patterns + Creative Thinking

Despite the thousands of ideas you’ve seen floating around the internet, do you ever feel like you’re at a loss for an art activity that your kids will enjoy, while also challenging them to think?


Children get excited about solving real problems, and the problem in this project lies in figuring out how to circumnavigate a paper plate with color and patterns. While tackling the challenge of working in the round and developing a series of patterns, you can also feel good knowing that this helps with spatial reasoning and math skills too!

Further, this project is great for building creative thinking skills and the imagination.

Oh, and did I mention that the set-up and materials are ridiculously simple. You don’t need a lot of art know-how to make this work for you.


  • Paper Plates
  • Markers or Paint

paper plate mandala

We cleared off the coffee table and I gave each of my children (Nutmeg is 4 and Rainbow is 21 months) a paper plate and a caddy of markers. Simple, right?

I started by talking about how we were going to draw around the plate in circles, and then began by drawing on my own plate (in the foreground). I started with a small green flower, and then surrounded it with a circle, another circle of dots, a circle, and so on.

Nutmeg quickly caught on and plotted her own take on a circular pattern. Baby R didn’t draw in circles, but happily did her own thing with plates and markers.

paper plate mandala

Most likely because I initiated my own plate with a flower at its center, many of N’s designs looped around a flower too. The power of suggestion is strong, and I think children can learn a lot from their parents and teachers, but it’s smart to be mindful of this phenomena.

paper plate mandala

Later in the day while Baby Rainbow napped, Nutmeg wanted to try this project with paint. So I set her up with yogurt containers filled with a little bit of Liquid Watercolor Paint (such a great product, from Discount School Supply).

All in all, we created about 12 plates this day. Because they were all colored on the back side, I saved them and we’ll use them on a picnic one day soon.

paper plate mandala

What do you think? Do you have a stack of paper plates that could use a little bit of color? Or maybe you could try this on your next picnic?

More Circular Challenges

Tracing Circles, Tinkerlab

Painting Around the Hole, The Artful Parent

Leaf Mandalas for the Wall, The Artful Parent

Spirograph Mandalas, Paint Cut Paste

Easy Art for Kids – Circle Printing, Picklebums


Mining the Garage for Toys

Did you ever play with a Lite Brite? How about Star Wars Action figures? We dusted off some old favorites and have breathed new life into these throw-backs to my own childhood and beyond. Classic toys have a simplicity to them that can generate creative thinking. And although they may be old to us, when they’re new-to-kids they have a freshness to them can can build imagination skills and encourage exploration skills.

Lite Brite

I couldn’t believe my luck when I found this vintage Lite Brite, in perfect spic-and-span condition, at a second hand store.

The mechanics of the toy are so outdated — the tray lights up with the power of one very strong lightbulb, which assaults your eyes if you look at it from the wrong angle, and the heat of the bulb left me wondering how long I could safely leave it on this rug unattended. Not to mention the itsy-bitsy pieces that are clearly choking hazards.

However, with close supervision, once they’re done fighting over the who gets which game piece, my kids LOVE this toy.

Lite Brites have come a long way, and now you can buy the Lite-Brite Cube (Amazon). And Slinky came up with the Slinky Hall of Fame Toy Pack, a smart little all-in-one pack that includes an original Slinky, Duncan yo-yo, Crayola Crayons, and Silly Putty. Oh my.

Vintage Typewriter

I was on the hunt for a vintage typewriter for some time, and came across this beautiful machine on Craigslist. My computer-savvy kids like plucking away at the keys (no finger swiping here!), and I adore the quality of the type-written word. It’s beautiful, and comes in handy if you like scrap booking or adding a handmade look to letters, cards, or gifts.

Overhead Projector

I recently posted about our new-to-us Overhead Projector. My daughter had no idea what this object was, and before we played with it we had a fun discussion trying to figure it out. Once we set it up, we made light patterns with transparent tangram tiles.

One reader suggested that we could add transparencies of artworks or objects, and try to guess what they are as they are slowly brought into focus. Another thought is to draw on transparencies or paper-thin plastic with Sharpies. Lots of opportunities for discovery here.

Where to hunt

More 0f our Vintage Favorites

  • Playing with dad’s original Star Wars action figures and space ships. You can find new Millennium Falcons here, although there’s nothing like the original!
  • Music Boxes like these Fairy Jewelry Boxes.
  • Playing with mom and grandma’s costume jewelry.

What were your favorite childhood toys and what blasts from the past have been revived in your home?

Five Easy Steps for Talking with Children about Art

5 Easy Steps for Talking with Children about ArtHave you taken your kids to see any good art lately? As a an art museum educator I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how adults can help children talk about and make sense of art. But why is this important? Talking about art is good for kids’ minds: it helps them think critically, develop strong reasoning skills, pay attention to nuance, and explore new ways of interpreting the world. But facilitating a rich discussion about an abstract expressionist painting or a life-sized bronze statue can be daunting to many adults who don’t feel like they have enough knowledge about art to share it with their children. Does this describe you?

Well, here’s a little secret: Information is not important. What’s important is helping children find ways to describe what they see. If you understand a basic methodology for discussing art with kids, you’re good as gold and your children will enjoy the process of discovery that unfolds.

I’ll give you an example: There’s a new wall-sized installation at the Stanford Business School by artist Peter Wegner. On a recent walk through campus, it caught my attention and captured my 3-year old’s imagination. Take a sec to watch this video and see what you think.

Pretty cool, right? I hadn’t seen it before and wasn’t prepared with any questions or ideas before discussing it with my daughter. We were both curious about what it was and how it worked, so we stepped up close to take a good look at it. I noticed that the color chips were flipping like pages in a rolodex (remember those?!), and that the whole thing morphed in seemingly endless ways. It was mesmerizing. N didn’t say much, but after she looked at it for a few minutes I asked her, “what do you see?”

She noticed that the colors were shifting, wanted to know how the colors moved, asked where the on/off switch could be found, mentioned the sound, wondered about the label, and asked if she could touch it. As you can see, there were a lot of questions! And a lot of questions that I didn’t have answers to! I turned a lot of her questions back around at her, which compelled her to think critically and look more carefully at the artwork. Here’s a conversation example:

Me: “How do you think the colors can move?”

N: “Maybe someone is behind the wall, pushing the colors forward,”

Me: “What do you see that makes you say that?”

N: “I think someone has to be back there because I can’t see how it moves.”

It didn’t matter if she was wrong or right; what mattered is that she was invested in the artwork enough to think for herself and think critically about the piece by reasoning through her ideas. After we chatted more about her questions, I suggested that we step far away from the piece and look at it from a different perspective, and then I again asked, “What do you see?” This time she talked about how small everything looked, how she could see everything at once, and which colors she could see the most of at any given moment.

 Because she noticed the label when we first began our conversation, we walked back up to the installation to talk about it. I explained what I could about what I read. I shared that we can look for labels next to art pieces in sculpture parks and museums in order to find clues about the artwork. In this case, we could find out the artist’s name, birth year and place of birth, title of the piece, year it was made, and the materials the artist used. But that’s all the label had to say…there’s so much more that can be discovered through close observation.

When we got home, she wanted to make her own color installation, so my husband suggested post-it notes as the medium. She loved this idea, requested a step ladder, and began sticking a sea of color on one of our walls.

The methodology I used with N is grounded a research-based teaching strategy called Visual Thinking Strategies. I’ve used this strategy with children and adults for years and have seen it pull amazing ideas out of the quietest participants. It’s usually introduced to children when they reach Kindergarten, but you can try it as I did with younger children who can carry on a conversation.

Five easy steps for talking with children art with children

  1. Find real art. Looking at a real piece of art can be a far richer experience than looking at a reproduction (like a poster)You don’t have to go to the “best” museum to make this happen, just find something that captures your child’s imagination. Talk about art in your home or look for a public sculpture in a town square. 
  2. Be open-minded. Expect that the child will have his or her own ideas about the art, and try not to interject your own ideas of wrong + right into the conversation.
  3. Encourage careful looking. Get up close or take a look from a different perspective (up high, the side, far away, walk around it)
  4. Ask open-ended questions such as “What do you see?”, What’s going on in this picture/sculpture/installation/etc.”and exploratory questions such as “Do you have any ideas about how the artist made this?”, “If you could add something to this artwork, what would you like to add?”, “If this artwork could talk, what might it say?”, “What would you title this piece?”
  5. Look for an opportunity for related art-making. Making art can help strengthen a child’s understanding and critical thinking skills as they interpret what they saw in two or three-dimensions.

Do you have any tips for successful art discussion with kids?

On Storytelling and Finding Voice

Coming to you live from rainy Boston, MA this week, while my super husband holds down the fort in Sunny California!

In preparation for a panel I’m participating in this week at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Arts in Education Program, I’ve been thinking a lot about storytelling. The theme of the conference is Finding Voice, which is clearly something I think about a lot as a blogger. One of the questions they’ve asked me to consider is “What is involved in the work of finding voice?” Wow! What a great question, and with so many ways to answer it. Showing up every week to make art, write, document, share, and reflect (via your fabulous comments) play huge roles in how I’m finding my voice. This blog has become my forum, testing ground, play ground, and writing station.

And the question reminds me of a related video with Ira Glass of This American Life.  If you’re not familiar with him, Ira is a superb storyteller who’s made his life’s work out of documenting and sharing other people’s stories on his radio show. In essence, he says that in order to be really good at your work, and for your work to be as wonderful and big and your own expectations (because, let’s face it, a lot of us make crappy art despite our best intentions), you have to create a huge volume of work. And it won’t all be good. In fact, when you begin it will most likely flat-out suck. But his point is to be diligent, keep showing up, continue working at it, and before you know it your work will match your ambitions. But he really says it best because, well, he’s been at it longer than I have! There are four parts to the series, but I pulled this one out for you. Check out the rest if you like what he has to say.

Preparing for this panel has helped me reflect on my own journey as a writer and documenter of creative learning experiments, and suffice to say that Ira is spot-on! I’m in the process of updating my archives, so you’ll have to trust me when I say that my writing has come a looooooong way since I started blogging last May. By no means am I the best writer or arts educator ever, but I’m getting better at it with each passing blog post. Your comments help me think more deeply about the ideas shared here (so thank you!), and I can use this feedback to help guide the growth of this blog and my writing.

But enough about me, How would you answer this question about finding voice? I’d love to know, from your personal experience, what is involved in the work of finding YOUR voice? What story are you trying to tell? And how are you working at making your voice more effective?