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


Finding Flow: A Journey Toward Happiness

Have you ever been so deeply involved in something that you lost all sense of time? How did you feel in this moment?

It happens to me all the time, often when I’m writing blog posts like this late into the night. Oops, it’s 2 am. How did it get to be so late? Or when I’m building or painting something that requires my focus and attention. Maybe it happens to you when you’re training for a big run or when you’re baking your favorite recipes. It’s a great feeling, right? You lose all sense of yourself and probably create something incredible that amazes even you. And maybe you thought, “really, did I make that?”

And guess what…this happens to kids as well. 

When I pay attention to what my children are interested in and how they get wholly absorbed in meaningful activities (pouring and mixing water in the bath, imaginative play in forts, or mastering a drawing game, below), I notice that these moments happen all the time. At the root of these moments are the elements of curiosity, exploration, and imagination.

I recently facilitated a cloud dough station at my daughter’s nursery school. A handful of children surrounded the table, asking good questions., squishing dough in their hands, and laughing. One of the boys who arrived at the table late couldn’t keep his hands off the dough; it reminded him of snow.  He was captivated by the feel of it and stayed rooted at that table, running his fingers through the silky dough and enjoying the phenomena of its texture. Witnessing this enthrallment in a child other than my own reminded me of the growth, comfort, and exploration that children can find through meaningful hands-on experiences.

Csikszentmihalyi flow with kids

Watching young children engage deeply in an activity (some to the point that they stopped talking and forget that the world is moving around them) made me think of the concept of flow, coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal book,  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

The idea, simply, is that people are happiest when they’re deeply absorbed by whatever they’re doing. In a 1996 Wired Magazine article,  Csikszentmihalyi explained flow as…

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

In his books,  Csikszentmihalyi explains that reaching a true state of flow can takes years of experience and practice, but you can see moments of it in children of all ages, learning how to focus their attention by exploring the things that they’re passionate about. Have you seen these moments in your own children or students?

An interesting point to note about flow is that it can’t happen if the task is too easy. If the child (or adult) isn’t challenged to test their new skills,  they become bored. You’ve witnessed this transition away from flow if you’ve ever tried setting up a “favorite” activity, only to find your child is no longer interested in it.

In the photos I’m sharing here, my daughter just learned the dots and boxes game, and wants to keep at it (over multiple days) to figure it out and test her knowledge. She’s in a state of 3-year-old flow. But as soon as she’s mastered the game or feels like it’s too simple, she’ll no longer be in that state.

Csikszentmihalyi flow children

I’d love to hear about your own observations of flow, either with yourself or your children. Can you think of a time that you experienced this? And what about your children?

And if you can’t think of any off the bat, I’d like to challenge you to look for these moments over the next few days. Take some notes and report back with your discoveries.

Word Drawing Game

Do your kids like to draw? Do you ever play drawing games?

The other day my kids and I were cleaning out the garage. Well, really it was me while they loitered, moved things around, and made a lot of noise.

My 3-year old found an old, but never-before-opened game of a Cranium. She adores opening new packages and ran into the house for a pair of scissors.

Once the box was open and she was done exploring its contents, she asked if we could play. I love how open-minded and full of enthusiasm children can be.

If you look at the packaging I think it recommends this game for age 18 and older, so it wasn’t exactly age-appropriate, but we played a version that she enjoyed and I think it could work in some capacity for kids of all ages.

drawing games preschool

I searched through the deck of cards for something that she had some chance of drawing (and understanding). Which meant “no” on Devil’s Food Cake, Card Shark, and Wicked Witch of the East, and “yes” on Mermaids, Bubble Bath, and Potty (short for Potty Training).

My daughter can’t read yet, so this is how we played…

I pulled out a card and read it to her while she looked on (and maybe picked up on how letters form words). Then she drew it, to the best of her ability.

This part was the most fun for me, and in some cases frustrating for her. In the picture above, she was challenged to draw a mermaid and asked me if she could look at a picture of one. I pulled up a drawing of Disney’s Little Mermaid, she gave it her best effort, exclaimed that it looked nothing like a mermaid, and this exercise ended with, “it’s your turn.”

Then I drew one (a potty) while she guessed what I was drawing. Despite years of drawing classes, my drawing barely looked like a potty and it took her forever to make a correct guess. I think it helped her to see me struggle, showing that we can’t always create the things that our brains envision. At least I hope that’s what happened.

Back to her…she got to draw bubble bath…

drawing game preschool

Again, I was so curious to see how she would tackle this challenge. She chose a blue crayon….

drawing game preschool

Drew some water along the left side of the paper and bubbles on the right side. Ah, a bubble bath! We played a total of about 5 drawings before she was done.

If I were to do this again, I’d make my own cards with words of things that are in her drawing vocabulary: flowers, people, rockets, and rainbows. And I’d include a few things just outside of her drawing ability: house, bike, tree, bunny.

But venus flytraps and Hawaiian shirts may have to wait another 15 years.

More drawing games

Art Dice: A fun tool for creating randomly-created art. Also good for teaching shapes, colors, lines, etc.

Slide Drawing: A roll of paper and some crayons turn a slide into more than a downhill ride

Drawing Shadows: Play with sidewalk chalk on a sunny morning or afternoon

Organic Shape Monsters: You just need some string, a drawing tool, and a big imagination.

Hole inspiration: Draw around holes cut into a sheet of paper (The Artful Parent)

Challenge Drawings: Cut out shapes of paper and see what you can turn them into (The Artful Parent)

Pick and Draw Art Game: A deck of drawing cards reviewed by The Chocolate Muffin Tree

A simple way to learn how to Draw Circles from Lessons Learnt Journal

Stuck in a waiting room? Save this fun waiting room drawing idea (Mama Smiles)

Do you have a favorite drawing game or post about a drawing game?

Sensory Activity: Wheat Berries

Could your child spend hours sifting flour or scooping sand? Sensory activities like these can fully absorb the minds of young children as they test the limits of materials and build imaginary worlds through pouring, filling, and building.

This sensory activity is so easy, it doesn’t require a lot of materials, and the process of exploring tactile materials through hands-on play is good for growing brains.

But why wheat berries? Like rice or sand, wheat berries are fun to scoop, but the larger, rounder size has a different tactile feeling than these other materials. I’m not advocating for one over the other, but presenting this as an option that came on like gangbusters with my kids.

And you can grow or cook this nifty grain after the playing is done…scroll down for more on that.

wheat berry sensory activity


  • Wheat Berries*
  • Large Container
  • Small toys, bowls, and scoopers

* I found our wheat berries in the bulk bin aisle of Whole Foods, and used a full bag for this project. You can find wheat berries in most bulk bin aisles and online. I spotted this organic 25 Lb Bag of Hard Red Wheat Berries on Amazon and there are plenty of other choices there.

sensory activity

I poured the wheat berries into the tub and placed a few plastic eggs, a couple homemade paper funnels, a couple bowls, a scooper, and an egg carton next to the tub. My kids dropped what they wanted inside and started playing.

sensory activity

They came up with all sorts of ideas that surprised me, but perhaps the biggest surprise was watching them play alongside one another (well, across the table, actually) in total harmony.

The other surprise: This activity went on for days. Each night I would clean everything up, put the lid on the tab, and tuck it away under a cabinet. And the next day my toddler would ask me to pull it out.

sensory activity

The only mistake I made was setting this up over a shaggy carpet. It was such a mess, but nothing the vacuum couldn’t take care of. On a nice day, this would be fun outside, but I would caution you against setting this up over any dirt or land that you wouldn’t want wheat grass shooting up in.

They also brought dollhouse furniture and little action figures over to the tub, where they ran them through various adventures. My three-year old built a paper canoe (seen above), to fill with berries and take Strawberry Shortcake on rides down the river.

I loved watching how inventive they were with this simple grain as the backdrop for their creativity.

sensory activity

And suddenly the tub doesn’t seem so big anymore! When they exhausted all of their play options, walking right in the wheat berries, and eventually sitting in them became a game in itself.

More Wheat Berry Fun

wheat berry

Wheat Berry Gardening (above), Tinkerlab

Wheat Berry Salad with Dried Cherries and Walnuts, Ellie Krieger on Food Network

Wheatberry Salad with Bell Pepper and Red Onion, Barefoot Contessa on Food Network

A nice explanation on why wheat berries are good to eat, and a recipe for Greek Wheat Berry Salad, A Life Less Sweet blog

Have your kids played with this fun sensory grain?