I am so glad Mina works with clay in MY NAME IS MINA! In David Almond’s companion novel, SKELLIG, Mina is a minor character, but her love of creating with clay is still a part of the story. Ever since reading the book with my local book club, when I think of Mina, I think of clay! The day of our book club meeting, the room was filled with kids that could not get their fill of working with the clay. This actually led me to start a homeschool art club, but that is a whole other story . . .
What’s so special about clay?
So, what is it about clay that makes it such a hit? Mina’s description of making one thing, then turning it into something else, then squashing it all together and starting over entirely made me think that clay’s ability to be shaped and reshaped again and again might be the special quality that makes it accessible to almost every kid.
Rarely do you find a kid sitting as they might with a blank piece of paper, wondering, “What should I do?” When part of a clay model gets “messed up” (as a kid might say), that part can get redone with little collateral damage to the other parts of a creation, and without ending up with a crumpled piece of paper on the floor. And, regardless of what is made out of the clay, there is always the simple joy Mina describes of just “sticking my fingers in the clay.” In fact, starting a group clay meeting with a few minutes of tactile exploration would be a fun way to begin.
Getting started – Materials
The first step in experiencing the joy of working with clay is to decide what kind of clay to use. Like Mina, most people do not have access to a kiln. It’s okay–just get air-dry clay, available at most art supply stores. That is what I used with my book club and it worked great! Remember, though, that the clay will shrink a bit upon drying, which can lead to the separation of pieces of clay that were not attached together extremely well.
This can be remedied with a little glue after dry or by making sure to very thoroughly attach clay pieces together. You can show the kids how to “score” both surfaces of clay that you are joining by making cross-hatches with a plastic knife. Moistening each of the pieces and squiggling them together a bit when attaching will also help.
Speaking of plastic silverware–you may want to have some plastic forks available, too. Forks are great tools for adding texture. And, toothpicks work wonderfully for writing on the clay or poking small holes. A quick look around your kitchen will yield other items to work with as well, such as rolling pins, cookie cutters, straws for larger holes, and even a garlic press if your dough is pliable enough to squeeze through. Any non-disposable items you use may require a good soak and scrub after using (and may still never be quite the same), so don’t use anything you can’t bear to risk having to replace.
More about clean-up
Yes, clay can be messy. Mina makes some good points to think about before beginning your clay adventure. First, that the clay will “crust on your skin” and, for that matter, your table and every other surface around. But clean-up is fairly simply with a couple of good washes using soapy water. And, clay does “turn to dust” as it dries as Mina points out, which adds to the mess. But, a fun morning or afternoon of squishing and creating with clay can be oh so worth it! (If the weather’s nice, you could even bring your supplies outdoors where cleanup will be a little easier!)
Materials – a few alternate options
If you are unable to get air-dry clay in your area for some reason, you do still have a few options. The texture will be different than what Mina describes, but you could whip up a batch of salt dough or air-drying modeling clay to use instead. I tried each of these recipes, and here’s what I learned:
- This salt dough doesn’t require cooking and has a texture similar to clay. It was really crumbly at first, so I poured a little vegetable oil on my hands and kneaded it in, and that made a big difference. This one can be dried in the oven, speeding up the process if you want to be able to make something and paint it on the same day.
- This air hardening modeling clay required cooking, but it only took about 3 minutes to boil and reach a point where it looked like the “mashed potato” texture I was looking for. Once cooled, I kneaded the dough with a little extra cornstarch until it wasn’t sticky anymore. The texture of this is really soft and squishy. It may require significant time to dry before you can decorate your creations.
Kids may not need any jump start at all to figure out what they want to make, but in case you want to see some samples, check out these websites:
- Loads of ideas and examples from an elementary school art teacher
- Step-by-step instructions for a simple, very cute owl ornament
- A primer for working with clay from a clay company, including some project ideas
- This one’s just extra, but it’s a really sweet blog post about a homeschool girl creating with clay that I think exemplifies how simple and fun working with clay can be!
Seems to me like after all that creativity and cleaning up, it would be an excellent idea to follow Mina’s example and wash your hands and have some french toast with cinnamon to finish up the day!