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Play in the Mud
 Basic Pottery for Kids

March 2005 Issue
Get Moving
Exercise and Kids
Play in the Mud
Basic Pottery for Kids

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It seems that wherever you find dirt and a supply of water, kids will ultimately conjure up the recipe for mud. After all, there are few things as much fun as getting that tactile feel of mud in your hands on a warm summer day.

Some never grow out of the joy of playing in mud and the interest develops into the more controlled hobby of pottery. Yet, pottery is an artistic medium to which many children have never been formally exposed. Many people believe that pottery requires expensive pottery wheels and kilns; for the serious potter those are important elements. However, children with a creative interest can be introduced to pottery with little more than some clay, a flat, stable surface, and some creative ideas.

Oven-fired and self-hardening clays are the perfect choice for an introduction to pottery. These clay options eliminate the need for a kiln (an oven that “fires” clay to temperatures above 2000°F). Oven-fired clays are baked in a home oven (usually at moderate temperatures for half an hour) to make them harden and become durable. Self-hardening clays do not require the heat of an oven because they air dry to their final hardened form. Both are readily available from craft and hobby shops and via the Internet.

Although the resulting pottery pieces do not have the same durability or functionality of traditional fired pottery, they are perfect alternatives for exposing a child to the creative art of pottery making. Your child’s work will be a wonderful, memorable keepsake.

Although smaller versions of traditional pottery wheels are produced for children, the process of centering the clay on the wheel is a challenge (even for adults) and can prove frustrating for a child. Most basic projects can be created using three pottery techniques—slab building, coil building and “pinch pots.”

Slab building is just that—creating forms using “slabs” (flat sheets) of clay that have been pressed out by hand or, for a more “finished” look, rolled out using an old pastry rolling pin, a broom handle, or a dowel rod. Once the clay is rolled flat, it can be cut into shapes using a plastic knife. Straight lines can be achieved with the help of a ruler to guide the plastic knife. Squares of clay can be assembled to form boxes (lightly scrape the edges that will connect with a fork and wet the edges—this helps the clay adhere to itself for a stronger hold). Clay slabs are a great canvas for adding textures from items you can find around the house (old buttons, combs, forks, anything with a raised pattern).

Coil building is a useful technique for creating pottery pieces that are more bowl-shaped. To build with coils of clay, pinch off an egg-sized piece of clay. Roll it on a solid surface into a “snake” or coil roughly the diameter of your finger. Start the bottom of your bowl by wrapping the first coil into a spiral to form the bottom of your bowl. Coils are then placed one on top of the other (lightly wetting the space between) to form a bowl shape. To widen the bowl, place each coil out just a bit further than the previous layer of coils. Once the basic shape of the bowl is formed, gently smooth the inside and outside of the clay with a dampened finger to blend the coils together into a single piece.

Pinch pots are another basic method used to create small bowls. Start with a ball of clay and make an indentation in the center, pushing down to the bottom of the ball but allowing enough clay for a solid bottom. Then using your fingers, begin “pinching” the clay to compress it—making the walls of the bowl thinner. Start at the bottom and slowly work your way up the wall of the bowl. Try to keep working up the wall of the bowl at an even pace (starting back at the bottom again to make the bowl larger). Start with a golf ball-sized piece of clay to get the feel for the technique and graduate to making larger pieces as your child’s technique (and hand size) allows.

Follow the hardening instructions that are included with the clay you purchased. Once the clay is hardened, the final form can be painted and decorated to become a beginner’s work of art!

For those budding artists who want to progress further, seek out a local potter or inquire about art classes at a local school or university. You just may be able to find someone with access to a kiln who would be willing to “fire” your child’s traditional clay pieces for a nominal cost.

So let them play in the mud—it just may lead to a lifelong hobby in pottery!

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