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A Story of Clay

Over the last week or so, my class have been going crazy for clay. I introduced the work with a story, showed them how to make pinch pots and suggested they might like to do some research of their own and, in that joyful Montessori way, it took off!

Some children planned trips to the local stream, where they dug out some slippery grey sludge whilst others went up to our high school site to dig out the sub straight. The also pulled out the clay we found on an island on school camp earlier in the year so that we could compare all three types with the potters clay that I had bought.

I will talk about how to compare and test clay types in another post. For now, here is the story I use to introduce clay work.

As always:

regular text: what I do

Italic text: what I say

A Story the History of Clay

Show children a piece of soft clay.

Do you know what this is? Yes, it’s clay. It comes from the earth like soil and rocks do, but it is a bit different. Do you remember in the Story of the Creation of the Universe the particles were given laws? In the solid state, particles were made to cling so closely together that they are almost impossible to separate. They form a body that will not alter its shape unless one applies force. If we want to change the shape of a rock, we have to apply a lot of force, but watch what happens when I apply just a little force to this clay…

Press the clay so that it changes shape.

I can break it apart with just my fingers...

Pull the clay apart.

…and then I can do something very interesting – I can join it back together again.

Merge the clay back together.

This is a very interesting solid!

Show children a piece of dried clay,

This is also clay. It looks a bit different. Watch what happens when I apply the same pressure to this as I did to the first piece of clay.

Press on the clay, discuss what happens. If it does not break, show that you can break it, but not reconnect it.

This clay was just like our first piece of clay when it was formed, but then it dried out. Dry clay is not as flexible as wet clay. It feels harder and holds its shape.

Show the children a piece of fired clay.

This is also clay. Let’s see what happens when I apply pressure to this piece.

Apply pressure but do not break the clay.

This clay has been formed into a shape and dried out, just like our second example, but something else has been done to it too. It has been baked at a very high temperature. This has made the particles shrink and fuse together so that it becomes hard, like rock. Cooking clay like this is called firing.

Isn’t that amazing? We can turn this soft, mouldable clay into something hard, in exactly the shape we want it to be!

We don’t know exactly when humans first discovered the amazing properties of clay, and we don’t know exactly how they discovered them, but we can imagine how it might have happened.

We know that those inventive early humans had figured out that if they wove twigs or grasses together into rounded shapes, they could use them to carry things like berries and firewood. This was such a good discovery that we still use it today. You might have one of these clever inventions in your home. We have some in our classroom: we call them baskets.

Now, whilst baskets are very useful for carrying fruit and roots, they are not so good for carrying something else that humans need to survive – water. But humans love to find clever ways to solve problems, and at some stage someone figured out that if they lined their baskets with the slippery smooth mud that lay beneath the river bed, it would fill the gaps and stop the water from slipping through. This was a wonderful discovery as it meant that people could carry water from the river to their shelters or fireplace.

We can imagine how those early humans made the next part of their discovery. Perhaps someone put their water basket too close to the fire and the clay dried out and gradually baked until it was hard. Or perhaps a child was playing with some of the soft slippery river mud by the fire one night. Maybe they made a small animal to play with. Then, when their mother told them it was time to sleep, they left their toy in the smoldering embers of the fire and went into their shelter. Imagine how they would had felt the next day when they poked through the ashes and found the little animal they had formed had become hard as rock!

Maybe both these stories are true, and many more. Early people did not have so many ways to communicate with each other as we do now, so they could not share their discoveries with people in different parts of the Earth. This means that the same thing would have been discovered many times over by many different people and each one of them would have been thought of as a hero, for making such an important and useful discovery.

Just think what a difference discovering that clay can be changed from its soft (plastic) form to a rock hard (rigid) form by baking it. Once people knew how to do this, they were able to make strong vessels to carry water without it getting dirty from the soft mud in the baskets. Clean water – this is very important! It also meant they could heat water over their fire – hot water for washing and drinking, this would have made everyone more comfortable.

What about cooking? Until the discovery of clay pots, people had been cooking meat as pieces held over the fire on sticks. Now they could put it in a pot with other ingredients to add flavour and nutrients to their diet. They could make soups and stews to keep them warm on cold days and boil tough roots to make them edible. Clay was a truly magnificent discovery!

Once humans discovered how to use clay in the Late Paleolithic period, they began to experiment and discover more and more uses for it. It was used for plates and vessels of all kinds as well as for medicine, but also for art. Humans love to create beautiful things and clay is a perfect material for this. Archaeologists have found clay figurines of animals and humans from as early as 2400 BCE. Perhaps they even found they animal made by the child we imagined!

Do you remember in the Story of Communication in Signs we talked about the people of Babylonia and Sumeria writing in clay? They used a stylus made of wood to make wedge-shaped signs in wet clay and then they baked the clay tablets so that the marks would be permanent. Can you remember what this writing is called? It is called cuneiform, and whole libraries of these clay tablets have been found.

People loved clay so much, that some of them even made houses out of it. Some houses are made from clay bricks that are baked in a kiln or dried in the sun and some are made by mixing the clay with straw and pilling it up to form walls. These methods are still used for building houses to this day.

Clay is not just useful for things we can see and feel, it is also used to make beautiful sounds. Many cultures have traditional instruments made out of clay from drums to pipes to string instruments. It seems everybody has their own special use for this wonderful substance; it is no wonder that it plays such an important in so many cultures.

Perhaps you would like to weave some sticks or grasses together to make a basket and line it with clay to see if you can carry water. Perhaps you want to try and find clay in our local river or in the ground. Maybe you would like to do some research into types of clay and their uses or visit a pottery and talk to a potter about the way clay is baked today. Or you could research how clay is used in different cultures, historically or in the present day. There are so many things we could explore about clay, just like those early humans did.

I'd love to know what sort of clay work you do with your students, please share ideas and pictures in the comments space below.

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