Benefits of Clay Play

Understanding the Exploration Stage of Children

Sally Haughey | September 2023

How many times have you jumped directly to the “create and make” stage when introducing a new material? Yet children need time to discover the wonder and magic of new materials. This exploration stage is foundational as children navigate new experiences and materials.

Let children linger in the exploration stage. Clay is a perfect medium for this! Read on to find out why and discover the exciting stages and benefits of bringing clay play to your classroom.

Benefits of Clay

Oh, the Language of Clay!

Clay is a naturally occurring substance that comes from the earth. One of the magical qualities of clay is its responsiveness to our manipulations. And, different from playdough, the earthy aroma of clay activates all the senses.

Like other art forms, children bring their developmental needs to clay. Let the children explore the clay and bring their own curiosity. The clay will obey the child with great respect!

Playing with clay should be a regular opportunity for young children. Some centers have even adopted clay tables dedicated to the exploration of clay. When using clay on tables, it is important to set it up properly so you can minimize the cleanup.

I highly recommend going to your local fabric shop and buying burlap to cover your table. Burlap is an ideal surface for clay play!

Keep the Wonder Alive 

Asking “What are you making” can take children out of the explore stage. It is a product-driven question that sets the expectation of the child creating “something”.

Keep children’s wonder alive by sticking to open ended wonderings. 

Questions to ask:

What do you notice about the clay?

I wonder how it feels.

How can you get it off the big block?

I wonder how we can stick the pieces together.

What happens when you add water?

Tell me about how it smells. . .feels. . .sounds. . .even tastes!

Actions we Observe in this Stage of Clay Play:

Touching & Discovering
Addition of Loose Parts

Touching and Discovering

Exploring tactile qualities

This stage is all about exploring the tactile qualities of clay. Children use their fingers and hands to squeeze, pinch, poke, and prod the clay, discovering its texture and malleability. This stage helps children develop fine motor skills and spatial awareness, as well as an appreciation for the material itself.



Piling clay into different shapes and forms is a fun way for children to experiment with balance and stability. This stage also encourages children to think creatively about how they can use different forms and shapes to create interesting compositions and designs. The simple task of piling turns into building tall and problem-solving to make it stay.



The act of pounding is a fabulous way to children’s inherent need to use force! Pounding clay with hands or tools helps children develop gross motor skills and strength. This stage is all about exploring the physical properties of clay and experimenting with different forms of manipulation. Children may also enjoy making imprints or marks on the clay using their fists or other objects.



Cutting clay with tools or utensils introduces children to basic shapes and patterns, as well as the concept of division and subtraction. It’s also an amazing exercise to develop fine motor skills and build those muscles for writing. This stage encourages children to think creatively about how they can transform a solid block of clay into something new and interesting.



Rolling clay into balls or ropes is a natural progression from finger and hand play. Children learn to apply pressure and control their movements to create different shapes and sizes. This stage can also involve experimenting with different tools, such as rolling pins and cardboard tubes, or textured objects like cans and wooden dowels, to create unique patterns and textures.

Addition of Loose Parts

Addition of Loose Parts

Adding loose parts to clay, such as sticks, stones, or buttons, can be a fun way for children to experiment with texture and dimensionality. A simple jam jar lid can provide a vast extension to the explore stage in clay. This stage encourages children to think outside the box and use their imaginations to create unique and interesting sculptures.

Benefits of Exploring Clay

Working with clay...

  • engages all the senses, giving children the sensory experiences they so desperately need.
  • develops their fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and spatial awareness.
  • provides opportunities for storytelling to develop language and communication skills, as well as promoting cognitive development.
  • helps children develop problem-solving skills as they experiment with different shapes, sizes, and forms of clay.
  • builds a child’s ability to focus and concentrate as they work to mold and shape the clay into a desired form.
  • ignites the child’s curiosity about the natural world, the properties of different materials and how they interact with each other.
  • allows child to naturally progress through the developmental stages.
  • provides a calming and relaxing activity as children manipulate the clay.
  • can serve as a powerful tool for self-expression, allowing children to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and ideas nonverbally.
  • fosters an understanding of basic scientific concepts such as texture, shape, and form.
  • can be a social activity, providing opportunities for children to share their ideas, collaborate, and learn from one another.

And so much more!
Let’s foster children’s exploration with materials in our classrooms!
Let them linger and wonder a bit longer.

Follow Sally’s work here:



Pacini-Ketchabaw, Veronica, Kind, Syliva, Kocher, Laurie LM (2017) Encounters with Materials in Early Childhood Education. Routledge, New York.


Topal, Cathy Weisman (1998) Children, Clay, And Sculpture. Davis. 
Pre-K, All Ages, Physical Development, Incorporating Loose Parts, Reggio, Sensory Play, Importance of Play, Art