Clay – the magic for development

Clay – the magic for development 

Alma de Wet

Occupational therapist


The goodness of clay


Most likely parents have noticed that when Baby turns his head, the arm on the facing side straightens. This is due to a specific reflex action and is considered as the start of hand-eye coordination.


Playing with clay is one of the mediums notorious for stimulation of hand-eye coordination. A newborn baby’s hand is clenched in a fist, but will gradually open to reach for objects.


By the age of eighteen months Baby’s skills have developed to a stage where he can explore with objects such as clay.


The hand is a component of the ability to explore when playing with clay and to feel, to manipulate and to produce. The hand expands the young child’s experience of his world when exposed to textures, recess, temperature, various colours, resistance, manipulation, fantasy and creativity.


Playing with clay can also assist in functions such as hand-eye coordination, visual-motor integration, fine motor skills and stimulation of coordinated use of upper limbs and both hands. To copy simple patterns of clay lay the foundation of our children’s ability of transcription, of which copying from the black board or computer screen, rewriting and copying are important aspects of academic skills.


Clay also offers an opportunity to awaken the child’s creativity. The enthusiasm with which clay is investigated, will soon convince parents that playing with clay in any form is a good alternative for playing with mud. It is not the final product, but the exposure, experience and skills that are of importance, developing under the caring supervision, support and encouragement of the parent. Keep the techniques simple and encourage exploration and participation by using various textures, resistance of the clay, colours and smells – in this way playing with clay can be a wonderful sensory experience for the child!


What can we do when we have clay in our hands?


Initially we don’t need anything else than a comfortable work surface, fingers and palms of the hands to knead and shape the clay. It is important that a child experiences the sensory “feel” of the clay. He will also learn to shape a Christmas father, Christmas tree, car, house or circles, squares, rectangles, ovals, stars or diamonds experimenting with equipment such as a roller, plastic knife, rice, and coarse flour, small objects such as buttons, sticks and press out shapes.


Mom or Dad can always encourage the use of both hands. Try to promote spontaneous play and do not prescribe how to play with the clay. When purchasing clay, always keep in mind that both hands should be used and place the clay in the midline on the work surface. If he is busy playing with the clay, ensure that the table surface is on a correct and comfortable height so that the child can maintain a comfortable, upright posture.


The positive input of Mom or Dad always plays an important part in developing and achieving goals when playing with clay. Keep in mind that the choice of what is going to be made out of the clay should be relevant for the age so that the child can meet the expectations spontaneously and that he can experience a feeling of success: “I can, I can, I can!”


We will also find that the child and parent will quickly find their own

“technique” of playing with the clay, like when participating in the following “Parent and Child” activities:

  1. Children under two years of age should be allowed, under adult supervision, to hold, feel and press the clay, poke their fingers into it, make holes, make rolls, smell it, press it against their bodies and even experience temperatures when Mom or Dad heats or cools the clay a little. Use both hands and try to place all the equipment in the centre in front of his body.
  2. Roll small balls of various sizes, colours and textures. Put rice or coarse flour in the clay when rolling it in the palms of the hands. This is an excellent sensory experience and the little one can feel, guess and discover what makes the clay rough. These balls can also be rolled between the thumb and the other fingers, stimulating individual finger movements. Individual finger movements form an important part of writing skills to come and accurate use of hands by that time.
  3. Hide objects in the clay. Allow the child to feel, describe, dig it out and manipulate it. This is identification of objects through “feeling” and is an important function of the skin as assimilation system.
  4. Use a small rolling pin (a broom stick cut into 20cm pieces works well) and flatten the clay, using both hands. Press out into different shapes and build into a collage, using all the pieces. Remember to talk to Mom or Dad constantly and tell her what you are busy with!
  5. Make your own hand and feet imprints with Mom or Dad and learn about left and right.
  6. Build a man with all the detail on his body that you can think of. Cut the man into a top part, bottom part, left and right side. Carefully look up, down, left and right and make sure that you know where your left and your right sides are. Put the parts of the man together again.
  7. You can also redraw this man that you built from clay onto a paper! You can do that when you are 5 years old.
  8. You and Mom/Dad can place newspaper or egg containers in water until it is soggy. Remove it and squeeze out all the water. You can add wood sawdust if you want to change the texture and if you add wood glue, you would be able to build beautiful models which you can paint and make your own figures from!

Do you have a clay recipe?

Soft playdough:

1 cup water

2 table spoons oil

2 ½ cups flour

1 cup salt

Cake colouring


Mix the water, oil and a little colouring. Add the flour and salt. Mix well.


Salt clay:

½ cup salt

1 ½ cup cake flour



Mix the salt and flour with enough water to form a clay that is easy to handle. This clay dries fast and needs not to be baked. You can even paint or varnish this clay!

What else can you “practice” with clay?

When playing with clay, do the following exercises with Mom or Dad as often as you can and just watch how soon your hands are going to be the cleverest and strongest:

  1. Shape a clay ball that easily fits in the palm of your hand and press it as hard as you can and roll it again. Now press your thumb into the clay. Roll again and press your thumb and index finger into the clay and pinch as hard as you can.
  2. Roll small balls between your thumb and index finger and shoot each ball as far as you can.
  3. Pull the clay apart with both hands.
  4. Roll the clay with the palm of your hand. Remember that your fingers may not touch the table.
  5. Press the clay as hard as you can so that the clay bulge from between your fingers. You can add all kinds of textures to the clay so that, you can feel it in the palm of your hand.
  6. Roll a large ball with both hands, put it on your table, flatten it slightly and press both hands’ fingers into the clay ball. Pull the clay from your fingers and hide surprises in the holes.
  7. Hook the clay over one finger and straighten your finger against the clay – repeat with all the fingers of each hand.

Enjoy clay playing!


This article was first published in My Child and I, Autumn 2015


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