Building Clay Capacity in the Classroom

First lesson plan


I do not offer the children tools to begin with as they become fascinated with the tools and do not use their hands. I believe students should build their small muscle co-ordination as well as their confidence with the clay by having direct contact and learning to make the basic shapes that are the building blocks of most forms.

Because clay is stronger when rolled and compressed,  it’s good to teach the students to go through the steps to make the 3 basic shapes. 

These shapes can be used to make just about everything.





One can make so many things with these forms! 

Then there are variations and combinations of the forms. As the kids become more proficient at making them, they can progress to the more advanced uses. 

Let me interject an essential note in here. It is not important for kids to make projects. For young children, the process is far more important than the outcome.


  But projects are also a great way to add value to what they are learning. If you are studying bugs for example, then it’s a vehicle to discuss how many legs or eyes insects have vs. how many spiders have.


1. The ball is  a great head or body as well as smaller ones for eyes etc. Often it is the first step that leads to a pinch pot or a round pancake.

Student’s favorite Ball project: a snowman


2. Snakes or coils as they are called, become arms and legs


and later, coil pots and  handles; thicker coils become the bodies of many things- 

the “yam” shape is handy for dinosaurs and birds 

“potato” for heavy bodied animals like elephants and hippos 

“carrots” become humans.

3. Pancakes are basically slabs and you can make many hollow forms with them but in the beginning, they also function as a great base for many kids’ projects and serve to support the often thin and fragile things kids make. 



Good first projects with balls, snakes & pancakes are:

bugs – bugs have lots of legs and eyes and the balls can be bodies- spiders, caterpillars, ants, etc. 


Octopus- again, lots of legs and a big ball for the head.

student's octopus-with-decorations

Turtles- throw the ball down on the table so it is a half a sphere – that is the shell, an asterisk of 3 snakes become the four legs, head and tail and a small pancake is the chest plate.

Porcupines and hedgehogs: have the kids poke their fingers into a medium sized ball to make many holes and then insert short snakes into all the holes. Add a face.

These are all ideas about getting the kids started but what we ended up talking about to the kids was 

“making the clay strong”.

I got this idea talking to the 4th graders. I am far too frequently asked things like “Can I decorate it?”  “Can I make a dog instead?”  or ” Is it okay if I paint it red?” These are questions of aesthetics.

“I am here”, I explain to the 4th graders, “to make sure whatever you decide to make doesn’t fall apart. In a perfect world, we would all go down to the side of the river and find some clay and you could all experiment for as long as you liked to see what would work and eventually through trial and error, you would figure out how to make things that didn’t fall apart. 

Unfortunately we don’t have that luxury.  You only have 40 minutes once a week. So I am here to help be a shortcut for you to learn about how to make your clay pieces strong.”

So when I was working with the kindergartners, I talked a lot about a piece being strong or not strong. Having a pancake underneath was a big feature. 

As I have been teaching for almost 20 years, I see certain recurring themes among early childhood  students and clay.

There is the Pieced together Really Long Snake (a favorite of my son) The student wants to make the longest snake ever.


Many enterprising students love the Parts of the Face

students-heart-face-2dstudents-mask-2dThese are really just clay “drawings” and as such qualify more as 2-D but what is important about them is that students see they can make a shape in 3-D and flatten it into the appropriate shape in 2-D. 

A variation on this is the flat flower. I don’t have an example today but believe me, I’ve seen many.

A huge favorite is the Birthday Cake


followed closely by all sorts of food chief among them, a taco and a burrito and a hot dog.

Then there’s the clay “toy”. It could be a spaceship, a dinosaur or a race car. These are thrown together as fast as possible so they can be played with and they have very short lives.

dinosaur-too-weak-too-many-separate-partsThe student must hold the head up but he doesn’t mind. This is a flexible moving thing he’s made- he doesn’t perceive it as something that must be fired and turned to stone.

As you can see from that dinoaur, children tend to think of living things in parts and they make them all separate and then attempt to join them together. It is sometimes difficult to get them to make the head, neck, body and tail of a dinosaur all out of one piece of clay which would make it a lot stronger (and more realistic looking too!) –I need to get a photo of that up

Animal  Families are another favorite. Note we had to keep adding pancakes under this snail family as it grew.

snail-familyWell, we have only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg here in things to consider when teaching clay to young children. 

Perhaps you should sit by the side of the river and find out what works and what doesn’t!

To review:

Process not Product.


Good technique leads to strong pieces.

Students can always learn about more than just the clay; clay is ideal for tying in with many curricula.

But that’s a topic for another day!

Brush Making Tutorial

It is really wonderful to be part of a strong pottery community here.

Everyone is so supportive of each other and I like being with all of them; so when I noticed that our farm cats here were leaving squirrel tails lying around their feeding area (yes, our cats are better at actually catching squirrels than our enthusiastic but clueless dog), I asked Barbara Zaveruha if she would teach a brush-making workshop. My favorite liner brush is starting to wear out and I suspect it is made of squirrel hair or something similar.

Brushes Barbara has made.

My local women potter friends were invited and we convened in my studio one morning bearing various roadside finds and fur bits

to be converted into brushes for slip and wax.

I have a list of what you will need at the bottom of this post.

Step one is laying out the hair/fur.  Set out a straight-edge of some sort and line your hairs up against it in a pretty thin layer.

Then begin at the end and pretend that the hairs are like a mat and roll them up.  The first hairs in line will end up at the center of your brush.  Those will be the tip.

Once you get a good shape, hold your bundle firmly and have someone (another good reason to make this a communal activity) wrap and then tie some dental floss around it where you want your brush to end. This may be the middle of the bundle or closer to one end. Don’t worry how long the excess is, it will be trimmed later. Try to wrap a bit of a band.


What we discovered: coarse hairs should not be tied super-tight. Finer hairs like fox and squirrel hairs can be tied tightly, this does not deform the tip of the brush- but deer hair is much coarser and -my suspicions confirmed from some cursory research on the web– hollow. Which means the tighter we tied the wrap around it, the more it compressed and splayed outward giving us these frustrating multiple-tips results.  

It suddenly came to me that we should try to tie it looser and Barbara assured us that later gluing would keep the hairs in place. A gently tightened but not tightly pulled wrapping yielded the first decent deer hair tip.

Notes on what hair to use from where: Barbara was using deer tail. Colleen had some deer fur also; possibly from the belly or hindquarters? Not sure.**

I took the longest hair I could find on our  poor fox carcass and it was in the area behind the head, between the shoulders. This will work too, even if your only hair source is your (living) dog – apparently the Japanese prefer Akita hair for their best brushes so go ahead and call Fido over.

The fur/hair should have some kink or wave to it to hold the slip/wax/underglaze.

I don’t think curly coated dog’s hair will work nor the super-straight hair of say, a lab  or pit bull (not long enough anyhow). I used the tip of a squirrel tail first and then the side hairs of the tail too- it all seemed to make a nice liner tip.  Also, the finer hairs are probably best for smaller brushes and those larger thicker hairs better for big brushes.

Eventually we ran out of time, went in to eat soup and home-made bread (made by my talented husband) and scheduled a second workshop to finish the brushes.  We all went off to boil our brush tips so they would be dry enough to clip and glue. This is a VERY IMPORTANT STEP because you don’t want your brush to reek after it has sat in water or worse, rot.



We reconvened on a snowy morning with boiled tips in hand and proceeded to finish the brushes.

The boiling loosened the wrappings a bit so I ended up re-wrapping  all the the ends and what I found worked best was about a ½ inch of wrapping to make the base of the brush a solid cylinder.

Barbara showed me a terrific type of knot. Before you start wrapping, you run a loop up that lays along the area you are going to wrap and just past it. Then you proceed to wrap over the loop. When you get to the end of where you are wrapping, poke the string (or floss in our case) through the loop  leaving a bit of looseness and pull on the other end of the loop- the end that is sticking out of the bottom of the wrapping where you started-pulling on it will pull the loop and other end of string under the wrapping; pull until it is about halfway down the wrapping and then cut off both ends.

Next we trimmed non-tip end of the fur to a very blunt end  and then dabbed that end straight down onto a blob of glue and worked the glue up into the hairs. Sometimes we needed a second blob depending on how absorbent the hairs were. To compress the sides in- prevent flaring, we wrapped the end in tape but I did not tape 2 of the ends and that seemed to work too. You will have to judge which ends need the tape. 

I had scrounged some bamboo pieces from our shed- formerly used to hold up plants. You can buy bamboo in varying thicknesses at garden supply stores . The narrow (usually green) I will use for my tiny liner tips and my two Fox brushes will go in thicker shafts.

Next you will have to drill out the right diameter in the bamboo. Look at the diameter of the bottom end of your brush tip and judge what thickness bit you need for your drill. It’s better to err on the side of too-small. As Barbara said, “you can always make it bigger.”

Where I chose to cut the bamboo shafts had to do with the “joint”. I wanted to have a good ¾ of an inch above the bamboo “joint” which provides a “floor” for the glue and brush tip to rest on.

The inside of the bamboo is soft and the joint floor is harder so your drill should sort of stop at the floor and if you don’t push really hard, you won’t go through it.

Barbara is holding the bamboo just below the “joint”.

Next try out your brush tip in the hole before you put glue in there! You may want to drill it out larger.  Note: if your wrapping is nice and flat and not lumpy, you should be able to fit it inside the opening in the bamboo shaft. That’s why, when you are wrapping it, you want it to be tight and flat and very cylinder-like.
Note how different the end looks from when we first tied the bundles.

Once you can just squeeze the tip in, with possible help from the fettling knife to tuck a few stray hairs in remove it  and put a decent sized drop of glue in there.  

Re-insert your brush tip. Let dry and VOILA! You have a nice brush!



What you will need to make brushes:

  • Fur with some waviness or kink to it but not curly hair. Squirrel, raccoon, deer or canine fur (fox, dog) is ideal.
  • A straight edge of some sort.
  • Dental floss or waxed string
  • Water resistant glue- we used Duco, 5-minute epoxy would work too.
  • Hair clippers are very helpful
  • Fine saw
  • Bamboo (from the garden store)
  • A vice is very helpful
  • Drill and variety of sized bits
  • Paper plate for the glue (our glue started to dissolve a styrofoam tray I had)
  • Fine scissors
  • Tweezers can be helpful
  • Fettling knife
  • Needle tool
  • Toothpicks for the glue
  • Tape

** The best information I found on hair were fly-tying sites and blogs!  I wish we’d read this excerpt before we started!:

“For example, the body of a deer has hollow hair, the tail is solid hair. The body hair of a calf is solid. Tails of all animals, like squirrel, woodchuck, calf, are typically solid.       Solid hair typically is used for wings and tails. It stays compact and does not flare and is relatively hard to stabilize on the hook because it is slippery.      Hollow hair is typically body hair and is used for wings or for spinning where you want it to flare. It is used for tails as well, but there you want to control the flare by thread technique. If you look at the typical hollow hair, i.e.  deer, elk, caribou, antelope, it looks like a carrot, thick tapering to thin, with the thick part being hollow and the thinner part getting less hollow until it is actually solid at the tip. It is actually honeycomb hollow if you look at it under a microscope.”