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Clay'n'Play and Waldorf education

Free Creative Clay Modeling

Alexey Lelchuk. October 2021


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Clay'n'Play is a new method of free creative playing with clay for preschoolers, developed in Moscow, Russia. The method has been successfully implemented in dozens of studios and kindergartens, in children's camps and at home.

However, some Waldorf teachers refuse to use any clay modeling, including this method, with small kids. I hope this article will provide enough evidence for the use of Clay'n'Play in Waldorf kindergartens and at home.

The only argument I have heard from strict Waldorf adherents against using clay with kids is Rudolf Steiner's statement that clay weakens the ethereal body of a child, which is still very weak until the age of seven. I will write about this in detail, but first I shall give an extensive quote from an authoritative source.

Elizabeth M. Grunelius and free playing with clay

Elizabeth M. Grunelius organized the first Waldorf kindergarten at the Free Waldorf School in Stuttgart in 1925 and was its head until it was closed by the Nazis in 1938.

Then, Elisabeth Grunelius continued to work in the United States. She organized a kindergarten on Adelphi College campus in Garden City near New York. Shortly after, the Demonstration Waldorf School at Adelphi College was created. In 1950 Elisabeth wrote her book Early Childhood Education and the Waldorf School Plan. That book was well accepted in the USA and was based on many years of practice in organizing and running Waldorf kindergartens in Germany and the USA. It includes not only the initial theoretical principles, but also the real experience of their implementation in different places and under various conditions.

Below is the quote regarding the use of clay in Waldorf kindergarten:

„Another subject for general activities in kindergarten is work with clay. At first, as in drawing, just give children the opportunity to get a direct impression by observing the work of an adult, with no explanations.

You can sculpt from dyed wax or just from ductile clay. It is better to store the clay in an earthenware vessel and protect it from drying out by covering it with a damp cloth or a plastic lid. It is better to have two clay vessels, one of which should contain the material ready for use. The day before modeling, the clay should be kneaded and checked if it is soft enough for children's hands; if necessary, add water to it. After that, the clay is again covered with a damp cloth and left overnight.

First thing in the morning the children help to push their tables together and spread a large oilcloth over them. Then they distribute the boards, one to each place, and bring a good-sized lump of clay for each board.

The children can hardly wait to plunge their hands into the plastic material and to start forming it. Sometimes the teacher will set to work too, and the children can see how he handles the material. Occasionally the forms of animals – a horse, a cow, a little goat, a duck or even an elephant or a giraffe – will emerge, and the children will immediately want to have them and play with them.

The teacher can use a theme from a familiar fairy tale, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Of course, the children will be free to watch the teacher or follow their own incentives. In clay work, as in painting, the results are not made the subject of discussion or comparative analysis; the work is placed on a shelf for the rest of the morning, and after the children have gone home, a few pieces of special interest are selected and kept, while the remainder of the clay goes back into the container”.

In the quote, I highlighted phrases that align very well with my own experience of working with art, art therapy, ceramics and children. Unfortunately, modern waldorf teachers forgot these ideas and experience of Elisabeth Grunelius and use clay very rarely.

What is Clay'n'Play?

Clay'n'Play is a new approach to using clay creatively with children. We play with clay the way we would play with a construction set or sand in a sandbox. We freely fantasize, communicate, grow up, learn.

Clay'n'Play classes are essentially an open-ended moderated creative role-playing game. Sometimes we play a well-known and beloved fairy tale, sometimes we come up with a plot on the spot. Each child can take any role, sculpt what he wants, and the teacher helps everyone and encourages children to play together.

This short description is enough to guess that playing with clay is very close to Waldorf pedagogy. But before comparing the principles of Clay'n'Play and Waldorf in detail, I would like to address the main objection to the use of clay with preschoolers.

Clay and vitality

According to some Waldorf teachers, "Clay is cold, it takes away too much of the vital forces necessary for the formation of an organism." Others specify that "clay takes away the ethereal forces that are needed to form the ethereal body."

Nevertheless, these same teachers don’t hesitate to take the children out for a walk in any weather, and let them mess around in the sandbox, in puddles or in the snow with their bare hands. These all-weather Waldorf walks and free play in nature are great activities that set Waldorf kindergartens apart from all others. In this way, children's souls learn to be bold and accept the diversity of nature, and their bodies learn to resist cold and unpleasant sensations.

Moreover, this practice draws on the natural experience of children living in a traditional rural setting, where they are exposed to cold and wet nature with bare hands and feet, sometimes throughout the year. This leads to a natural strengthening of the body, the ability to resist not only physical illnesses, but also mental ones – despondency and self-pity.

Therefore, the wet and cold nature of the material itself cannot be a reason for refusing to use it in Waldorf kindergarten.

However, there is one important difference between an all-weather walk and a plasticizing activity. While messing around in a sandbox, puddle or snow, children move actively, warming themselves by their movement and initiative. Thus, the external cold is compensated by the active release of internal heat. It is this flow of warmth from the inside out that has a beneficial effect on the physical and mental health of the child.

In a traditional clay sculpting class, children sit quietly on chairs and make small movements with their hands and fingers. Of course, in this setting, anyone would get cold easily.

Copying takes away energy

Clay takes away vital forces if the task is to repeat a given shape or faithfully reproduce given movements. Moreover, it is the need to follow a prescribed process that takes away energy, not the clay itself. Any activities aimed at memorizing, copying, or tedious technical work can take away emotional powers.

It is important to distinguish between physical strength and emotional strength, physical fatigue and emotional fatigue. We, both adults and children, can feel a breakdown without hard physical work if we do not like what we are doing, or if it requires meaningless and boring actions. On the contrary, an interesting activity, even requiring the use of physical force, is often accompanied by an emotional uplift, a surge of strength and a desire to continue.

In Steiner's time, working with clay was limited to accurate reproduction of defined forms. Modeling according to a template, working out nature, ornamental modeling – this was what working with clay looked like at the beginning of the twentieth century. Impressionists who worked from emotions, feelings, from the movement of material – Auguste Rodin in France, Anna Golubkina in Russia, and others -- were rare, and their method was not used by the majority of sculptors, modelers and potters.

It was precisely this constricted and patterned work with clay that Steiner rejected for preschoolers. However, any work on the model is not good for young children, be it sculpting, painting or any other. Though, in painting, Steiner managed to discover an alternative to academic studies – free work with water paints. With modeling, apparently, he was unable to find a way to freely follow the movement of the soul, hands and clay.

Clay'n'Play is about playing

In Clay'n'Play, I developed such an alternative. The method of playing with clay is built completely on open-ended manipulation of clay, taking it exactly as far as the child wants here and now. The children are free to take exactly as much clay as they are ready for at the moment. Even if, say, a girl does not sculpt anything herself, but carefully observes the play and sculpting of other children and adults, I believe that she can be well integrated in the common process as an active participant. If, say, a boy does not want to sculpt at all and leaves the table, I do not stop him. I would ask him some questions to understand why he wants to leave, offer him some other activity, but if he doesn't accept it, I let him go.

Certainly, by launching a game based on a well-known and beloved fairy tale, or by offering another interesting play theme, I awaken in children the desire to play and to take clay in their hands. I boost their interest in sculpting within the given class hour, and this is my little "pedagogical secret".

However, any successful pedagogical work is based on such a "secret”. We create an environment for children that encourages certain activities. But unlike many modern play methods of early development, our goal is not to teach a child any particular set of knowledge and skills, disguising it in a form of play. No, I invite children into real fair playing, and I do not want anything from them but playing. Only if a child wants to make something out of clay for this play, he or she will do it.

Often, more than half of all toys and furnishings during Clay'n'Play are made by the teacher or parents for the children.

In Clay'n'Play, children are free to do whatever they want with clay, or do nothing. Play and free fantasy are primary, and children are primarily tuned in to play and to materialize their own visions.

With an open-ended, free attitude towards modeling, clay helps to mobilize internal forces for playing and modeling at will. If children treat it as a game, if they take it and put it down freely, then they warm up.

Active movement

There is another important difference from traditional modeling: during Clay’n’Play children move very actively. First, the large pieces of clay that I give them, and large crafts that they make from them, require great physical effort, the work of the whole body, and not just the fingers. In the process of such work, children warm up and their hands often turn so hot that they dry the clay and I have to give them new moist and soft pieces.

Second, I encourage standing and walking around the table while sculpting, and especially while playing. Playing takes more than half of the time of the whole lesson and, of course, while playing, children often walk around the table moving large pieces of clay. Thus, the level of children activity is comparable (if not higher) to that of playing in a sandbox.

Years of experience have shown me that children are physically and emotionally warmed up when playing with clay, just like when they play outdoors in winter. They have warm hands, noses and foreheads, they actively move around the table. After the class, they run out energized, excited, full of impressions, joy and desire for further action and communication. They happily tell their parents about what happened in class. No one ever comes out sluggish from playing with clay. They are very active after class, but active in a good way, without unnecessary craziness or meltdowns.

Emotional and physical fatigue

Parents actually say that after evening classes, the children go to bed easier. This does not mean that they are exhausted or tired. Instead of being sluggish or hyperactive in the evening, they appear calm and well-centered. Free playing with clay takes away emotional fatigue and provides emotional release and good physical exercise.

Free clay modeling works in a similar way for adults as well. For adults, I suggest certain intuitive exercises that are different from both anthroposophy approach and from traditional sculpting after a model.

People come after a work day, tired and nervous, and take up the clay. It is hard to imagine they still have the energy for active work with a heavy material. But after the class, everyone, literally all of the participants, say that clay gave them new strength. Out of nowhere, they have the energy to feel, listen, empathize and actively embody their feelings and thoughts in clay.

All describe their experience with the same phrase: “Bad emotional fatigue, stress, anxiety are gone. Good calm physical fatigue came, the body relaxed, the blocks were released, the soul relieved.”

Thus, playing with clay is different from merely using clay as a sculpting material. It is the process of channeling and organizing a person’s playfulness and creativity, in which clay plays its natural role, the same as in the traditional way of life.

Wax and clay

Each material has a certain process, a way of dealing with it, which is natural for it. Certain remedies are good for achieving certain results, and generally not very good for others.

Waldorf kindergartens use wax for modeling. Wax is considered the most natural, harmonious, warm material for children's modeling. But what can be made of wax? Simplest birds, leaves, mushrooms, houses. It's difficult to make more complex and large things from wax because it hardens quickly.

On the other hand, you don't have to make anything complicated out of wax. The main property of wax is its low melting point. Slightly heated, it softens or even melts into a liquid. Slightly cooled down, it hardens.

Waldorf pedagogy uses this property. Wax is heated, then something is made from it, paying attention not to the result, but to the very sensations from a live soft warm material, which lends itself to both hand movement and the warmth of hands. These activities are more about tactile sensation than about sculpting specific shapes. It is the tactile sensation of a friendly, warm media that hardens when released, but retains the memory of a warm contact.

Clay is the opposite matter. It is heavy, damp and cool. It will not give you warmth, and it looks ugly until you make something out of it. It requires your efforts, physical strength, and your will to change it into something. But, having received all this from you, clay will thank you with its pliability and clarity of physical forms. In clay, you can achieve fine detailing, you can do big things, you can freely work with space and shape.

The movement of masses and volumes, the ratio of large and small forms – this is the type of work inherent in clay. If wax gives you warmth, then clay does take energy from you. However, this energy is immediately transformed into interesting forms, thereby stimulating you for further work. Clay facilitates the birth of new forces, stimulates the pumping of new creative energy in the process of modeling. It develops your own inner abilities to create and give.

In this capacity, in my opinion, clay is very good for small children. They have a natural excess of low, motor energies, given to them by nature for successful development in our heavy material world. These energies are good for running all day in the field or forest, wading through thickets, taking care of pets, and hauling pieces of wood or pebbles. But little of these are feasible in the city, so the energy remains largely unclaimed. Therefore, if offered a lot of clay, children are happy to crumple it, beat it, drag it, flatten it, make holes. Then they settle down and move on to more constructive and calm activities.

"To receive" and "to transmit"

A person can work with material "for reception" and "for transmission". The question is, do you want to receive something from the world with the help of some material, or do you want to give something to the world? Natural "tactile pleasures" (wax, wood, wool) are all "for reception". If you need natural energy, which is lacking in the city, you would want to touch wax in order to nourish this energy.

However, consider the opposite situation, when you have the enthusiasm and energy to create some form, thing, pour out the excess energy somewhere. This is completely different. Here, warmth and naturalness are no longer needed. With your energy you will make any material that comes to hand "natural" if it suits your task. A living person is more alive than all the most “living” materials. You can create something alive from anything, if you put your will and effort in it.

Thus, the choice of material for children's modeling really depends on the task the teacher sets. If the task is to give children a source of energy, to connect them to nature, to natural forces, then you choose tactile materials that work "for reception". And if the task is to awaken and encourage the children's own internal forces, to help them give energy effectively and with pleasure, to create, to change the world around them, then you need to choose expressive materials that work “for transmission”.

In Clay'n'Play, the material is used according to the second modality, “for transmission”. The teacher creates an atmosphere of active making, the release of energy, the creation of whole imaginative worlds, shows the children an example, actively helps them in this. They pick up this energy and learn some techniques of working with clay. And that's why they like playing with clay. If you do none of this, but simply give children a piece of clay and ask them to make something, they will not be interested at all.

In addition, children are initially tuned in to “transmission”. Adults usually think that a child needs to be given, taught, nourished. In fact, to the contrary, children are eager to make something on their own, to help, build, teach. This must be taken into account when creating a developmental environment that encourages creative release of energy. We must not forget that children are people who only recently came to our world. They probably still remember why they came, and probably, judging by their behavior, they came to change something in this world.

Freya Jaffke and tactile hunger

Freya Jaffke, a well-known Waldorf teacher and author, used clay in her kindergarten. At her lecture, someone asked this question: Does clay take away energy?

Jaffke's answer was sharp and unambiguous:
“I have a whole clay pit in the yard of my garden, and a drainpipe is laid there to keep it humid! But it is in the yard! I never instruct children to sculpt something! They go there themselves and do what they want!

But look. Many of them now (and these were the gadgetless 90s) have their “thermal organism” damaged! They are intellectualized to their very roots! They have icy hands in the hot weather! They just don't go there. I see this perfectly, and I arrange therapy for them. I work with wax, I put warm wax at the center of their palms. And gradually they come to clay to begin the process of further self-healing! They come there on their own when they feel that they are ready to take this medicine!"

Clay'n'Play in the kindergarten

The Clay'n'Play method is technically adapted to modern urban kindergartens and apartments. Few educators, and even fewer parents, will opt to have an open pit with clay and children with hands stained with clay. In our class, we use ready-made premixed clay without water. This makes it possible to transfer playing with clay from the yard to the room, to the table.

In Waldorf kindergarten, Clay'n'Play can be organized as an opportunity for children at the time of free play and handicrafts. The teacher lays out some clay at the edge of the table and begins to sculpt something on the topic of his or her choice. Children can, at will, come up and join the game on the proposed topic, or sculpt their own visions and fantasies, or "simply" explore the clay – knead, pull, spank, roll.

As for children's unwillingness to take clay in their hands, I think it can be explained not so much by the "damage of their thermal organism" as by the fact that modern city children have never seen clay and simply do not know what to do with it. Therefore, it is natural that they will not be very enthusiastic about a pit of clay. But when an adult shows them toys, houses, mountains and rivers made from clay, children quickly and joyfully grasp the idea and pounce on the clay enthusiastically, like after a long hunger. Yes, the environment in which city children live makes them hungry for a variety of tactile sensations, for ways to express themselves and leave a mark in the world.

Waldorf principles and Clay'n'Play

Let us now compare the main principles of Waldorf pedagogy and Clay'n'Play.

Development according to age

The goal of playing with clay is to embody a child's own images and to allow for an open-ended free play. These goals are achieved by imitation of adults and older children, as well as the absence of specific instructions and by encouragement of creativity. Imitation and free play are exactly what preschoolers need for their development.

The usual purposes and means of modeling from clay – learning techniques and making a finished craft – do not align with the age characteristics of children under 7 years. Accordingly, they are not used in Clay'n'Play method at all.

Imitation and example

The leading adult in Clay'n'Play is just a facilitator, not a teacher, first among equals. He or she plays along with the children and creates everything necessary according to the plot. This gives the children an opportunity to observe the teacher’s sculpting, empathize with it and, to the best of their strength and desire, imitate it. In a group of different ages, Clay'n'Play allows older children to make toys for younger children, help younger children and take leading roles in playing out the plot. The younger ones have the opportunity to use the toys made by older children and adults, follow their play, and learn to sculpt from them and with them.

Free play

Clay'n'Play is based on free play. At the beginning of the class, the teacher offers the children a topic or two, discusses it, finds out who knows this or that fairy tale, and whether they want to play it. After choosing the most appropriate topic, the teacher invites the children to take on roles at will. Those children who do not want to participate in this theme, are free to make what they want. The teacher periodically invites them to join the common game, but does not insist on that.
In this way, during playing with clay, only playful, and not aesthetic tasks are put forward. Moreover, the children themselves design these tasks while the adult only sets an example and keeps order.

Exploring the material

The free exploration of the material is another important aspect of playing with clay. Children, especially those under 4 years old, would simply tinker with clay with great interest and pleasure, without trying to make anything concrete. They enjoy kneading, hitting, rolling, smearing, pulling clay just for the sake of the process. Thus, they get acquainted with the properties of clay – with its plasticity, elasticity, weight, strength. Moreover, in this way children become familiar with their own bodily capabilities – with the strength and shape of their fingers and hands, their flexibility, surface, warmth.

We always encourage free exploration and give children as much time for it as needed. We do not try to switch their attention to common play or figurative crafts. Instead, we show kids examples of different non-figurative actions with clay.

Movement creates form

Free exploration of the material often leads to the emergence of interesting forms, realistic or abstract. Children are always happy with such discoveries, and the teacher supports guessing spontaneous forms, but never forces it. Children are free to find interpretations for their actions themselves, or not to interpret them at all.

Form creates movement

At the same time, the teacher may ask the children to create something that requires certain specific actions. For example, we might ask to fill a basket with apples so that the children rolled the balls between their palms, or cover the river with waves so that the children could make long smearing movements that are good for feeling the connection between form and emotions. This is especially useful for younger kids whose range of modeling abilities is rather small. The teacher shows them how simple movements can create a variety of images and toys. This helps the children to develop coordination of movements.

The embodiment of images

The most important process in playing with clay is the free embodiment of children’s inner images and experiences. That is why an adult almost never teaches specific sculpting techniques. All the forms that children create are not determined by physical figures and techniques, but rather by their own visions and emotions. Emotions are expressed both in the forms that children achieve and in the movements that they use during sculpting and playing.

Generalized form of toys

The teacher creates toys for the game in a very simple generalized form with a minimum of details. This is necessary, first, so that the children themselves think out the details to the best of their imagination, and second, so that the toys are simple enough, and children can repeat them on their own. The toys usually resemble folk clay figurines. But they have this form not for the sake of following canons and traditions, but in order to encourage the imagination and creativity of children.

Rhythm of the year

From time to time, you can choose a theme that matches the rhythm of the year, for example, harvesting, gnomes and lanterns, nativity scene, or escape from Egypt. This gives children another way to relive the calendar theme, to see and make the forms that express it.

No evaluation, just self-expression

The teacher never evaluates children's works according to the criterion of likeliness to a prototype. The main value is the children's involvement in the game and the quality of their self-expression. A slightly crumpled piece of clay will fully deserve the teacher's praise if the child made it thoughtfully and with feeling, named it and began to use it in the game.

Listening to children

The teacher chooses a topic for playing based on the current situation. At the very beginning of the class, he carefully listens to the children and tries to feel which topic is best suited for this particular group on that particular day. During the class, the teacher constantly assesses the degree of children's involvement in the announced topic and, if necessary, changes the course of the game in order to allow children to better express their feelings in form and in play.

Contact with parents

The teacher always explains to parents and other outside observers the meaning and values of Clay'n'Play. It may be difficult to understand the meaning of the game by looking at the final pieces, even if they survived the playing process. Therefore, the teacher tells the parents about their children's actions during the class, their words and feelings, achievements and difficulties in playing and in self-expression.

Parental involvement

The teacher always invites parents to join the game when they bring the child to class. Parents are involved in the game as equal players. They set an example of thoughtful modeling and play for their children. Parents should not help their children unless they explicitly ask for it. Joint play and sculpting encourage and strengthen friendship and trust between parents and children.

Questions and doubts

There are several questions that teachers often ask.

Why not put the clay in an open pit, as Freya Jaffke did, so that the children could take it at any time?

You can do that. But, a) it is technically difficult, it will bring uncontrollable dirt to the room; b) children still need some time and space boundaries. For example, children cannot go outside at any time, there are specific hours for this. Already, as part of the outside activities, children can play and do what they want. There may be two specific hours for free play indoors, and a specific half hour for painting. Within this time, children are free to immerse themselves in the process as much as they are ready.

In Clay'n'Play, the children take as much clay as they want, when they want, and do what they want with it. If they don't want to, they may sit and watch, or play with what the teacher or parent make. This does not take the whole day, but one specific hour. An hour is a lot for preschoolers, actually much longer than any structured lesson can last. During that hour, the children have complete freedom to take or not to take clay.

Clay is dirty

Everyone worries that working with clay is dirty, requires special conditions and cleaning. However, we have developed a way to work with clay in a clean way, without water and without tedious preparation of the material. Clay in 1-inch slabs is packed into sealed plastic buckets. Fleece rags are placed between the layers, and are soaked just enough to slightly soften the clay between sessions. During classes, water is not used at all. Light clay is easily shaken off, wiped and washed. In general, playing with clay is no dirtier than making pie dough.

Clay is a natural material. It is non-toxic and almost sterile. So, it can be safely used even with the very small children, who try everything to taste.

Children make noise

Playing with clay is usually quite noisy. Children speak out loud, discuss the course of the game and pieces they make. This is natural, because the basis of the class is play. Free play in Waldorf kindergarten is always quite noisy. However, the teacher monitors the noise level and periodically asks the children to lower their voices.

What to do with crafts

What to do with what we have made? Children can take home one small thoughtfully made piece. We crush the rest of the bulk creations into 1-inch layers and put them back into the buckets. Children think of clay as of a construction set, which they put back into the box when the game is over.

Openness to development

Clay'n'Play is an open-source method. The basic principles are very simple and can be supplemented with methods and ideas from a wide variety of areas of pedagogy and art. The principles and methods of art therapy, clay therapy, game therapy can be applied in a natural way without any changes in the course of the Clay'n'Play class. You can enhance your classes by listening and sculpting music, discussing particular educational themes: plants, animals, people, crafts, buildings. You can listen to a particular fairy tale more attentively and then play it out. Many creative drawing and sculpting techniques can be adapted for clay.

Playing with clay is a natural adaptation of traditional village games and activities for children living the modern city lifestyle. It can be used in kindergartens, art studios, and at home. No artistic abilities or skills are required, only the ability to play and communicate with children.

Links and references

A book about Clay'n'Play has been published in Russian: Alexey Lelchuk. Playing with Clay. "National Education" publishing house. 2015. It can be bought at major chain bookstores, for example on Ozon:

The site http://claynplay.ru/claynplay-en presents the basic principles of playing with clay, representative photographs and a list of all places where clay is played.

On Facebook, in the /igravglinu group, and on Instagram, under the hashtag #игравглину, the teachers publish photos and descriptions of their activities, questions and comments:

I give one- and two-day workshops for teachers and parents on playing with clay. Details can be found on my Facebook page:

Feel free to contact me by phone, whatsapp or telegram 8 925 804 2435 and by e-mail a.lelchuk@mail.ru.

© Alexey Lelchuk. 2021. Any use of this text requires a reference to the author and the original text.
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