I fell in love with clay when I took my first college Ceramics class as a freshman. I enjoyed all of my art classes, but when it was time to choose an area of emphasis for my Art degree I didn’t hesitate…. Ceramics for the win!!
I’m not alone in my fondness for clay. Kids of all ages LOVE working with clay!! And teachers can love it, too…. although it can be intimidating to teach ceramics if you don’t have experience with it yourself. But don’t let that stop you from sharing the joy of clay with your students! These helpful tips will get you going. With a can-do mindset and a few tricks up your sleeve, you’ll be teaching clay like a pro in no time!
Key #1 – Be a Problem-Solver
When you’re new to teaching clay, some things are helpful to address in advance. Below are some of the most common issues, which can all be handled with the help of your can-do mindset!
- No kiln? No problem! Most kids’ projects can also be made using air dry clay and paint. When work is completely dry, simply paint it with acrylics or tempera paint and cover with a clear sealer. Or try using Jazz Gloss Tempera paint which dries shiny enough that you can skip the sealer. Just remind students that projects made with air dry clay won’t be waterproof or heat-resistant. That means (among other things!) no mugs and no candle holders!
- Anticipate potential behavior problems before they occur. A few rules and consequences explained ahead of time will help kids understand that using clay is a privilege. A simple rule like “Use clay appropriately” covers a multitude of clay misbehaviors, like throwing clay (and I’m not talking about wheel throwing!) or creating inappropriate objects with their clay….. why do kids always try to get away with this??! Working with clay is a privilege and privileges can be revoked. It won’t take many sessions of pencil sharpening while their classmates make awesome things with clay to inspire students to make better choices.
- Projects with no name – ugh!! One of the biggest annoyances for art teachers the world over is projects with no name…. and it can be especially hard to identify un-named ceramics projects! Avoid this problem by finding a way to make sure students always sign their work! Make this a priority and it will save you tons of time and frustration trying to figure out who made what! For very young students, you can have them write their name on a piece of paper (or on a paper plate) under their project so you can later carve their name or initials in a legible way. Verbal reminders, signs, a checklist at the door…. do whatever it takes to make it work in your classroom!
Key #2 – Be Organized
Organization is unique to each classroom and the kind of space you have available. Even the smallest spaces can be organized for optimal efficiency. The more organized you are, the more freedom you’ll have to enjoy what you’re teaching! Here are some of the key things you’ll need to store, so solve these well and the rest will fall into place:
- bags of clay
- large bucket for clay scraps
- glaze sample tiles
- clay tools
- work in progress
- finished work that’s ready to go home
Work with whatever storage you’ve already got: shelves, cabinets, bookcases, a cart…. and go from there. Most likely, you’ll end up with a combination of solutions. It all depends on your space and how much stuff you’ve got. Don’t be afraid to get rid of things you’re not using. Less stuff creates a more peaceful environment for everyone!
Key #3 – Be Clean
In a perfect world, every art room would have a sink with a clay trap. But mine never did…. I was lucky when I had a sink at all! If your sink doesn’t have a clay trap, your follow these guidelines and your custodian will thank you!
- Wipe excess glaze or slip from your brushes with a paper towel.
- Soak brushes in a small container before rinsing them with water.
- Wipe sink with paper towels rather than rinsing clay and glaze residue down the drain.
- Pass out baby wipes to each student for cleaning their hands at the end of class to avoid long lines at the sink.
- Instruct students not to glaze the bottoms of their pieces. And then wipe the bottom of each piece with a damp sponge before loading it into the kiln. Even if you think it doesn’t need it. It takes less time and energy to quickly wipe each one than to examine them all and make decisions as you go.
- Teach students to pick up any stray bits of clay that have fallen onto the floor as soon as they notice them…. before they get tracked e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e!
Key #4 – Be Proactive
Many of the challenges of working with clay can be headed off at the pass by being proactive up front. Here are a few more things you can do to make your job smoother and less stressful:
- Kiln wash your shelves and bottoms of posts, and maintain them throughout the year with quick touch-ups as needed.
- Insist that bottoms of pieces be glaze-free. Already mentioned above, but this one bears repeating! If you have a project where the bottom must be glazed, you’ll need to use stilts when you fire it. Stilting takes extra time for you and uses extra space in the kiln. And if you forget to put stilts under something that’s glazed on the bottom, it will be stuck to the shelf after firing. This is why kiln wash is so important! In addition, the piece will most likely be ruined (it will have kiln wash stuck to the bottom and along the edges) and you’ll have a big area on the shelf to sand and touch up with more kiln wash before you use it again. Save yourself all this trouble and teach your students not to glaze the bottom of their work!
- Leave your good jewelry at home…. or if you must wear it, don’t take it off! It’s way too easy to lose a ring or bracelet when you take it off, so save yourself the trauma and leave it at home! (I chose to just wear my two favorite rings and clean them more often…. everything else stayed home on clay days!)
- Give special care to your hands. Working with clay can be really hard on your skin and nails. Keep your fingernails trimmed short (long nails get in the way!), scrub them with a nail brush when washing your hands, and use a good quality hand cream daily. Ask students to have their nails trimmed short for working with clay, too. Sending a note home ahead of your clay unit will help!
These are some of the most universal issues you’ll encounter when you bring clay into your classroom. A little planning will go a long way to make working with clay a great experience for your students AND FOR YOU! For lots more techniques and helpful tips for working with clay, check out my TPT resource, “Creating with Clay: Tools, Techniques, and Tips for Success”.
Tori Nash says
I love this information. I am starting at new school this year. While the art room does have sinks there is no kiln and no sink/clay traps. Will I need a clay trap for the sinks if we are working with air dry clay or other types of clays?
Cheryl Trowbridge says
I’m glad this was helpful, Tori! In general, air dry clay tends to be less sticky and messy than pottery clay. But it’s important to prevent any kind of clay from going down the drain or it could cause clogging. Baby wipes work great for an initial clean-up of hands. Just try to get most of it off with wipes or paper towels before a final rinse in the sink and you should be fine. If you notice some clay or glaze in the sink, just wipe it out with paper towels and dispose of it in the trash. If you end up with clay in a water bucket, you could pour it out outside, just not in the sink. I’ve never had a sink with a clay trap and it was fine… you just need to be extra careful!
Rena taylor says
Great advice. I am starting my clay unit and was wondering the best way for kids to clean their hands rather than going to my sink. I saw bay wipes but that can get expensive. Any other tips would be appreciated!
Rena Taylor, Ed.S.
Cheryl Trowbridge says
All those baby wipes do add up! If you can buy them by the case at a warehouse store (like Costco) that really helps bring the price down. I’ve also had great success getting parents to donate them via a class “wish list” or even just a simple note home to let them know what your needs are. Often times parents who aren’t available to volunteer in the classroom like to help out in this way!