Documenting a Reggio-inspired first encounter with clay and water

In early childhood, materials are closely connected to making. They are often set out for children to make or create something with, frequently with the assumption that children are full of ideas just waiting to be expressed through these materials. Yet as Hillrvi Lenz Taguchi (2010) describes, ‘the material world acts on our thinking as much as our thinking acts on the material world’s’. We are moved by materials and are prompted by the new materials own characteristics and liveliness. It is never as simple as idea directly imposed on form”

Encounters with materials in early childhood education (pg.26)

Once children have had the opportunity for lots of open-ended, exploration with clay, my next step is to introduce a small pot of water with a sponge so that they are able to investigate how the properties of clay change when it becomes wet.

The first time I set up this encounter for Althea I did it on a much smaller scale at the table, but there is no reason why you cannot incorporate it into your exploration of a larger block of clay. I laid out a block of air dry clay on a piece of canvas (that, once the residue dried, made a lovely piece of accidental art work) and placed a small bowl of water and a sponge alongside it.

I sat opposite and started by manipulating my own piece of clay with my hands, pushing, pressing, pulling, inviting her to work alongside me. I then quietly modelled how to use the sponge to add water.

Below is the video documentation of the dialogue that took place between Althea and I during her first encounter with clay and water.

An encounter with wet clay on canvas

Some reflections…

In this clip there is quite a bit of dialogue for the purpose of illustrating what it might look like during a child-led, inquiry based encounter, but I do make sure there is plenty space for quiet, uninterrupted exploration.

I try to stick to open-ended questions that might encourage reflection and further inquiry.

I do not offer direction I simply repeat her own words back to her, sometimes interpreting non-verbal communications (Althea was 32 months at the time)

I also do not restrict her exploration. She can add as much of the water that I have provided as she likes. The key here being that I obviously decide how much water to put in the bowl.

(The shushing is because her sister is napping and we need to be quiet!)

If you would like to delve a little deeper into how you can set up and support first encounters with different materials then I highly recommend ‘The Language of Art: Inquiry-Based Studio Practices in Early Childhood Settings ‘ by Ann Pelo

How to extend a first encounter with charcoal through reggio-inspired provocations

Over the course of a few weeks I noticed that whenever I found Althea (3.5) at the art table she had a black crayon in her hand. She always asked for the black tempera paint and was intent on mixing her watercolours until they transformed into a dark muddy shade. I reflected on how I might extend her interest and decided this was the perfect opportunity for a first encounter with charcoal.

I set out some rough A3 watercolour paper with some cold pressed charcoal and let her explore the new art medium, focusing on the process, how the charcoal moves across the textured paper and smudges and blends.

Following on from this first encounter with charcoal I searched, a wonderful online database of galleries, exhibitions and artists, for a provocation (something to provoke thoughts, discussions, creativity and new ideas) to inspire our next encounter with charcoal and expand on Althea’s interest in black and white artwork. I came across Nuances of black and white at the Elmarsa Gallery and decided to use a piece by Omar Bey called Piere, 2017, which is actually a wire structure against a white backdrop.

What to consider when choosing a provocation for young children

When choosing artwork for a provocation I try and ensure that it is relatively abstract in nature. With young children I find that there’s a real urge to replicate and when a piece of art is very realistic there is tendency towards frustration and defeat when their own work doesn’t look like the original piece. For the same reason, I never draw for my children. When we work together with art materials I let them lead and I mimic their movements.

How to open up dialogue about the provocation

Sometimes the best thing you can say is nothing. I gave Althea time to really study the artwork. The great thing about doing this online on an ipad is that you can easily zoom in and out on certain details. I try not to point out anything specific and focus on asking open ended questions. In this case I simply asked “what can you see?” and repeated her own answers back to her.

What to focus on

With young children I tend to just let the child choose the focus. We talked about the shapes inside the large circle and what they looked like, but Althea was drawn to the circle itself. In this case I suggested we try drawing the circle as a starting point. If she had shown a lot of interest in the shapes that resembled hands and people then it may have taken a different direction entirely. We could have drawn around our hands or studied our profile in a mirror and taken it from there.

As it turns out when you draw a big circle with charcoal it’s really easy to smudge it with your hand, this was a wonderful way of exploring the charcoals capabilities for blending and this was the enduring focus of this episode of learning.

Exploring neighbourhood nature with young children: Nature walks

Every morning before 8am this week we have donned our reusable fabric masks and headed out onto the somewhat less humid streets of our local neighbourhood. Usually by 9 am it feels heavy and close, but yesterday and the day before yesterday the heavy rains of the previous night had cleared and cooled the air to an almost comfortable consistency.

We don’t take much with us, a bottle of water, mosquito repellent, deep pockets or a vessel in which to carry our found treasures and after a discussion about how we might better remember the things we have seen on our ‘nature walk’ Althea’s robust camera.

We talk about what we can see, what we can hear and smell and feel. We talk about the weather and the science behind rain. We talk about flowers and ponder their name, committing to memory their colours and shape so that we can look them up when we get home. We talk about the difference between slugs and snails, the size and strength of ants, the pitch of chirruping crickets and the difference between butterflies and moths. We use real terms and simple definitions, nocturnal, bipinnate, stamen, nectar. I encourage curiosity and questions, especially those I do not yet know the answer to myself.

When we arrive home we wash our hands, lay out a feast of fruit and look up the flowers and wildlife we discovered just minutes from our front door.

And sometimes we are too restless or tired and we abandon our finds and embark on other endeavours, today emotions were running high so it was frozen mango in front of the twirly woos and that’s ok too.

These walks do not have to be long, sometimes it’s 10 minutes, sometimes half an hour.

You do not have to go far. Sometimes we simply collect flowers on our street, stopping to look at snail shells and litter (just as interesting, as it turns out).

You do not need to introduce a topic or lecture them. Gently point out beautiful things, planting the seeds for curiosity. Answer their questions and when you don’t know, be honest, you can find out together. This is how we co-construct learning and knowledge.

Some resources you might find useful for continuing your nature study back home:

A magnifying glass

A childs microscope

A glass jar or bugnoculars

A tray to corral loose parts

A guide to local birds and wildlife

A reference book about the flowers and fauna in your local area

Nature Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of the Natural World 

An encyclopedia like: The Natural History Book

Nature Poetry: I am the seed that grew the tree

Voice activated google to ask important questions

Nature documentaries like: David Attenboroughs ‘The Private Life of Plants’ series and ‘Life’ series

Art supplies: paints, pencils crayons and paper or nature journal

And if you are looking for a little bit more inspiration and guidance ‘Exploring Nature with Children’: A complete year long curriculum

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Morning Time Art Appreciation with Young Children: Vincent Van Gogh

During our ‘Morning Time’ we have been reading the Katie series of books about Vincent Van Gogh by James Mayhew. These wonderful ‘living books are a great way of introducing art appreciation to young children. Before the sun is even up you will find us sat around the dining table reading Katie and the starry night or Katy and the sunflowers over cups of tea and plates of toast and jam. Sometimes that is where our art appreciation ends but on other occasions a question has lead us to delve a little deeper into the life of Vincent, the period of post-impressionism or the art mediums and techniques used to create such beautiful paintings.

Some of our favourite resources include a children’s encyclopedia of art, the Usbourne Art Treasury and online virtual tours of galleries and museums.

None of this takes place all in one morning time. Instead we might spend a few minutes looking up ‘V’ in the index for Van Gogh, finding the correct page number and reading a little more on the subject before heading off towards the art trolley, inspired or to do something entirely unrelated. On another occasion we might continue our art appreciation by touring Van Gogh’s work through the 360 STORIES virtual tour of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, looking out for a specific piece of art or we might watch a pre-recorded tour with beautiful music and call out when we recognise a painting.

The other morning we decided to ask google what art materials Van Gogh used, we discovered that a lot of his paintings were done on canvas with oil paints and we decided that this is something we might like to try.

From one book about one artist and his work stems so much curiosity, enjoyment and learning. Through sharing art with children we are introducing them (and ourselves) to rich vocabulary, colour and composition, history, culture, research skills, music, creative pursuits and beauty.

Documenting our Reggio-inspired Invitation to ‘Clay’

I believe that clay’s properties make it a much more versatile and sustainable media than the more popular alternative, playdough. The surface of clay is smooth and cool, its mass is weighty and dense. I appreciate it’s need for greater exertion, more pressure, more time, more care and its ability to take shape and transform. It is a material that children can return to and that is responsive to their touch. It is a wonderful media with which to build a physical, experiential knowledge, learning how it moves, changes shape and holds our touch.

Before working with clay as an art medium, children need to understand it’s identity. This stage one exploration emphaises full-body exploration, inviting children to climb on a big block of clay, dig into it with their toes and finger, press into it with their elbows and knees. As young children bring their whole bodies to their relationship with clay, they experience responsiveness of the clay. This first encounter, body to body, begins the dialogue between body and clay.

The Language of Art by Ann Pelo

Clay involves very little preparation and very little input and for first encounters you do not need any fancy clay tools or loose parts. All your child needs to bring to their first encounter with clay is their innate curiosity and their whole bodies. All we need to do as parents is to sit back, observe and embrace the mess. If we choose to join in with our children then we should follow their lead, working alongside them mimicking their movements and interactions with the clay. Resist the urge to use the clay for representation at this stage. This is about children exploring and becoming comfortable and confident with the properties of clay.

Our encounter began with a 1.5kg block of red air dry clay. We explored the block with our fingers, our hands, our feet. Squashing, pressing, squeezing, ripping, tearing, rolling, shaping. We pressed it to our cheeks to experience the cool temperature, the smoothness. We rolled small pieces between our fingertips, before pressing them back down into the body of the clay. We stood tall and heavy and let it give under our weight and seep between our toes. Finally we added water, at first just the drip drip from a small off cut of sponge and then a steady stream from the red watering can, allowing us to explore our power to enact change, to transform.

Inspiration and Resources to help you shape a daily rhythm at home with children

Now more than ever I am craving a natural, gentle flow that takes us through until bedtime. We all need the predictability and consistency so that we are not falling over each other trying to get through a myriad of tasks. I need the calm that comes from having some semblance of rhythm. It’s not going to be perfect, it’s not going to be static but it is going to cradle me through the weeks and maybe even months to come. So I have put together a simple list (because I’m all about simple right now) of links to blog posts, podcasts, courses and resources that will hopefully inspire and guide you in shaping rhythm in your home.

Blog Posts

Create a daily schedule and rhythm with your kids

Organise your kids day with these 7 crucial elements

Rhythm in the home: Morning Time & Tea Time

Rhythm in the home: Our Autumn Rhythm

Rhythm in the home: Our Summer Rhythm

Our Early Spring Rhythm

A slow January at home


How do you get kids to do quiet time?

Finding your Family’s Rhythm with Meagan Wilson

Creating a family rhythm that aligns with your family…

Practical Tips for being at home with your kids all day, every day

Online courses/workshops

Rhythm in the home


Our Family Rhythms Challenge

Whole Family Rhythms Guides

Simplicity Parenting

Episodes of learning (at home): Iggy Peck the Architect builds a sofa fort

Althea has always built towers. It has been an enduring interest since she could stack two blocks on top of eachother. Ottilie is partial to a tower, usually when her sister is in the middle of a construction project. But mostly she likes to carry her baby dolly around, pushing him in the pram or waterboarding him in the water tray. It wasn’t until I observed Ottilies individual interests that I realised how motivated Althea is by structures.

We are so fortunate that we have been able to invest in some open ended building blocks in various shapes, sizes and guises and for her third birthday we started a collection of magformers. But they are not necessary. During this period of staying home we will scavenge what we can from the recycling bin to keep things novel and interesting. Boxes, tubes, pots, use whatever you can get your hands on.

“This is a spaceship” Althea aged 3 years and 3 months

The other day I decided to pick up a copy of Iggy Peck the Architect by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts (you don’t have to buy a copy of this book to enjoy it, check with your local library to see if they have an ebook copy or you can find read aloud versions on YouTube )

This has pushed her in new directions, she’s spending a lot of self-directed time drawing houses, making homes from magformers, creating enclosures with blocks and building sofa forts with her Dad.

I am sharing this with you here to show you how simple it can be to ‘follow the child’ and facilitate and extend an ‘episode of learning’ which may well turn into a more prolonged ‘project’. I intend to have a search for some documentaries that might be relevant and appropriate and look for some photographs of inspiring architecture, as well introduce new (free, upcycled) materials to further extend this interest for as long as she is interested.

I expect this will branch off into different lines of inquiry. I’ve noticed that her drawings are made up of black lines and simple shapes and so this week I plan to use black and white architectural drawings alongside charcoal as a provocation.

Note: If you have an avid builder in your midst then the content of this ‘episode of learning’ might very well appeal to your child. But what I am suggesting here is that you tune in to your own child’s interested. What do they enjoy playing with? What do they ask questions about? You really do not need to buy anything, you do not have to spend hours planning, you just have to listen.

I’d love to hear what interests you and your child are developing into ‘episodes of learning’ or even projects!

If you would like to read more about starting projects with young children I recommend the book ‘Project based homeschooling’ by Lori Pickert available on kindle

Stay Home: 10 Screen time suggestions for younger toddlers during Isolation/quarantine

Usually my 18 month old doesn’t get a lot of screen time, she will occasionally watch something with her older sister on a weekend morning because 5.30am is an ungodly hour, but she usually misses out on afternoon screen time because she’s napping. However, we are finally transitioning to one nap and in light of staying at home I anticipate that more screen time will creep in. And that’s fine, we are ok with that. So I thought I would share what I look for in a tv programme and a few of my favourites (new and old) for younger toddlers (under 2). It’s worth mentioning that my 3 year old also loves all of these so don’t rule them out for older siblings.

All of these programmes tick the following boxes, they are slow paced with minimal scene changes and they cover simple concepts. We love adaptations and animations of familiar books and anything whimsical or stop motion.

Moon and Me on Cbeebies (or youtube)

Abney and Teal (old cbeebies) on youtube

Twirly woos on Cbeebies (or youtube)

The Snowy Day on Amazon Prime

The Very Hungry Caterpillar on YouTube

Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear by Martin Waddell on YouTube

We’re going on a bear hunt – a Channel 4 adaptation

We’re going on a bear hunt animation on YouTube

We’re going on a bear hunt reading by Michael Rosen on YouTube

The Snail on the Whale on BBC iplayer

I would love to hear how you are approaching screen time with younger children right now and some of your favourite shows for under 2’s.

A Waldorf-inspired daily rhythm for days at home

Over a year and a half ago I wrote a post about our daily rhythm. Althea was 18 months old and my only one. I would have been pregnant at the time with Ottilie and so I remember our days being slow and simple with lots of time spent at home as we navigated nap transitions and the third trimester. Reading the post today I was surprised how little we have changed our daily rhythm, with the addition of a few hours of nursery for Althea and more trips to the beach. I realised that there might be something you could take away from it during this time at home. I hope it helps you catch your breath.

5 parenting books to listen to during this period of change and uncertainty

If there’s ever been a time when I’ve needed to channel my ‘inner Janet Lansbury’ it is now. Now more than ever I feel the need to gentle parent, really show up for my children (and my husband), keep lines of communication open and make the effort to overcome those feelings of overwhelm and anxiety in order to be playful with my children. Here are 5 books you can download on audible (not sponsored!) or perhaps from your local library that you might find useful during this time of change and uncertainty.

Please share any parenting books that have helped you through parenting challenges.

Stay home, stay safe guys.