The Importance of Clay Play

By Rachel McMinn, Early Childhood Educator, Buckle My Shoe Preschool January 29, 2021

When you think about clay, the first thing that comes to your mind is probably not related to writing. Yet the importance of using clay in early childhood is deeply rooted in the strengthening of finger muscles used to properly grip and hold pencils. Clay is also a medium where children can express their thoughts in a tangible and thoughtful manner without having to use verbal abilities they may not possess. Clay can be used in both 2 and 3-dimensional creation. It is a vital tool that needs to be frequently used in early childhood. While working with clay, children are building skills in language development, problem-solving, fine and gross motor development, social skills, mathematical concepts (i.e. size and weight), and praxis development (the ability to practice and process theories). 

Even very young children benefit from exposure to clay. Use of clay with infants and toddlers allows for discovery of body awareness. My daughter, at around the age of six months, would start the exploration with her very curious fingers, but her exploration would quickly expand to elbows, tummy, cheeks, toes, knees- her whole body became involved in the use of the clay. We used this as an opportunity to supply her with language both about her body and about the actions each body part was engaged with – i.e. your elbows are poking into the clay and your knees are pressing the clay down and making it flat. As she has gotten older, she is now able to start describing her clay adventures with simple language such as “pinch,” “pat,” and “rip.” As she explores, I am confident that her little fingers are building up strength and dexterity, and I know that when she is ready for strenuous fine motor tasks, she will be ready because the strength and endurance have been cultivated for a long time already. 

Another benefit of using clay is that it is all-natural, straight from the river bed! While many commercial playdough companies use some less than desirable ingredients, you never have to worry about toxins while using clay. Since space is limited in New York City apartments, I recommend trying out a 5 lb block of red clay, which can easily be found on Plus, if your clay starts to dry out you can simply soak it in water and bring it back to life, so you can save it for quite some time. 

In terms of clay set up, I recommend just allowing children to explore the entire block of clay for the first few times. I use a canvas mat for the clay because it will not stick and makes clean up really easy. I place the mat on the floor and let my daughter go for it in whatever way she chooses. Clay is interesting and compelling all on its own, and if you are going for motor development, you want to encourage your child to use their hands to explore the clay. I find that if tools are given, children usually jump straight into manipulating the tools and do a lot less with their fingers. As they build confidence and interest, you can add wooden clay tools, a little bowl of water, and other natural elements such as pinecones and leaves. 


Developmental growth:

  • Manipulating (squishing, squeezing, pulling, pushing, etc.) a piece of clay helps develops the child’s large and small muscles – improving dexterity
  • Fosters eye-hand coordination.
  • Builds a child's ability to focus/builds attention span

Mathematical Understandings:

  • Fosters beginning pattern making
  • Builds an experiential understanding of 3-dimensional shapes
  • Tactical experience of size and weight differences

Literacy growth:

  • Builds vocabulary – pound, pinch, roll, flatten, poke, tear squeeze, coil, stretch, squash, twist, and bend
  • Creative storytelling with clay pieces


Rachel McMinn is an early childhood educator at Buckle My School Preschool in Tribeca, who has taught the young 2-year-olds for almost ten years. She holds a Masters in Early Childhood Education from Hunter College and a Writing degree from Pratt Institute. She lives in Brooklyn with her infant daughter, post-production & screenwriting husband, and two attention-seeking cats. 
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