Exploring Social Concepts Using Clay

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“To rescue our children we will have to let them save us from the power we embody: we will have to trust the very difference that they forever personify.” – June Jordan

I brought four children for whom power, especially social power, is very important to right now. I used clay as the medium, as it invokes strength. The day before I had clay out in the classroom and I witnessed a few of these children grabbing the large chunk of clay and refusing to give any of it to other children. They were ripping and tearing the chunk to shreds. They were feeling powerful, or trying to at least. 

Before we began working with the clay I asked the group: What is power and when do you feel powerful?

M: Catching people (is powerful).

W: Racing and flying and making music.

JM: The rain is powerful because it crashes, and thunder too.

L: Flying without a kite (is powerful).

I wanted to encourage them to open up about social power, to acknowledge that they are seen displaying this need, and that it is valid in many ways. I challenged them to think about how social power makes them feel by asking if they also feel powerful when they get a reaction out of people – when they make them laugh, or when they have them feel happy or even upset. They all agreed that yes, this makes them feel powerful. 

I said, “I noticed yesterday JM and W seemed to feel powerful when they were using clay, so I thought we could use it together again while thinking and talking more about power.”

And then we got to work.

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W: I have all of it!

M: I’m doing so much power.

JM: It’s being strong.

M: Yeah cuz it’s so big.

L: We need to tangle arms, fight, strong.

W: We need to be stronger.

M: Well I’m the strongest.

W: No, I’m stronger than all of you, I’m like Hulk.

M: Ha, no! Don’t take my clay, don’t do it!

JM: We have to because we are powerful.

M: Yeah I’m powerful too.

L: Let’s do teamwork.

JM: Teamwork is power.

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They discussed power while they worked, making strong poses with their bodies and faces. They often tried to ‘one-up’ one another in how hard they hit the clay, how much they were able to tear off the large chunk, and eventually with what they were creating. They would occasionally pretend to take all the clay, then push it back into the middle. It was clear they were thinking about various ways to feel powerful: physically, emotionally, and socially.

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Not only were they feeling powerful breaking apart the clay, there were other opportunities for powerful feelings as well. Creating train tracks out of clay led way to talking about being an expert at trains – knowing how they work, what they look like, and having experience riding on them. After, W washed all of the clay tools, while M, L, and JM washed the tables, chairs, and floor. We talked about how creating, helping, and cleaning, are all ways to feel powerful as well.

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Wanting to give other children an opportunity to explore social concepts using clay, I brought a second group to the art studio the next day. This group is not in need of power like the first group is, so I chose a different topic: teamwork, collaboration, and sharing space with others.

Our classroom has been about halfway enrolled all year, and now nearing the summer months, we are finally almost fully enrolled. We got 6 new children in a short span of time, and everyone in the classroom is feeling the difference. I brought all ‘veteran’ children so we could talk a bit about sharing resources, attention, and the idea that others can enhance our play.

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We talked about collaboration and teamwork before I introduced the clay. I said the only boundary during their creating was that everybody had to agree on what they make. We chose to make a train station, and everybody chose what part they would make.

JC: The world – the flat ground.

CY: The train map

CO: The train cars. Pete’s car. The stop sign for the cars to know they can’t go on the tracks.

H: The trains.

JC: I can help everybody else.

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I again placed the large chunk of clay in the middle, this time only providing a limited number of tools to encourage communication and plan making. As they worked, they would stop what they were making to help someone else make their piece.

H: I will help make the poles (for the signs).

JM: I can help too.

JC: I’m making the tracks now so I need to make lines.

H: Here is a tool you can use JC.

CO: I made a stop sign so cars know they can’t go on the tracks.

H: I’m going to work on the train, can somebody make the windows?

CY: I’ll make the biggest part – the station for everything to go in. The walls and the ceiling.

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What’s Next

Next, I plan on taking some of our new children on a trip to a train station to do research. What parts are we still missing, and what aspect would they like to create to add to the train station replica. I plan on having each small group add to the larger piece, encouraging leaving notes and suggestions for one another throughout the process, bridging the gap between veteran and new students through their common interest in trains and creation. I also am going to take photos of our power kids with their ideas and conversations on feeling powerful and placing them as child-level documentation for reflection and inspiration. I want to acknowledge this need as valid, while also fostering kind and safe ways to explore meeting this need. I am curious how they will reference this documentation, and how it will inspire them in their exploration.

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