When the idea of laying out newspaper for yet another rainy day painting session makes you shudder, try other art projects. Modeling clay helps kids improve fine motor skills. If your toddler or preschooler is especially tactile, he will enjoy clay projects even more than painting projects. As a bonus, letting your preschooler make cute things out of modeling clay means you have handmade gifts for upcoming holidays and birthdays, if you use air-drying clay.
Modeling clay is a little more difficult to manipulate than any play dough your preschooler is used to playing with -- so start with a simple project. To make clay snowmen, for example, your little one can make three balls out of white clay. Show your child how to flatten the bottom of the largest ball so that it will stay put. Then help her attach the middle-sized ball to the largest ball, by pressing them together. You should firmly press the smallest ball top of the middle ball. Then, she can add snowman parts like pipe cleaners for arms, plus large buttons of about 1 ¾-inches in diameter and small pieces of felt to make a little jacket or hat you can press on the snowman. As a special treat, you can help your preschooler use markers to draw on the snowman's face.
Another modeling clay project appropriate for young children is to make coil pots. You can use large coil pots to hold keys or change as a cute gift. Your tot can flatten a ball of clay to make the bottom of the pot. Next, he can roll a few long snakes of clay. These snakes can be all one color or different colors. You might have to help the little one coil the snakes around the bottom of the pot. You can add on a few different coils so that the pot is at least a couple of inches in height. If you're nervous about counting on your child's fine motor skills to make a gift, have her make a few practice coil pots with reusable modeling clay first, before letting her do it with the air dry kind.
Your preschooler will have a lot more fun learning letters with clay than with flashcards. For simple practice, write letters on pieces of cardboard. Your preschooler can roll out cylinders of modeling clay, and then lay them on the letters. You can also do this with shapes and numbers. To make a gift or decoration, write a name or a word like "Love" on card stock, and then encourage your child to form clay letters on top of the written word “Love.” Then let the letters air dry. Finally, let your preschooler put glue on top of the written letters, and then attach the clay letters on top. You'll have a 3-D name or special word to give as a gift.
Preschoolers and toddlers can also make cute caterpillars with modeling clay. This time, they'll need to make several small balls and one large ball for the head. You can use red for the head and green for the body, like in Eric Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." You can also use white clay and let them paint it later, if you're ready to deal with toddlers, clay and paint. To keep the head and body attached, insert a craft stick or pipe cleaner partway through the head and then stick the smaller body balls to the stick or toothpick.
Jennifer Zimmerman is a former preschool and elementary teacher who has been writing professionally since 2007. She has written numerous articles for The Bump, Band Back Together, Prefab and other websites, and has edited scripts and reports for DWJ Television and Inversion Productions. She is a graduate of Boston University and Lewis and Clark College.