The human urge to handle squidgy stuff and model it into shapes is universal, and young children demonstrate it with brio. Through this kind of play, they learn about texture and the properties of materials. Almost from the start they want to be shown how to make things and, as they progress through primary school, they need to experience many kinds of modelling materials to explore varying possibilities.
There are four categories of modelling materials. Those - such as Plasticine - that are not intended to harden to permanence: those which will harden if left at room temperature; those which will harden if heated, boiled or cooked in an ordinary oven and those which need to be hardened at high temperature in a kiln. This survey covers a sample selection of basic materials, suitable for busy non-specialist teachers, from the first two categories.
In doing so, we considered the basic characteristics of modelling materials (no material can or should exhibit all of these. Part of the process of learning is to judge what material to use for any particular model) - * Does it need to be warmed in the hands or by other means before it can be handled?
* Can you stick a head on to a body without it falling off?
* Does it ever become crumbly and difficult to mould?
* Can you make a permanent indentation in it, or will it spring back into position?
* Will it sag?
* Is it designed to harden (without heat) to semi-permanence?
* Does it stain clothing or surfaces?
* Does it come in a range of colours? If not, can it be painted?
Our panel: Michaela Fallon, art co-ordinator, Canon Maggs junior school, Warwickshire; Dawn Lama, reception teacher,Frederick Bird primary, Coventry; Liz Haigh, primary art and craft specialist, Corpus Christi Roman Catholic primary,Coventry.
10 kg in 10 assorted colours
10 kg in 12 assorted colours
Overview: Reception children, left alone with this material, will spend ages rolling it into snakes and balls. Later they can be shown how to make figures and other shapes and how to use wood or plastic tools for cutting and indenting. Multi-coloured models can be made as the material sticks to itself very easily. Larger figures sag in the warmth of the classroom. All agreed on the well-known difficulty of making the material "workable" from cold. It softens if you work it with your fingers, but this can take several minutes and often requires adult strength.
The material is very stable - it can be left uncovered and will not go crumbly with use, which means, as Dawn says, "You can leave it out all day on a table. Some products have to be put away or covered."
Plasticine and Aloplast come in strips stuck together to make rectangular blocks. Michaela uses the strips to give children the experience of making coil pots. For this use, Plasticine is better because it is easier to pull the strips apart without breaking them.
Some colours leave a stain. Michaela says, "Black Plasticine coloured the children's hands like soil."
Verdict: Good stickability but needs to be "hand warm" before use. Stains hands and surfaces, but not permanently. Little bits can get stuck in clothes and carpets. Big models can droop. Does not dry hard. Not crumbly. Takes cuts and indentations. Good range of colours. Aloplast is cheaper and not easy to distinguish from Plasticine when warm.
NES Arnold Dough
Crayola Soft Modelling Dough
Home-made play dough
Overview: The advantage of dough products is that, unlike Plasticine and similar materials, little fingers can work them from cold. "Reception children prefer doughs to Plasticine for this reason," says Dawn.
There are some difficulties, however. "They have a nice texture but they can crack and crumble," says Michaela. "It's difficult to make a decent figure, and I think it's a waste of time for juniors." Liz says that doughs are worse than Plasticine when it comes to sticking bits together.
None of the panel would buy any dough product, given that it is possible to make large quantities of it at home or in school for next to nothing.
Verdict: These products had poor stickability although they do mould from cold. They can stain, but not permanently; they don't droop, they don't dry hard, but they can become dry and crumbly with use. They take cuts and indentations and come in good colours. Don't buy dough, make your own. Of all the commercial brands, NES Arnold's turned out to be the most economical.
Crayola Air Dry Model Magic 1 kg
Overview: This material is unlike any other. A clean, plastic, easily moulded compound, it dries out to a puffy, springy consistency that looks like meringue and feels like polystyrene. The panel reported mixed feelings. Michaela found that the sheer novelty of the material, and its appearance, appealed to her pupils. "They liked this better than anything else." The others felt that this enthusiasm would wear off a bit when the cdisadvantages started to show. You cannot stick bits together, for example, and cuts and indentations tend to "fill out" as the material dries, so it is not suitable for small, detailed pieces. It is expensive, and the panel felt that you would buy it only for a specific purpose.
Verdict: Poor stickability; moulds from cold; does not stain; droop proof; dries to firm, though not hard. It does not crumble but it does not easily take cuts and indentations. It is white in colour, but can be easily painted.
Newclay Air Drying Clay
NES Arnold Air Drying Clay
Overview: These are excellent materials that, between them, cover the whole age range. Their purpose is to offer, as closely as possible, the experience of making pots without the need for firing. The panel liked them both.
"You can cover all the pre-ceramic skills," says Michaela. "This gets them ready for the feel and characteristics of clay." The finished products are, to the casual eye, almost identical to pots from a kiln.
Verdict: Good stickability; moulds from cold; can stain, but not seriously; no drooping; dries hard; not crumbly; takes cuts and indentations; takes colour. Best buy? It depends what you want it for, because the costs are very different. Newclay has many of the characteristics of "real" firing clay - it is moist, comes only in the natural colour, and needs careful looking after. This is the material for the specialist who yearns to teach pottery but has no access to a kiln. Air Drying Clay is easier for younger children to use - the panel found that their pupils liked it very much - and it comes in two colours. This is the one if you are going to use limited quantities.
Home-made papier mache
Overview: Papier mache - paper mashed up with water and paste to a modelling consistency - has been used for decorative furnishings and artefacts since Victorian times. It is messy, though, and Art-Mache - "instant" papier mache to which you just add water - is more classroom friendly.
It moulds beautifully, hardens well (especially if you use formers such as chicken wire to keep the thickness down), takes paint and you can make intricate and attractive models of virtually any size, using a core of card or wire where appropriate.
The dry product is dusty and needs careful handling if it is not to rise up in clouds around the room.
Verdict: Fair stickability; moulds from cold; does not stain, but is messy. Is droop proof and dries hard (eventually). It's not crumbly and has to be moulded rather than cut or indented with a tool. Is easily painted. Use real papier mache at least some of the time if you can, but Art-Mache is convenient and will encourage more teachers, especially non specialists, to use it.
For lower infants schools, it has got to be Plasticine-like products because it can be left out; home-made child dough is cheap and finger-friendly; and if you want to be a little more advanced and make display or "take home'' artefacts, use air drying clay. For older primary pupils use as wide a range of products as possible, with Air Drying Clay and Art-Mache high up on the priority list.
Review materials supplied by NES Arnold (0115 971 7700), Ludlow Hill Road, West Bridgford, Nottingham NG2 6HD. Hope Educational (0161 628 2789) and Galt Educational (0161 627 5086), Orb Mill, Huddersfield Road, Oldham OL4 2ST. The same or similar products appear in most supplier catalogues. Compare prices and ask about discounts.
A RECIPE FOR PLAY DOUGH
3 cups of of flour;
one-and-a-half cups of salt;
2 teaspoons cream of tartar;
1 tablespoon of cooking oil;
2 cups of water;
food colouring, glitter, and so on, as desired.
Mix thoroughly cold, then continue to stir in a pan over heat until it achieves the right consistency