I decided to plan a sculptural project for this week for three reasons; 1) I think 3D art is often overlooked because the projects tend to take some planning and preparation and can be messy – but it’s my very favorite, 2) Finn’s success with his loom piece, which exhibited strong 3D elements, made me think this would be a fruitful direction in which to encourage his experimentation, and 3) a friend, Kayla Gray, wrote a post on Facebook this week about how positively American Girl dolls had influenced her childhood and even her education and career choices as an adult. Her post reminded me that air dry clay is a great material to make play food, dishes and utensils for dolls. My daughter, Jessa, collects dolls and Finn loves to play with them, so my plan was to make items he and Jessa could use when they play with the dolls.

Needed materials:

  • Air dry clay – there are many varieties out there. I bought Sago Brothers Air Dry Clay on I have had a lot of bad experiences in the past with clay that was supposed to be air dry but cracked badly or dried very brittle. This clay is amazing. It’s made from Japanese foaming powder, purified water, safe color pigments and a little bit of food grade glycerin. It is extremely light weight and dried with no cracking whatsoever. Its dried consistency is light and spongy, kind of like a firm stress ball. You could break it or pull it apart if you really tried, but it’s not brittle at all. It is non-toxic (although non-edible), which is good because Leo immediately put it in his mouth. The colors are beautifully vibrant and the set includes three kid-friendly plastic tools, small plastic bags to keep the opened clay in so it stays moist, and a little book that actually has a lot of good ideas and instructions to use as thought-starters. The clay is basically odorless, but to me had a very slight vanilla fragrance.
  • Plastic bags to store the clay in when you’re not using it to keep it moist (this product had them included, but most do not).
  • If you end up with a type of clay that seems to be prone to cracking, you will need a plastic bag in which to dry the finished piece and some damp paper towels. The secret is to dry it very, VERY slowly. Wrap the piece in a slightly moist paper towel inside the sealed plastic bag. Leave it overnight or longer that way and then slowly, slowly begin introducing air by cracking the bag open a little, keeping the paper towel a little moist and monitoring the drying process. If it’s too wet, it can mold, so this is kind of a balancing act. It will take several days of slowly introducing air and dryness. If the piece does crack apart, sometimes you can glue the pieces back together if it’s not too badly shattered.
  • Clay tools – as mentioned before, this product included 3 kid-friendly plastic tools, but you can use all kinds of “found” things around the house, like butter knives, forks, toothpicks, etc. to manipulate the clay.
  • If you use clay that is a neutral color, you may want to paint it after it dries. If so, you will need water based opaque paint, like tempera or acrylic, paint brushes and a cup for water. A transparent water-based glaze to seal the painted piece would also be a nice idea.
  • A plastic mat of some kind to protect your tabletop.


  • Open the individual packages and soften the clay by manipulating it in your hands. The little book that came with the clay called this “Saying ‘hello’ to the clay,” which I thought was great and totally plan to use in teaching in the future!
  • Keep any clay you are not working with sealed up in the plastic bags so it doesn’t start to dry out.
  • You can demonstrate to your child basic clay techniques such as forming a sphere by circling at lump of clay between your palms, making a snake or rope of clay by rolling a cylinder between your palms, adding texture with the tools.
  • Pieces of different colors can be stuck together to make leaves on apples, windows on cars, etc.
  • Different colors of the clay can be mixed together to make new colors and there is even a little section about that in the book. Once the clay is mixed, though, it can’t be un-mixed.
  • This particular clay doesn’t need to be covered while drying and it took about three days in the open to completely dry. If you have a different kind of clay that is prone to cracking, my suggestions for dealing with that are above in the materials list.


Full disclosure, we were having so much fun with the clay that we didn’t get to the book – I will have to share it with Finn another time. The book I planned to read to him is Meet the Artist! Alexander Calder by Patricia Geis (Princeton Architectural Press, 2013). I have actually used this book with my college students. It shares some charming and little known facts about Alexander Calder, such as that he was born into a family of artists and was given his first tool set at 8 years old. He loved to make toys and jewelry for his sister Peggy’s dolls. The book is interactive, with pull tabs, pop-ups, even a chain to shape into a wire sculpture. It contains many images of Calder’s work.


Earlier in the day, my daughter texted me, “There have been 3 meltdowns about today’s project so I hope we’re still on.” The meltdowns were because Finn was so excited and wanted to get started! He was insistent about being the one to decide what we were going to create. We began by making lemons with eyes and then quickly segued into cars. I imprudently started making an ice cream cone on my own and Finn told me that he was the teacher and I had to make the same thing he was making. I told Finn that over the years I have had quite a few students who thought they should be the teacher (only my teacher friends will appreciate the humor in that statement). We had a blast and Jess continued to send me pics of things he was making all week, like tacos and forks.

Here we are playing with our cars – actually Finn said his was better because it’s a car AND a motorcycle AND an airplane!


I found some photos of play food I made from water-based clay when visiting Jessa in Boston several years ago. I left them with her when I flew home, so don’t know how well they dried. If I had continued to work on them, I definitely would have wanted to paint and glaze them, but I think they show how much detail you can get with some of the clays. The pieces below are a stack of pancakes, an ear of corn and a fajita.

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