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TODAY

Thursday, April 18

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Lately, I find myself thinking about things I could not have cared less about before. Like clay for instance, modeling clay to be exact. I lived 20-something years without giving it a second thought. Sure, the first decade or so of my life, I was all about the clay. I had the Play-Doh barber shop (Yeah, you know you wanted that one when you were a kid!), that crazy Play-Doh squirter that would shoot out dough in long star and squiggle shape. Then, boys entered my life and poof! Modeling clay was gone.

Recently, I read the book "Poking, Pinching & Pretending: Documenting Toddlers' Explorations with Clay" by Dee Smith and Jeanne Goldhaber, two teachers who documented their toddler-aged student's interaction with clay. The observations of this group of toddlers (ages 19-27 months) from the very first time they see clay to the point where they were familiar and comfortable with the medium is fascinating, funny and at times quite touching. Around the same time, my son Vincent's teacher tells me that I should start "introducing" clay into his play at home. "It'll help build his fine motor skills, gross motor skills and get his imagination going," she tells me. And that is how I got to be all about the clay, again.

From what I've read and seen, infants and toddlers learn mostly through their senses, and watching my son work with the clay, I realize it's true. Whenever he comes across anything new, he touches it slowly, smells it, holds it in his hands and takes it all in. So it occurred to me that of course clay work would greatly appeal to him — it is an activity that combines all his senses.

I knew I wanted to venture out of the Play-Doh realm and try something new, but was unsure which product would be best suited for him. So I conducted my own clay consumer tests and review. There were four types of children's modeling clay/dough I worked with, and this is what I found.

Sculpey
Friends of mine, who have older children, are big fans of Sculpey (although I suspect it is because they like playing with it themselves) and recommended I try it. Right off the bat, I noticed that Sculpey didn't have much of a smell, just the faint odor of a pink eraser cap. I also noticed the colors were very vibrant and it was quite pliable. After I worked on the Sculpey to warm it up, Vincent was able to roll it out easily and punch out shapes with a cookie cutter without much effort. My kid liked working with it, and the consistency wasn't too hard or stiff for his little hands.

While it was easy for my son to work with it, and I had fun as well, I would recommend Sculpey for older children because it is more of an older children's clay. Sculpey is a polymer clay which will harden when baked (275° for 15 minutes) which means you can keep your child's work of art for ever and ever and ever. Once it's baked, you can buff it and etch it and even paint it, and I don't see my son being able to do any of that just yet. Plus, the Sculpey website recommends that you do not use Sculpey on any surface where you prepare food — which worried me a little since he still uses "taste" as a means to explore new things.

Alex Modeling Clay
Being a fan of the Alex product line, I was excited to see they made modeling clay. I purchased two bars of their soft clay, one in vibrant navy blue and one in a bright yellow, at my local toy store. Only 89 cents, the price seemed reasonable.

Upon opening the cellophane-wrapped clay squares, I noticed the clay had a strong scent to it; it smelled similar to Hubba Bubba bubblegum. Call me crazy, but making a inedible item that children will be handling smell like delicious grape bubblegum seems like a bad idea, but what do I know?

The clay itself was incredibly soft; it could have been spread like butter. Unlike the other clays, I didn't have to work on this one to soften it up for my son. He had no problems rolling a gob of clay into a ball, or spreading it flat like a pancake. He was enjoying himself so much, I sat down and started playing too. Then, I noticed the table. The table we had been working on turned blue. Immediately, I grabbed his hands and to my surprise, my kid looked like a Smurf. His entire palms were as blue as the clay and so were mine. There was blue smeared on his face, stuck under his fingernails, all over the table. It was a mess!

Cleaning up the table and his hands afterwards was a pain. After repeated hand washing with hot water and soap, my hands still felt greasy and sticky. Our table had to be washed down about three times, and my son... well, he was left soaking in the tub in warm, soapy water for a while.

While the Alex clay was very soft and the colors were great, I do not recommend this clay at all. The staining and clean-up were not pleasant.

Dick Blick Modeling Clay
A friend, who is an elementary school teacher, gave me a sample box of Blick Modeling Clay. If the government had a clay program, this is what the clay would look like. The packaging is very simple: a plain carton with four 4 oz. bars individually wrapped in wax paper. Sold in single color packs or variety packs, it comes in earthy tones like cream, tan and terra cotta, as well as primary colors. Blick clay also has that earthy scent I remember the clay we used in elementary school having.

Once you get the clay softened, it was just as pliable as Sculpey. It doesn't fall apart, stain or stick to hands and a paper towel is usually all that is needed to clean up. Being oil-based, Blick clay doesn't dry out, so for a toddler one box is plenty. A one pound box is reasonably priced at $1.29.

One draw back with Blick Modeling Clay is that it is hard to find in stores. You can order it online or visit a Dick Blick store.

Homemade Modeling Dough
Finally, I decided to try some homemade modeling dough. What instantly attracted me to the idea of homemade dough was that it was inexpensive, and I knew I could always make more when I needed it rather than going out to buy some.

This basic dough recipe was easy to make:
2 cups of baking soda
1-1/2 cup of water
1 cup of cornstarch

Combine the ingredients in a pan, mix until smooth and warm over medium heat until mixture thickens to a doughy consistency. Let it cool on wax paper.

The homemade dough wasn't as manageable as any of the store-bought clays, but for its purpose it did the trick. Vincent did a lot of kneading and poking and it kept its shape. Once it began drying out, though, it was sticky and gross, but clean-up wasn't too bad. The mess left from the modeling dough was akin to what your table or countertop looks like after you've been making a pie from scratch. Warm soapy water and a scrubby sponge worked well to remove any dried-on dough.

What I liked about the dough was that it was all natural — I knew exactly what was in it. I wasn't worried about Vincent sticking his fingers into his mouth or trying to lick it. Plus, I knew we wouldn't have the staining fiasco we had with the Alex clay. So after trying all four products, I decided that the Dick Blick clay and homemade dough worked best for my son's age and needs.

My son is now 20 months and watching him work with clay is pretty cool. It's clear that this hands-on work is serious and important to him. Pushing it, working it, and seeing the changes in the clay as his hands manipulate it, noticing how the clay becomes warm with his touch and then cools again when he leaves it aside — it's all truly intriguing stuff for him. Modeling clay is an organic, malleable medium that really allows, even the youngest child, to express him or herself and learn through observation, so don't hesitate to let your toddler get into some modeling clay action of their own.

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About the Author(s)

Alejandra Valera is a new mom and writer. If there's a baby- or kid-friendly place, product or event you think she should cover, email her at .

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