Media & Techniques

Ceramics Part 2: Teaching Clay Without a Kiln (Ep. 023)

Not everyone has a kiln–but that doesn’t mean you can’t teach clay! And even if you do have a kiln, there are a lot of additional options out there for other types of clay that your kids will love. In this episode, Cassie shares some of her favorite clay bodies and some great ways to teach with those types of clay. Listen as she shares how she gained expertise with air-dry clay (3:45), some of her favorite techniques and supplies (7:30), and the pros and cons of polymer clays (14:00). Full episode transcript below.


Resources and Links:





My first two years of teaching, I taught kindergarten through second grade only, and I had a curriculum that was in a binder for each grade level. Thank goodness. I relied so heavily on that binder, those three binders, because I had no earthly idea what I was doing. You know I still don’t, but inside that binder were lesson plans. In fact, sometimes it was even scripted, and this will date it quite a bit. There were slides in the back of that binder.

Now, I remember going through that binder and getting ready to teach my next lesson, and it just simply said, “Clay. Give the students clay and let them explore.” Clay? I wasn’t a portable. I had no access to a kiln. I didn’t have any clay, or any idea where to get it. So, and this will date me once again, I hit the National Library and I checked out a bunch of books written in the ’70s, as that’s all they had, and it had a bunch of clay recipes in it. Fine, I’ll make my own clay. This should be fun.

Yeah, it was about as fun as it sounds, and the kids, while they loved working with the clay that I created for them, their finished products just completely dried and fell apart. Needless to say, they were pretty heartbroken.

My second year, I decided that when it came to clay, we would just have to use modeling clay, and that did work quite a bit better. It was a great way for the kids to work with clay but, unfortunately, they couldn’t keep their finished product.

Well, I’m sharing with you today my favorite clays to use for those of you that are like I was, without a kiln, but still wanting to give your students that opportunity to work with their very favorite art supply, clay. I’ll share with you my favorite kiln-less clays and the pros and cons of working with all of those, and how you can set up your art room so that you can work with clay with your kids, even if you don’t have a kiln. I’m Cassie Stephens and this is Everyday Art Room.

I’m about to do a little shameless self-promotion here. I wrote a book. It was published last summer, and it’s called Clay Lab For Kids. It has in it 52 clay projects to explore with kids that does not require kiln fire. The reason I’m sharing that with you today is because I’m going to be going over the three main clay bodies that don’t require kiln fire, air-dry clay, polymer clay, and homemade clays, with you.

But I’m not going to be delving into projects. It would take way too long. If you’re interested in finding projects for the clay bodies that I’m going to be chatting with you about today, then might I recommend Clay Lab For Kids? Like I said, there’s 52 projects in there, so you’ll be covered. All right.

When I was working on that book, I hit the craft store and I bought every air-dry clay on the market. If you’re going to write a book about something, you probably should be an expert, right? I wanted to make sure that I test it out, all of the air-dry clays, and discover the ones that were really the best for kids creating in clay, so I’m going to be sharing those with you today. I’ll also be chatting with you about, like I said, polymer and my favorite homemade clay recipes.

But regardless of what kind of clay you’re going to use with kids that doesn’t require kiln fire, you’re going to need a lot of the same supplies that I chatted about last week.

In last week’s podcast, I was talking about all my tips and tricks of working with kiln-fire clay, and I shared my basic supplies, what I have on the tables for my students to use. I’m going to go over those supplies again pretty quickly since I talked about it last week. They’re essentially the same supplies that you would have to have or want to use if your students are working with clay that doesn’t require kiln fire.

Clay mats. Each one of my students has a clay mat. Again, those mats I would really recommend purchasing them from The Clay Lady. You can find her at and they are called Clay Lady Mats. They are about $2 each, last time I checked, and they are totally worth every penny. I have had mine for about 15 years.

The clay mats worked great for any kind of clay because you work on the side that is white and has a blue side. Don’t work on that side. The clay will stick. If you work on the side that is white, the clay will not stick, and it can be wiped down with a baby wipe. In fact, if they get too gnarly and gross, I just let them soak in the sink overnight, and then, wipe them down that way. Each one my students, regardless of the kind of clay we’re working with, has a clay mat.

Next step, skewers. Skewer sticks are invaluable when you’re working with clay, any kind of clay. In fact, I was just at the grocery store today. I saw that not only do they have the really long skewer sticks, but they also now have ones that are about half that size, which I really like that idea. Because the longer ones always make me a little bit nervous that the kids are wielding around this thing that looks like a potential weapon that’s a little long. So skewer sticks, each one of my students has access to those.

Of course, if you’re going to be working with air-dry clays, some of them are going to need a little bit of wire for you to attach pieces together. If you’re working with an air-dry clay, then you’ll need to have what I use, is a doggie dish. I like doggie dishes because they don’t tip over, with a little splash of water inside.

If you’re using air-dry clay, you’ll also want to have a toothbrush on hand for the kids to do a little bit of slipping and scoring. Like I said, I chatted about that more in-depth last week, so if you’re not certain what I’m talking about, you might want to give last week’s podcast a listen. I just don’t want to repeat myself, any more than I already am.

Of course, I always have baby wipes on the table. I like having the kids wipe their hands down with a baby wipe just because I don’t want them washing all of the clay down the sink, causing it to clog. So if you have them wipe their hands down and wipe off their clay mat, it really helps contain the mess, the dust, and keeps your sinks from getting clogged.

Rolling pins are great, but rolling pins are not cheap, so you can always get jars. Fill them with water so there’s a little bit of weight, glass jar, and have the kids use those as rolling pins also.

We don’t use rolling pins, though, when we create slabs in my art room. We just pound the clay. We thump the clay on the mat, and we pound it flat with our fists. That’s kind of why we skip usually rolling pins. But if you want to go the rolling pin route, you might want to have those available for your students.

Textures. The same kind of textures I mentioned last week work great with these three clays that I’m talking about today. Burlap is an awesome texture. Lace fabric, doilies, anything that’s knitted or crochet, all of those things work really great for textures for clay.

I think garlic presses are also a whole lot of fun. I failed to mention that last week, but my kid loved using garlic presses with their clay. It makes great hair and different things like that. If you’re going to use garlic presses and you are going to use, let’s say, an air-dry clay, it works great.

However, it will clog your garlic press. If you want to use it again with, let’s say, polymer clay, you want to make sure you have a separate set of garlic presses for that reason because you don’t want to make your polymer clay all dusty and crusty.

Last, but not least, to cut the clay, you could use like a plastic butter knife, or even a metal butter knife works great, or dental floss. Dental floss works pretty well if you’re needing to cut the clay and you want to make the pieces a little bit more equal when you’re distributing the clay to your students. All right.

Now that I’ve covered the basic supplies, let’s chat about those three different kinds of clay bodies: air-dry, polymer and homemade. I’m going to go pretty deep in chatting about air-dry clay because it’s going to give your students probably the closest experience to what it feels like to work with actual clay. Like I said, I tested out all the clay, air-dry clays on the market and I’m going to share with you my faves.

My favorite favorite is AMACO’s Air-Dry Clay, and the reason I love it so much is because it’s the one that feels the closest to the real thing. It’s dusty, it’s a little dirty. The kids love working with it. You have to use the slip-and-score method to get things to stick.

I cannot recommend it enough if it’s in your budget. We’re going to talk about that, too. Because the thing with clay alternatives is they are not always cheap, so I’m going to share with you those, some that are more economical. But if you have a pretty healthy, we’ll say, budget and you’re able to afford it, I can’t recommend AMACO’s Air-Dry Clay enough.

Now, that being said, since it is expensive, a pound of clay per student is usually the general the rule of thumb. If you’re getting ready to order and you don’t know how much to get, that’s usually what I use to gauge how much clay to order for my students.

Crayola also makes a really good air-dry clay, and I’m stressing air-dry clay because Crayola also makes Model Magic, which I’ll touch on in just a second. Crayola’s Air-Dry Clay I really like because, again, it feels like clay, but it’s not quite as messy. For some reason, it’s going to leave your students’ hands not quite as dusty and dirty as an AMACO’s Air-Dry Clay, but you still need to do the whole slip-and-score method, so you’re still encouraging that vocabulary, giving your students that experience.

Now, let’s talk about Model Magic. I’m not a really big fan of Crayola’s Model Magic the times I’ve used it with my students. While they have enjoyed using it because, let’s be honest, they love anything that’s sticky and icky, it, for me, felt like sculpting with a marshmallow. I would sculpt it a little bit, and then, somehow it would expand and change its form. I have learned to love Model Magic if I’m doing it with different kinds of projects.

Let me explain. If I’m having Model Magic be applied to another surface, basically doing kind of a relief sculpture, then it does work pretty well. However, if I’m trying to make a stand-alone sculpture, when Model Magic dries, it does start to fall apart. My students one time made tigers and the limbs were falling off, the heads were popping off. We had to have tiger ER, where I’m standing around with a hot glue gun, just gluing these little tigers back together again. You might want to consider that if you’re going to work with Model Magic. It’s great if you’re going to apply it to a surface, making kind of a relief sculpture, but not great as a stand-alone.

Last, but not least, as far as air-dry clays go, I really love ACTIVA product’s CelluClay. I know if you hang out on my YouTube channel or my blog for even a hot minute, you’ll see CelluClay pop up, and I just love the stuff.

Here’s why. It is cheap and it is messy and sticky and all those great things that clay should be. However, it is not going to operate like a regular clay body. For example, it’s essentially paper pulp that you add water to, so it almost acts more like a papier mache. If you create an armature, for example, my students made hearts out of aluminum foil, and then, they used squished pieces of CelluClay to cover the heart, it works great for that. So if you have something that is in armature underneath your CelluClay, it works great. It doesn’t work great as a thick sculpture piece because it takes so long to dry. That is the only con I have found with CelluClay is that it takes awhile so placing it overnight in front of a fan will usually do the trick.

Those are my recommendations for air-dry clays.

Now, let’s talk about polymer clay. Really, there’s only a couple of polymer clay brands on the market, Fimo, Sculpey, and to me, I can’t really tell a difference. Like I said, I purchase them all, but to me, they all worked essentially the same.

For me, the pros of Sculpey, when it comes to working with kids is that it’s great because it’s low mess. You don’t have to worry about water. There is no need to do slipping and scoring. The pieces just adhere themselves together.

It’s great if you want to teach your kids about color mixing because the colors are already there, and it’s very vibrant. You could teach them all about how to make secondary colors with primary color clays. I mean I love it, and the kids love it, too.

But let’s talk about the cons. The biggest con is cost. Polymer clay is expensive, and when you buy it, you get very small amounts. For that reason, your pieces that you create with your students are going to be pretty small. You’re going to be limited size-wise.

Another con, which to me this is pretty minor, is that you do have to bake polymer clay in the oven, so that’s another added step you have to do. But for me, that’s pretty easy if you’re going to do that versus loading and unloading a kiln.

Like I said, if you’re going to work with polymer clay is to keep the projects pretty small. Have your students create beads for a necklace. Like I said, they could take a red polymer clay and mix it with yellow and make orange, so it could be a great project for them to learn how to mix their colors.

One thing I really like about polymer clay is that you can add things to it and still bake it in the oven, meaning, they could make bugs and use Twisteezwire for the legs of the bug. Add little glass beads to kind of bedazzle the bug. When that’s baked in the oven and it hardens, it doesn’t damage the wire or the beads. Just make sure you don’t use plastic. For that reason, I do love polymer clay, the kids love it, but it’s the cost factor and just make sure you have them work small. Alright.

Last, but not least, homemade clay. Now, we’re going to throw it back, old-school back to life in the ’60s and ’70s, when everybody was making salt dough sculptures. If you go online and you Google homemade clay recipe, you are going to be overwhelmed with the possibilities. There are so many.

But before you start diving into those, you might want to check with your school nurse and just ask about allergies. With so many kids allergic to gluten, you’ll need to be really careful what recipes you decide to mix up.

That being said, a lot of the recipes require cooking on the stove top which, for me, because my book is geared toward children, I did not delve into any of those recipes so I can’t speak about those. The recipes that I did are ones that I felt comfortable that kids could mix and create on their own, so basically, salt dough clay, which I think would be fabulous if your students actually made their own clay.

The kids are nuts right now about making slime. Imagine how excited they would be to not only work with clay, but create their own clay. Get some measuring cups and mixing bowls from The Dollar Tree, get the couple of supplies for salt dough clay, it’s simply flour, salt and water, and just have at it.

Now, when the kids work with these homemade clay bodies, just know that their pieces might not be permanent. You can bake those clays in the oven. It’ll help speed up the drying process and make them a little bit harder, but sometimes I have found they are a little bit fragile. So for that, it’s more about the process and not so much the product. All right.

If you’ve worked with one of these three clay bodies, how do you finish them? How do you have the kids bring color to them?

Well, for polymer clay, you’re pretty well set. The colors are already built in. But if it’s an air-dry clay, or even a salt dough clay, what I would recommend painting-wise is watercolor paint is great. You could also use acrylic paint or tempera paint, and gouache is lovely. I love using gouache paint with the kids. That is not cheap, or I guess you could call it tempera cakes, which is essentially a gouache kind of paint.

When the kids are done painting with these paints, I like to seal them, like we chatted about last week. If you’re going to have a project that you want to make sure it’s going to be a little bit more rock-solid, I like to spray them with a sealer, a clear varnish sealer, or have the kids paint over them with Mod Podge. That’ll help make them a little bit more solid.

Now, I hope that you feel a little bit more comfortable with the idea at least of working with some clay without having access to a kiln. Simply because you don’t have a kiln doesn’t mean that your students shouldn’t have the same opportunity as those kids that do.

My strongest recommendation would definitely be for you to try out working with any of these clays before just introducing it to your students. The reason being you’re going to understand what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to exploring with these clays because each one is so drastically different.

All right, guys. Thank you so much for letting me share my favorite air-dry, polymer and homemade clays with y’all today.

Tim Bogatz: I hope you’re enjoying this episode of Everyday Art Room. If you are looking to learn even more about ceramics, I want to suggest you check out Art Ed PRO. There are learning packs specific to learning how to fire your kiln, how to teach hand-building, and how to develop a ceramics curriculum. You will learn strategies, techniques, organization, management and how to weave all of these ideas seamlessly into what you’re doing when you teach clay.

Because the ideas are just a small part of the over 50 learning packs now available in the PRO Library, dealing with not just ceramics, but a wide variety of topics that can help you in all aspects of your teaching in all areas of your classroom. Check it out and start your 30-day free trial at

Now, let’s hear what Cassie has to say as she dips into the mailbag and finishes the show.

Cassie: Let’s take a little dip into the mailbag. Now, this question ties in quite nicely with our chat today. It comes from Tia. She asks, “Hey, Cassie. I have your book, Clay Lab, and I’ve been reading through it. But I have a question. I couldn’t find any information about how long each lesson should take. Did I miss it?”

Here’s the slightly tricky thing about my book. It’s written for kids to use independently and explore on their own. It’s not necessarily written for teachers. So in that respect, I didn’t create, let’s say, “lessons” and break it down day-by-day in how I would teach it. For that, I’m sorry, but what I would recommend is this.

I would recommend you do the project yourself. That will help you kind of gauge how long parts of the clay project will take. I usually, like I said last week, take about two weeks of working with clay with my students. I’m not a fan of rushing kids when it comes to creating just because I’m a slow worker, so I sympathize and empathize with those kids that are the same.

I also want them to be able to have enough time to stop, think and do their best. For that reason you might need to break some of the projects down just a little bit. I often go over that in my videos that I share on my YouTube channel. If you used those, it’s easy for you to kind of stop the video, let the kids go to work, and then, just say, “All right. Next we’re going to pick it up at this place.”

So I think your best thing to do would be to try out the project yourself, gauge what you think your students will be capable of doing in the timeframe that they have, and then, go from there.

Thank you so much. That was the perfect question and, like I said, perfect timing. If you have a question me, please feel free to send it my way. You can find me at the Everyday Art Room at

Here’s the thing about working with kids in clay. They love clay, and they are going to be thrilled no matter what kind of clay that you give them. Even if it means it’s a modeling clay that, at the end of art class, they have to smash back up into a ball and hand right back to you, you gave them an experience they are not going to forget.

So if you’re debating, “I don’t have a kiln. Maybe I should, or maybe I shouldn’t allow my students, or give them that opportunity to work with clay, I’m not comfortable with it,” let it go. Trust me. You put something, like clay, in their hands and they are going to enjoy that experience and from that, learn so much. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to try out some of these clays, especially if you don’t have a kiln in your artwork.

Thanks, guys. Have a fabulous week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.