The Art of Land-Based Early Learning Vol.1

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EARLY LEARNING Vol I: The emergence of natural materials and ecological connections



Contributing editor


conn e ction s: e m e rge n ce o f t h e


“We should once more take materials seriously, since it is from them that everything is made.”

—t i m i n go l d

Volume I: The emergence of natural materials and ecological connections

E M E R G E N C E O F T H E M A T E R I A L: INTRODUCTION Sophie Anne Edwards What does it mean to ask a child, “where does this material come from”?

experience with a clay smooth pathway

eyes and ears, noses and toes. They love

along Honora Bay road on Manitoulin

to explore the materials, and to share sto-

Island. Other times, we simply invite

ries of where they’ve seen them before.

Like the tale of the child that is amazed

children to put their hands into the

to learn that the carrot she is eating

bucket, and see what happens. We ask

comes from the ground, engaging

them to tell their own stories of finding

claims. “At Low Island. It’s under the wa-

children to explore the ‘where’ of the

clay through their feet, or of playing

ter.” Another child tells us where he has

‘what’ creates tangible links to place,

with a slightly burned stick from a fire.

felt it at his camp. Amid the ‘ahhs’ and

to ecology, to geology, and geography.

We learn through these stories.

‘ewws’ of different children, there are

“I’ve felt this before!” a young girl ex-

connections sparking between summer I place a bucket of natural clay and lake

All materials have stories contained with- swims and clay—a material they may

water on the table and invite children

in them: stories of the geological pro-

have seen before but never connected to

to put their hands into it. I tell them

cesses that made them, and of our own

a natural environment. Natural mate-

the story of how I collected it, and

personal relationships to the materials

rials are, “experientially rich tools for

where I collected it. I do the same thing

and the place. We consistently find that

establishing place-identity” (Day, 2007,

in a workshop with adult educators,

children revel in learning about these

p. 84). With magnifying glasses children

and share a poem I wrote about my

materials through their hands and feet,

glimpse the fibres in a sweater or a

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Ecological connections: Emergence of the material


The Art of Land-Based Early Learning

blanket, and feel the similarity between unspun wool and the sweater. The children then make a strong connection between a natural material (rather than playdough, or even store purchased clay) and the land, they identify what they have felt with their bodies with a word, link a story of a material and landscape, and learn that this material is a source of making, and comes from the land. In a world where we source most things from grocery stores, sharing stories and learning about the provenance of materials can be an invitation to understand and relate to the world in a different way, because it’s not just about engaging with materials taken from the land and having new experiences through it, but building a different kind of human-world relational ecology. Through natural materials children make connections to the lived landscape,


Ecological connections: Emergence of the material

4elements Living Arts

Volume I: The emergence of natural materials and ecological connections

the natural world, the ecology of a lake

Similarly we can ask, “Where does this

the land, between their hand and the

with its sand, clay, water, shells, fish.

material (or artwork) go when we are

making. The materials influence us in

They glimpse the history of the land,

finished with it?” Natural materials

their textures, scents, malleability…

the geological processes that create dif-

return to the land and contribute to the

And we influence them. We are not

ferent kinds of rock in different places.

ongoing ecological cycle. The plastic

separate from these materials.

sparkles, the modelling clay, and the

“We are losing the sense of touch because of keyboards, and from not making things. So this is a first step—awaken the sense of touch… Please touch!”

shiny things that children love come

Sometimes we don’t need a long ex-

from fossil fuel production and sit in

ploration. Sometimes just having our

landfills when we are done with them.

hands in clay, digging our fingers into sand, touching a ball of soft alpaca fibre,

Source materials and the materials that

or walking to gather plants reconnects

are made from them (stone and tools,

us. We use both hands, all of our senses:

wool and textiles, clay and bones, cotton “We learn something of the essence of and thread, sticks and structures) teach

things by how they feel” (Day, 2007, 84).

children that there is a making within

Learning through the body, and helping

their grasp. They can create textiles by

children to communicate what they are

weaving fibres, they can create clothing

learning through their body helps them

The materiality of the materials is

by stitching. They can gather mate-

to make the connections, and to validate

important. Even if the clay or the char-

rials close to home, make sculptures,

and honour different ways of knowing.

coal comes from a shop rather than the

dyes, playhouses… Draw with a piece

— pa ulus berens ohn, p ot t e r

lake or a cold campfire, it is a natural ma- of charcoal from a cold fire. Natural

Clay. Charcoal. Graphite. Dye. Pigments.

terial that has a natural history. Equally

materials are constantly in process; they

Fibre. Natural Dyeing. Sticks. Stones.

important, questioning the provenance

change and teach us about change.

We continually return to these materials.

of other non-natural materials can lead

By thinking about the full ecological

to: shop, factory, fossil fuel, which is also

cycle of a material we build relational

Allowing a child to get messy with any

a revealing experience for children.

understanding between the child and

of these is a joyful, sensory, embodied

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Ecological connections: Emergence of the material


The Art of Land-Based Early Learning

learning experience. Making things from the materials engenders creativity and agency in a child. Asking questions about the materials brings a storied, contextual focus to the materials and the making. “Where does this material come from?” is a powerful question, a provocation that invites children and educators into the cycle of making—the ecology of our making, building, crafting—from the material to the artwork, and out again. 

S OURC E S Day, C. (with Midbjer, A.). (2007). Environment and Children: Passive Lessons from the Everyday Environment. Jordan Hill, Oxford, Architectural Press. Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. (Eds.). (1998). The hundred languages of children: The Reggio Emilia experience in transformation (3rd ed.). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger. Berensohn, P. (2013). To Spring From the Hand, DVD. TOTM Film. 40

Ecological connections: Emergence of the material

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Volume I: The emergence of natural materials and ecological connections

MATERIALS Natural materials can be found in most

• Get a sense of the area first, before

• Never take bark from a tree, unless

neighbourhoods, are free and environ-

harvesting, and then give thanks for

working with a traditionalist who

mentally friendly. Some things we need

finding what you need.

knows how, and when to do so with-

to source from stores, like clay if we

• Pick only plants that are not endan-

out harming the tree. Instead gather

don’t live near a lake with a clay bottom,

gered/protected, avoid plants that do

bark from dead trees, or pieces that

or graphite and charcoal. As educators

not respond well to harvesting, such

have fallen on the ground.

on the lookout for natural materials, we

as trillium, wild leeks, lady’s slippers

begin to see our daily walk, our back

(and most other orchids).

yard and our homes differently. Lint

noxious, such as: poison ivy, giant hogweed, nightshades.

• Pick from less trafficked areas, as

from the dryer can be used for stuffing,

they have less likely been harvested

unusual seed pods can create lively dis-

already and impacted.

cussion, animal bones elicit stories and questions.


• Pick only a few plants or flowers from a particular patch; and pick windfalls where possible.

WHERE AND HOW TO SO U R C E NATUR AL MATERI ALS Generally, the principle to harvesting sustainably is to:

• Avoid plants that are poisonous or

• Pick leaves, stems rather than taking roots. Taking flowers means

It’s a great inducement to creativity to remove glue, gluesticks and tape from activity areas. Ask: how can we attach these things with other (natural) materials?

that flower might not have time to produce seeds that year.

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The Art of Land-Based Early Learning

LOOSE PARTS AN D BE AU TI FU L TH I N G S • Bark: harvested from the ground, not taken from living trees

Flower petals: be sure to not bring in

and sometimes with the seeds still in

noxious or poisonous plants

them, they can blow away, rattle… Why does this pod shake?

• Bones

• Fossils

• Bulrushes

• Grasses and sedges

• Chestnuts

• Leaves: the possibilities are almost endless

• Cow leather scraps • Deer hide scraps

• Milkweed pods and milkweed silk

• Dried beans: look for heritage beans

• Seed pods: there are so many beauti-

as there as there are so many variants

• Seeds—beans, flowers, peas, kale: look for heritage seeds as they have a wider range of colours, speckles and shapes • Sinew: available from craft shops

ful and different seed pods—curvy ones, flat ones, prickly and pointy,

• Fish scales

TO O LS • Aprons, smocks: keep an eye out at

• Hammer and nail: to make holes

used clothing stores and yard sales • Branches, grasses and twigs to use as brushes • Cotton embroidery floss, with lengths

in tenser fabric for sewing with

use them and responsibility to put

darning needles, and a small board

them back

to protect tables and floors from

• Scissors

hammering nails

• Magnifying glasses

wound on sticks: this reduces

• Regular sewing needles: some projects

knotting mishaps with the

and some dexterous children are

packaged floss

able to use these needles. Keep them

• Darning needles: these are heavier

at the educator’s desk and allow

larger needles with larger eyes

them to be used by children who


Ecological connections: Emergence of the material

have demonstrated dexterity to

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Volume I: The emergence of natural materials and ecological connections

STI TC H I N G , SE WI N G , 3D C O N S T RUCT ION • Alpaca fibre

in water, it will harden to the

a lovely texture. Keep an eye out

• Bark: picked from the ground

shape it’s left in to dry so can be

at yard sales and second-hand shops

• Burlap

used sculpturally

• Sinew: available from craft shops • Sticks: find sticks from different trees,

• Cardboard

• Dried grasses

• Cattail, cotton, animal fibres

• Dryer lint

as each will have different qualities

• Fabric (natural if you can!)

and textures. If you’re lucky to find

• Leaves

beaver chewed sticks, or sticks with

• Paper: a range of textures, finishes,

insect holes, these can invite curiosity

for stuffing and deer hide scraps • Cow hide scraps: keep an eye out at second hand stores, or visit a leather sales company and ask for scraps • Clay (self-drying)

weights. Look for handmade papers

• Stones

(or make paper)

• Thread: embroidery floss is thicker

• Seeds and seed pods

and easier for young children

drum makers and leather workers: the

• Sheep’s wool

to manipulate

hard hide can be used by hammering

• Sheets: preferably cotton ones that

• Deer hide scraps (soft) or hard from

holes into it for sewing, or softened

• Twine

can be dyed, cut up, sewn, and have

DR AWI N G AN D PAI N TI N G MAT E RIA L S • Black Tea/Juices/Turmeric in water • Branches and grasses can be used as brushes

• Cotton, linen, and a range of other watercolour and drawing papers

• Watercolours or the teas and juices noted above

• Dye water • Graphite: comes in a range of sizes

• Charcoal, and burnt sticks

and shapes—explore these and all

• Clay water

their edges

• Conté pencils

• Pigment and soil

• Pastels 4elements Living Arts

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The Art of Land-Based Early Learning


• How does this material compare to another (alpaca fibre/dog hair/sheep wool)? Why are they different, how are they different?

• Have you seen or felt this before? Where? • Why does it have this texture? • Why does it have different colours? (consider the different colours of

R E LATI O N SH I P S O F TH I S MATE R I AL TO TH E NATU RAL WO R LD, AN D U S TO I T • Where does it grow? Why does it

clay, or of fibres) • What happened on the earth to

• Who/what eats, uses, makes things with this? • What happens if we harvest

hard, or soft? • What kind of tree did this stick/

these materials? • Where does the material go (once

bark/needle/leaf come from? 44

• What commercial materials can you exchange for materials you • What role does this material play in nature? • What is the impact of using this material? • How does this material make you feel?

grow there?

make this material? • What kind of stone is this, why is it

the tree)

collect nearby?

• What is this material? • Where does it come from?

we’ve used it, once it comes off

Ecological connections: Emergence of the material

it blows off the flower head, once 4elements Living Arts

C O N N E C TI ON S T O M A KIN G • How could this material be used? • What are the characteristics of this material?

Volume I: The emergence of natural materials and ecological connections

• Can we use this material with other materials? • How have these materials been used in the past, and today? (bricks, cob, straw bale houses, bricks, baskets) • How are these being used in the world today? (bricks, cob, straw bale houses) • What can this material teach me? • What can I learn about myself and the material by struggling with making and design challenges? • What are some ways I have never thought about using this material? • What does this material inspire me to make? • What is your favorite material to use? Why? Can you choose a material that you aren’t as comfortable with, and create a new relationship with it?


• Research source locations of materials and connect to geography and culture, song and story of those

• What stories have we been told by grandparents or elders that teach us about these natural materials? • Where can we see these materials in our school and community?

locations. Where is the closest place to your home that clay or graphite or wood can be found? Think about creative ways to “map the materials.” • Explore foods that are also natural dye materials: study the character-

• What artists, artisans, builders use

istics of the material-ness of the

these materials? • What can I teach about this material? • What do we learn about our com-

foods (beets, black tea, blueberries). Cook with the children and share a meal, then create dyes or pigments

munity by working and learning

with the food-based colours. Finally,

about these materials?

paint, dye fabric or paper, or explore

• How do we change our

mark-making with the dyes.

communities through the use of

• Explore ways to use multiple mate-

different materials?

rials together to make tools (create


paintbrushes with branches and

• Bring building materials into the

and draw with this non-permanent

grasses; gather charcoal for drawing

classroom (bricks, clay, straw) and

substance on wood or stone, etc).

invite children to create buildings

• Use clay and shells with a lot of ridg-

and draw designs of them. Share

es and texture to explore how fossils

artist, architect and planner sketches,

are made, and why dinosaur bones

designs and drawings.

are found in the ground.

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Ecological connections: Emergence of the material


T H E C H A L L E N G E O F C L A Y: CLAY VERSUS PLAYDOUGH Mariana Lafrance We have two large clay workstations

meeting. Dylan sums up our conclusion

set up. Almost all, if not all of the kids

during circle time: “It was like play-

join in. I demonstrate a few tricks:

dough. But playdough is colourful.

making a ball, rolling a snake, kneading

The other one is sometimes brown.”

the clay, using water to make the clay smooth. Hudson: This is mud. Jack: No it’s not, it’s clay. Hudson: It just looks like mud. Pretty soon more than half of the kids

But playdough and clay are not the same. The vocabulary of clay is very different. The visceral feeling of clay is very different. The origin of clay is very different. Playdough doesn’t have the geological, geographical connections of clay.

lose interest, hand over their lump

Perhaps we could invite playdough to the party. Compare them. Find out what we can do with clay that we can’t do with playdough, and vice-versa. Talk about where we can find clay. I ask where clay comes from. Jayda im-

of clay to their neighbour and go

How do we introduce young artists to

mediately answers, “It comes from the

off to other pursuits. Later, Joanne,

clay when its deceitful doppelganger,

water.” As artists doing land-based work,

Janet and I reflect on this in our

playdough, is old news for them?

we find that the story of the material is

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so important. I describe my own experience swimming in Mudge Bay and reaching down for lumps of clay. Many people have had similar experiences in other places on Manitoulin Island. I ask about the difference between clay and play-dough. One kid did have a theory about the difference. Daniel: You can’t put playdough in water. Natalie: Clay is easier to work with than playdough. At least two kids make observations about the transformational capacity of clay. Marley: It turned into mud. Sunday: It was turning into a statue. White. (The clay was beginning to dry.) Others are beginning to learn about the structure of the clay.


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Daniel: When there’s more water, it

The clay offers a chance to continually

breaks. When Hudson put more water

edit the environment of a story as the

on it, it fell over.

story unfolded, just as their story of

Marianna: So the more water, the less

finding clay in local lakes is an unfolding

strong it is?

story. Shaping the clay is not separate

Daniel: Yes. It fell over. I put the sticks

from breathing life into the clay shapes

all together and made them stick with

and enacting stories with them. And

the water. I wonder how it’s standing

while they can create with playdough,

all by itself now. Maybe ‘cause I already

each time they use clay they build

made the hole.

knowledge of the material and openness

Mariana: I wonder how you could make

to the material and to the places from

it stand up?

which it comes. 

Daniel: I just pushed it in very hard, and then it stayed in there. Sunday works hard on creating a “castle birdhouse.” She uses her fingers to create holes in the castle for birds to access it. She includes in her design “a top thing for an attic.” A team of kids join forces to create an epic miniature world. Daniel: This is a slide, this is the apple tree, this is… Outside, a house, a phone, my little zapping thing, canons. 4elements Living Arts

Clay, earth pigments & charcoal


The Art of Land-Based Early Learning


Today we use clay as a tool to document

Some children press multiple surfaces

the schoolyard. We roll out the clay

into their clay. The textures reveal dif-

and cut it into rectangular pieces about

ferent kinds of information about place.

2” by 4” and place them in a carrying container. We get dressed and head

Children often touch and learn through

outside. I show the children how to use

touch, but that sensation is difficult to

the pieces of clay to take a pressing of

verbalize. The textures becomes maps of

a place, and invited them to make their

a place, and tangible representations

own. Off they go to places they love or

of touch. 

find interesting to collect the texture of that place.


Clay, earth pigments & charcoal

4elements Living Arts

Volume I: The emergence of natural materials and ecological connections

HOW TO WORK WITH CLAY Sophie Anne Edwards

Clay is of the earth. It is made of fine

that has holders on the end to protect

and trapping air. Generally working

particles of rock and soil, and comes

the hands (you can wrap the wire ends

with children in schools we use self-dry

from the erosion of rock, usually feld-

around a cork, or a piece of wood).

clay and it is not as sensitive to the air

spar, over very long periods of time.

Pull the wire down through the clay

bubbles as it won’t be fired.

It settles into river and lake bottoms,

like a cheese cutter. Keeping it moist. Keep clay covered so

and can form a layer in the earth. It becomes malleable when wet, hardens

Wedging. To prepare clay, it needs to be

it doesn’t dry out—keep it wrapped in

when dried, becoming very hard when

softened, and particularly important, air

plastic. Self-dry clay does not need to

fired—or heated—at high temperatures.

needs to be removed if it will be fired

be kiln-fired. When children build with

It can be reddish, greyish, yellowish or

in a kiln. Wedging involves giving each

this clay, keep their work covered with


piece a nice bang onto the work

bags so that they dry slowly to lessen

surface, then pushing the clay down

the cracking. Used clay can be put into


and backward. If you’ve baked bread

water to reclaim and reuse it.

Cutting. To cut a slab of clay from a

to do. Bread dough requires lots of air.

Hand-building. To hand build, children

larger piece you can either pull a piece

Here you want to push the clay into

use their hands to form and mold

with your hands, or use a piece of wire

itself rather than folding it onto itself

the clay.

before—this is NOT what you want

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Emergence of the Material 56

Slab-building. Pieces of clay are rolled

Reclaiming and reusing. Used clay can be

out with rolling pins, pounded with

put into water to reclaim and reuse it,

hands and attached together.

and the water from the clay can be used to experiment with dyeing, painting

Rolling & coiling. Children who’ve

and drawing. Eventually it goes back to

worked with other moulding and mod-

the earth. 

elling materials will automatically begin to roll lengths of clay. These can be rolled onto themselves to make shapes and build forms. Slip & score. Provide small bowls of water for the children to use to work the clay. To attach sections of clay together, show children how to score each side to be attached (scratching into the clay to make it rough), put a little bit of slip (very wet clay made by putting water in some clay) between each section and attach. Drying. Keep clay covered so it doesn’t dry out. Self-dry clay does not need to be kiln-fired. When children build with self-dry clay, cover finished work with bags so that the pieces dry slowly to lessen the cracking. 4elements Living Arts

Clay, earth pigments & charcoal



Vol I: The emergence of natural materials and ecological connections


 Northeastern Ontario Arts Education Network

an Ontario government agency un organisme du gouvernement de l’Ontario

An agency of the Government of Ontario Un organisme du gouvernement de l’Ontario

Developed through grants and support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council