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Clay tree people!

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Have you ever used clay with your kids? In all my years of teaching, I've noticed that students get the most excited about clay. There is something about being able to feel the material in your hands that is so satisfying! So I bought some clay for my kids. Hmm, what to make? I didn't want to create more clutter around the house, so I decided to do this super fun ephemeral clay tree person outside.

This project is a great lesson for teaching children that art does not need to last forever, sometimes it's about the process and the experience.

I recommend this project for kids age 4 and up, it was beyond my 2 year olds ability and focus (although he did make something with my help).

First buy a bag of clay. I bought air dry clay because I wanted to make other stuff out of it as well, but really any bag of clay will do. This is a temporary project. When it dries pieces will crack off and when it rains the clay will return to the earth, that is part of the beauty of it. You may also want to invest in some clay tools.


Bowl of water, sponge or spray bottle

Piece of cardboard to work on

Important info for working with clay:

  • Scoring - when putting two pieces of clay together you need to score it. This means use a sharp tool to scratch into each piece where you will be placing them together. Then add slip. Slip is a soupy mixture of clay and water. Then press together. Finally smooth over the seams to really make them stick.

  • Keep clay covered with plastic when not using. Once it dries out it is done. Small plastic trash bags are good.

  • If it starts to dry out as you are using it you can mist it with a spray bottle of water. Be careful leaving a bowl of water out with young kids, it will quickly get poured over the clay and a big mess will be made. (This will actually be really fun for the younger crowd, so maybe let them try doing it outside!)

  • Most clay is meant to be fired, so once it dries it will be quite brittle if you don't fire it. This project is ephemeral, so you don't need to worry about firing it.

Step 1: Cut your clay. You can use a wire clay cutting tool, or just get a piece of tooth floss to cut it. Give your child about a baseball size piece of clay and a piece of cardboard to work on.

Step 2: Make the basic facial features. You don't need to get too detailed here, because it will be easier to add details once it is on the tree. Also it doesn't have to be a human face, it could be an animal or monster or anything else a child would want to do.

Step 3: Find a good tree. Put it at your child's eye level. Show your child how to attach the facial features to the tree. If the tree has lots of bark and texture it will stick better. You need to press it onto the tree then rub all the edges onto the tree to make it stick. You may want to work on the features some more while it is on the tree. Keep some extra clay nearby in case you want to add to it.

My 4 year old did this kitty cat one all by herself

My daughter and I did two faces. The first one I made on the cardboard and attached to the tree. Then I had my daughter decorate it with things found in nature. The second face (kitty face) she did on her own. Younger kids will definitely need to see you model how this is done, from making the features to securing it to the tree. My 2.5 year old son wanted to do Wall-E, so I made the eyes and treads and he pushed "buttons" into it.

Step 4: Decorate the face by pressing things found in nature into it.

Step 5: Take a picture because it won't last forever! Once it dries it will crack and most likely fall off. When it rains the clay will return to the earth, that's the beauty of this project!

I worked on this with my daughter while my son was taking a nap, it took us about an hour total. A couple of times she said, "Mommy this is fun, I didn't think it would be this fun, but it is." This is so often the case with young kids, they don't want to do something, until they do, then they love it. Giving them different experiences is giving them different opportunities to figure out what they love. I'm so glad my daughter and I had the opportunity to work side by side on this project together.

I wish I would have tried this project when I was teaching high school, I think older kids would love it as well. It's a great way for students to sculpt portraits without using up a ton of clay. So go ahead and give clay a shot and let me know what you think in the comments below!


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