If someone placed a lump of clay in front of you, what would you do? Would you immediately be drawn to pick it up and shape it into something? Would you pass it from hand to hand, simply enjoying the tactile qualities? Perhaps you wouldn’t be inclined to touch it at all, maybe you find the idea of sculpting something daunting. Whatever your choice, in that lump of clay lies an important and undeniable quality: possibility.
Now consider how a child might act when you offer them that same lump of clay. More often than not they can’t wait to touch, squeeze, roll, or mold it; kids seem to instantly recognize and delight in the possibilities of the substance. For millions of American kids, Play-Doh shaped those youthful sculpting experiences, part of why it holds a place in The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame. The soft substance originated as a cleaning compound used to remove grime from wallpaper. It took a teacher to recognize that the wallpaper cleaner had the potential to solve the problem of her students’ trouble manipulating the modeling clay supplied by her school. Teachers in the district loved the new clay and Play-Doh soon made its way into the homes of millions, offering endless possibilities and hours of engagement for children of all ages. The popular dough has been produced in a plethora of bright colors since, not to mention a range of play sets to suit almost any interest. Did you ever dream of owning a restaurant or sub shop? Fascinated by the barber shop? Need practice filling a tooth before heading off to dental school? Whatever your interest, chances are there’s a Play-Doh set for you. If you enjoy the concept of Play-Doh but prefer not to get your hands dirty (nothing says “professional” quite like neon green Play-Doh beneath the fingernails) perhaps Play-Doh cologne is the way to go? Yes, this is a real product! One spritz of this distinctive fragrance and will leave you smelling iconic all day.
Apart from Play-Doh, a host of other malleable materials can fuel your creativity. Modeling clay offers equal possibilities, but with the added peace of mind that your masterpiece won’t dry out before you can finish it. Terracotta and stoneware clays transform into beautiful, lasting pieces after firing in a kiln. Nearly everyone I know treasures an early clay creation from their elementary school days whether it’s a pinch pot, a pencil cup, or even a misshapen turtle (yes, that last one is mine). If clay is too conventional, perhaps some brightly colored Floam or Gak is a better fit.
Through the years, I’ve realized that whatever our age and whatever the malleable medium may be, we learn through tactile action, molding and shaping something, encountering and overcoming challenges. In college, I felt reluctant about signing up for a figure modeling sculpture class since the previous semester’s life drawing course had proven my lack of skill at realistic portraits. Hesitant as I was, I enrolled in the class and found that sculpting life is very different from drawing it. I realized how much we instinctively know through touch and found that, somehow, shaping clay with my hands was molding my mind as well, teaching me a great deal in the process. For instance, how is a handle best attached and supported to avoid falling off later? How do you stabilize a figure’s head atop a narrow neck? How long can you leave clay or Play-Doh uncovered before it cracks and dries out? We learn about physical limitations, capabilities, and properties. We learn that sometimes it’s necessary to make changes to our original plan. Lastly, we learn sometimes it’s best to let things take on their own shape rather than force them to be something in particular.
So next time you find yourself faced with a lump of Play-Doh, clay, or even Floam, pick it up and see where it takes you. You may be surprised at how things shape up.