Clay work is like the Cinderella of the art therapies. She still waits to be discovered with her magic, her beauty and her ability to transform the wells of human suffering into places of insight and celebration. Her dark earthly solid mass, often appearing in greyish, brownish or terra-cotta dress, is hardly alluring at first sight. Touching this sticky cold mass, you sense she has a longing and determination to merge with your skin.” (Sherwood, 2010)
Children have always played with clay however more recently it has become a valuable tool for play therapists as it provides children with a natural method of connection and expression. This blog post examines the therapeutic benefits of using clay in play therapy. Initially, when I started play therapy with my clients, I did not include clay in my tool kit. After a few months, clay was introduced into the playroom and it was very apparent to me from the outset that my clients were instantly drawn to it. They all used the clay but interestingly they used it in very different ways. Its many qualities such as its strength, malleability and its concreteness make it very responsive to human feelings. My clients liked feeling, modelling, squashing, rolling and pounding the clay. I felt undoubtedly it was instrumental in moving the clients forward in their therapeutic process. Children are naturally attracted to clay and are drawn to its visual appeal (Henley, 2002). It is a strong expressive medium and is ideal for enhancing children’s development and holistic learning (White, 2006). This blog post gives some insight into the therapeutic benefits of using clay in a play therapy setting. I will do this by examining relevant literature on the subject and by using some of my own personal experiences dealing with clay as a play therapist.
Landreth (2002) states that it is difficult for children to access their feelings at a verbal level as children do not have the cognitive or verbal ability to express what they are feeling in a manner that can be expressed into words. Since the inception of play therapy, clay has always been an important tool for a therapist (Axline, 1947; Landreth, 2002). It is advocated by many psychotherapists as one of the primary devices for helping clients to explore difficult concepts and express fundamental emotions in a non-verbal manner (Freud 2006). There has not been much research done on the therapeutic aspects of clay or clay as a therapeutic medium in general (Sherwood, 2010, Gavron and Sholt, 2006, Souter-Anderson, 2010). The dearth of research and books on the subject may be a result of the belief that clay therapy comes under the umbrella of art therapy. Souter- Anderson (2010) in her book “Touching Clay, Touching What?” refutes this and claims clay therapy has a “unique theoretical anchoring in the same way that sand-play music therapy and authentic movement have their respective theoretical bases” (Souter-Anderson, 2010: 13).
In order to explore the therapeutic aspects of clay, it is important to briefly describe the role clay has played in history. Clay products such as vases, pots, symbolic figures have been present in past civilizations. In addition to the functional aspects of clay in creating a variety of containing tools, it has been used in many cultures as a method of expressing the religious dimensions in human life. Clay originates from the earth and as the earth is viewed as the source of all things it can be inferred that clay can anchor very powerful emotions. Sholt and Gavron (2006: 66) claim there is a link “between symbolic clay products and the mental-spiritual realm of humankind early in human history. Accordingly, clay figures which are made of the earth may reflect the connection between the human mental world and the material world”
Clay involves a very primal mode of expression and communication as it involves touching (Henley, 2002). Tactile contact is actually the first mode of communication that a baby learns (Bowlby, 1969). It is the sense of touch that enables people to understand the very boundaries of themselves (Sunderland, 2004). Touch, before all else, is the primary, non-verbal way a child has to relating to its mother. From the moment of birth, touch is the way in which feelings are communicated and experienced. The sense of touch is closely linked to early attachment. (Bowlby, 1969). Attachment is the bond that develops between a baby and its primary caregiver. It is characterised by the interaction patterns which develop in order to fulfil the infants’ needs and emotional development (Bowlby, 1969). According to Bowlby (1969) not developing a secure attachment in early life, could prove damaging to the child emotionally and these difficulties could filter through to adult life. Souter-Anderson (2010) states that many therapists see their clients’ relationship with clay as a metaphor for their attachments with different people in their lives. Cattanach (1996:196) states that the medium of clay has its own specific qualities and says “it responds and reacts and has to be grappled with, in the same way as a human relationship does if it is to progress”. Baring this in mind it could be concluded using clay in the playroom could help children or adults not only to explore their early attachment bonds but also help them examine and look at their current relationships.
Clay leaves an imprint and feelings move through hands into clay making the invisible visible. In addition to touch, modelling clay requires body movement. Touch and movement are interlinked. Real past memories and the “central window to the unconscious” can be unlocked through touch and movement (Oaklander, 1988). Clay therapy can allow the clients to see their inner trauma and places of wounding (Sherwood, 2010). Nez (1991) made use of clay in order to facilitate healing with adults who had difficult and traumatic childhoods. He found that clay encouraged a more spontaneous and less controlled expression and response than other art mediums. He stated that using clay put the client in touch with primitive sensations and emotion.
Clay is cathartic in nature as it allows the child to express an array of emotions. Catharsis allows for the release of previously restrained and interrupted affective release via emotional expression such as pounding clay (Schaefer, 2006). When children feel stuck, frustrated and overwhelmed by life challenges, the use of clay in therapy provides a safe place for releasing stored up thoughts and emotions and unlearning old, destructive or unproductive habits. Some children find this particularly soothing and it can be useful for releasing tension or can be a safe outlet for frustration and aggression (Hart, 1992 as cited in Sholt & Gavron, 2006). Sholt and Gavron (2006:67) state that working with clay could ” function as a control window to these unconscious non-verbal representations and maybe helpful with people who find it hard to express themselves verbally or who are defensive.
Clay is malleable and three dimensional and it can become anything a child wants it to become. It can embody a representational form or an abstract one, for example, a child could create a shape that represents a monster which could look like an animal or a fantasy figure or it just might be a shape that maybe symbolic. Once form has emerged from the clay, it may become fixed and permanent, or be crushed and rolled back up into a ball. Creating different forms can help a child find a way of expressing their inner emotions and thoughts.
Souter-Anderson (2010) states that clay is particularly useful when exploring feelings of anger. It can also act as an outlet to prevent the build-up of negative emotions and feelings in the child. Macks (1990) as cited in Henley (2002) talks about a client who dug her nails into the clay over and over again. He says that in order for “the therapeutic process to progress than all suppressed or imploded anger must first be imploded” (Sherwood, 2010:72). I found this to be very true in my experience of working with a nine-year-old boy. He was referred to play therapy as he had some difficulties mixing with other children in the school. He became very aggressive and anger at times and the school were concerned. His mother said he appeared sad a lot of the time. He was an only child who lived alone with his mother. His parents were young when he was born and his father is a drug addict. His father has been in and out of prison due to his drug addiction. He does see his father but it is very irregularly and he has come to see him as an acquaintance rather than a father. He used to just come into the room and throw the clay at the board. I noticed he did this when he was annoyed or angry about something not necessarily his father but something that had happen in school or if he was angry with his mother or teachers. He eventually made it into a game. He drew a circle on the board and the nearer he threw the clay to the centre of the circle the more points he received. Sherwood (2010:105) states in her book is a particularly good way “for the release of anger since it splats on the board. The release is dramatic”.
Clay being an earthy medium by its very nature can take a lot of anger and rage. Clay in therapy provides a medium to work through issues such as anger, grief, and fear and move the client on in their therapeutic process. Another client used the clay to represent a lot of different emotions. The client was a ten-year-old girl that lived with her mother, her brother and half-sister in a disadvantaged area in the city. Her parents had separated two years previously and at the time the sessions commenced she was having difficulty accepting the situation. Her father and his new girlfriend had a baby and he moved in with her and created a new family unit. She did not consider herself to be part of this new family and over the course of the sessions, she became more isolated from her father and felt abandoned by him. She had difficulty using any of the tool kit but when the clay was introduced she used to throw at the board and the walls. She used to feel energized and it would improve her mood. Interestingly, in the latter phase of her play therapy, she began to make smiley faces. On one occasion she used the clay to do this. This client found it very difficult to talk about her real feelings so I felt the clay gave her an outlet to express them in a non-verbal way.
Working with clay can be rewarding for children who are hesitant about their creativity. You need very little skill to use clay and so there is hardly any chance of failure (Henley, 2002). The play therapy is non-directive and as the play therapist does not enforce any expectations or boundaries on the client, he can express himself freely in a confident matter and without restraint. Additionally, the important aspect of using clay which is often ignored in play therapy as we focus on the process rather than the product is the way it enables children to produce lasting pieces. This permanency of creation promotes a child’s self-esteem and when functional pieces are produced (e.g. cups, bowls) children see themselves as capable of engaging in a truly purposeful activity (White as cited in Schaffer, 2006).
I had this experience with one of my clients. This specific client had abandonment issues and was suffering from low self-esteem. In the early sessions, she preferred to talk but in one session she choose to work with the clay. She made a SpongeBob out of the clay and she wanted to take it home however this conflicted with the boundaries we had set out for the play therapy sessions. She had agreed to leave everything in the playroom until her therapy was finished. However, this seemed very important to her and up to this point, she hadn’t asked to take anything else out of the room so I spoke to my supervisor who told me to get her to make another one that she could specifically show her mother and her friends. The next session we created another SpongeBob in the room and she took it away.
The next week she told me how great her friends and mother thought it was. She was extremely pleased with herself. The fact is clay can give children the material to make something out of nothing. They can put their own imprint on clay and therefore they bring something from the unconscious to the conscious (Heimlich and Mark, 1990 as cited in Sholt and Gavron, 2006). Clay products are tangible and can be examined at a later stage and the importance of this was evident in the case of my client. She used to look and admire her clay creations every week. Play provides children with unlimited opportunities to create, through the construction of clay, whereby they gain a sense of confidence and self-efficacy that boosts their self-esteem (Schaefer 2006). Oaklander (1988) also advocates projective techniques such as clay sculpting which she claims is very useful to facilitate children and help them explore negative self-image and increase self-acceptance and self-esteem. I found from my own clients that using clay can be a satisfying experience that enables a child who can be hesitant about their creativity to be creative.
For many years clay has been used by psychotherapists and art therapist. in not only in As clay has been advocated by therapists as something that advances the therapeutic process individual but also group therapies (Anderson, 1995; Mattes and Robbins, 1981 as cited in Sholt and Gavron, 2006). Using clay can also be a very social activity. When appropriate, groups of children with similar presenting concerns are encouraged to interact together verbal communication skills, confidence and social skills are developed and promoted. Children will often exchange ideas and suggestions on how something can be made, and being able to show another child how to make something can be particularly rewarding (White, 2006). Co-operation and sharing of ideas in groups promote a sense of identity and a sense of belonging. In a study carried out by Sweeney and Thomas as cited in Souter-Anderson (2010) focusing on the issue of transition, clay was the second most popular medium used. Sand tray work was the first. I found this very apparent in a group of four girls who were aged eleven I had for group play therapy. The overall aim of the therapy was to enable the clients to become more confident, more self-assured and to have a more positive image about themselves. One of the girls had difficulty in each session trying to decide what to do. The others in the group would just ignore her but one of the weeks we were using clay the other girls gave her ideas on what she could make. She felt supported and gave the strength to finish her clay model. She made a face. Up to this point, she had never completed anything. After she had completed her model with their direction, they as a group decided without being asked they decided to make a clay model together. They decided to make a plaque and decorate it with glitter and stars. The girl who could never complete anything to that point became very much involved and suggested that they are put their initials on the plaque.
The group had been quite separate up to the session we used the clay and I felt it was definitely instrumental in the bond in the group becoming closer and for moving them forward in the therapy. The client who found it difficult to decide what to do every week became much more confident and uninhibited when working with the clay. She put the clay all over her face (see photo below). She was enjoying the freedom of using the clay with no pressure to get it right or produce a perfect model. Another interesting observation I made was when one of the girls in the group made an ashtray for her father she spoke to the group of how she was very worried he would die if he didn’t stop smoking. These revelations led to another member of the group opening up about her fears for her mother who also smokes see photo below it is the clay model at the front. I felt this was certainly true with this particular group I had.
Using clay as a metaphor
Using clay to create metaphorical meaning can directly progress a client’s therapy. As mentioned earlier clay allows a client to access to their unconscious. If a client can tap into their unconscious they can begin to face the underlying cause of their difficulties. Winner (1998) as cited in Henley (2002) says that metaphors are a more effective way of capturing meaning than talking. The use of metaphors allows for the exploration of client’s social and emotional difficulties without having to confront the issues directly or resort to negative criticism (Henley, 2002) by creating symbolic equivalents to their thoughts feelings and behaviours. Working with metaphor as a means of problem-solving is an enjoyable and fun way of confronting serious issues. The photo below shows one of my client’s clay representations of how he sees his mother. He sees as her as a snake. It wasn’t a negative thing as the snake can represent protection and transformation. Henley (2002) states the in order to use clay as a suitable therapeutic medium it is important that the child has some ability in to think abstractly. Thus he believes that using this medium is most suitable for children over the age of 6. He believes that younger children may enjoy using the clay they would not necessary to benefit from it therapeutically.
This blog post explored some of the therapeutic benefits of using clay in play therapy. I have discovered that it undoubtedly helps a play therapy client express their emotions and this is due to the tactile nature of the clay. It is this mode of primal communication (touching) that helps emotions such as anger, greed, and grief be expressed in the clay. Using clay therapeutically allows you to grab an emotion and look at it in the face, touch it, shape it and feel it. It makes the intangible touchable. From my research and my own personal experience, I have concluded that clay is extremely cathartic as clients have a strong emotional experience working with the clay. Due it is to its ability to be three dimensional, it can represent real-life objects. It can lead to regression and according to Henley (2002) regression that occurs through clay work leads to a cathartic release. It is powerful and penetrating and it enables an enormous release and transformation without the client having to talk about what is going on. However, the use of clay can tap into the unconscious mind and a therapeutic conversation about the visible product with the client can unlock the hidden memories. I have also seen how clay can act as a catalyst in encouraging group interaction and it helps with self-esteem and self-confidence. It also helps clients develop their social skills and helps the group members to support one another. It also can be instrumental in developing empathy. I feel that clay work that is symbolic or metaphoric can facilitate verbal communication and encourage people to speak about matters they wouldn’t have normally disclosed. Additionally, I think because of the need to focus on the clay when one manipulates clay can led to improved concentration.
I have a chapter about clay play therapy in the book below:
Axline, V. (1947). Play Therapy: The inner dynamics of childhood. Cambridge: MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Axline, V. (1969). Play Therapy. New York: Ballantine Books.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss (vol. 1). Hammondsworth: Penguin.
Cattanach, A. (1993). Process in Art Therapy. London: Jessica Kingsley Publications.
Freud, S. (2006). The Interpretation of Dreams. London: Penguin Group.
Henley, D. (1996). Clayworks in Art Therapy: Plying the Sacred Circle. London: Jessica Kingsley Publications.
Landreth, G. (2002 ). Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship. New York: Routledge.
Oaklander, V. (1978). Windows to Our Children. New York: The centre for Gestalt Development Inc.
Schaffer, C. & Kadoun, H. (Eds) (2006)Contemporary Play Therapy. New York: Guildford Press.
Sherwood, P. (2010). The Healing Art of Clay Therapy. Melbourne: Acer Press.
Sholt, M. & Gavron, T. (2006). Therapeutic Qualities of Clay-work in Art Therapy and Psychotherapy: A Review. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 23 (2) pp.66-72. AATA, Inc.
Souter-Anderson (2010) Touching Clay, Touching What? Dorset: Archive Publishing.
Sunderland, M. (2003). Using Storytelling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children. Oxon: Speechmark Publishing Ltd.