Children begin modeling on their own early on in toddlerhood as a natural part of exploring the world. Toddlers love to move and manipulate objects – stack blocks, dump baskets, hide toys. And when they get a material in their hands that changes form with manipulation – squishing food, scooping sand, patting mud pies – that’s modeling! What an amazing thing, to discover the potential of the hands.
Preschool-aged children will play endlessly with simple modeling materials – think playdough, sand-and-water play, rolling and cutting cookie shapes, and painting with their fingers. These games begin to take on an imaginative quality as well – the child becomes a baker or a destructive monster perhaps.
Sometime in the kindergarten years, children develop an interest in forming an image that they have in their mind. All great toys are used for this creative purpose, craft materials are very useful at this age, and modeling materials are especially wonderful for learning to manipulate a substance into a form. The children’s imaginations are far more developed than the skills of their hands so making even very simple forms can go a long way.
And then with steady practice in the grades, those hand skills improve and modeling becomes an art form. Waldorf education has a strong focus on the arts for all grades and ages, not just as a separate subject but as a powerful vehicle for teaching in every subject. Jean Miller at Waldorf-inspired learning has a wonderful article about the Seven Lively Arts here.
Modeling in kindergarten can have a broad definition – and I think it’s the very best kind of “handwork” for young children.
Shaping a malleable substance with the hands
Experiencing fundamental creativity and what it means to be a human being
An ancient art form
An essential part of child’s play from a very early age
Training for the amazing hands with their very sensitive and capable muscles
Rich sensory experience and exploration
A beautiful intersection of imaginative play, art, and story
….So would you like to give it a try?
Tips for pleasant modeling:
1. Kindergarten is a wonderful time for process-oriented learning (not product-oriented). This is a time for exploration, sensory experience, open-ended creativity, and free imaginative play. Skill-building and lessons can wait.
2. Young children learn through imitation. It’s great to model alongside them – just keep it low-pressure by making very simple shapes. Otherwise you run the risk of becoming an on-demand beeswax model-making factory while your child just sits there issuing commands. (Consider yourself forewarned.)
3. Enjoy the sensory experience of modeling – begin by exploring the material without making anything in particular. Be open to changes and surprises if what you’re making is different from what you imagined.
Wonderful modeling materials for young children (from toddlerhood through first grade and beyond):
sand and water
dirt and mud
wool (yes, definitely!)
beeswax modeling clay
Many parents have heard about beeswax modeling clay but they aren’t sure what to do with it (or if it’s worth the expense) – or they’ve tried it and found it frustrating to work with. Waldorf schools use beeswax for modeling and main lesson work from nursery age through third grade and it’s the medium of choice for schools for many reasons: It’s beautiful, natural, a wonderful sensory experience (it smells delicious, feels wonderful, and the colors are gorgeous), it absorbs warmth from the body, it keeps its shape when it cools, it can be rewarmed and reworked for years, and it’s an excellent will-building activity. Ok – but does it make sense for you to use it at home?
Well, I don’t believe in following any codified school plan in my homeschool, but I do believe in surrounding my little ones with beauty and warmth, trying new things with an open mind, and working towards understanding. Beeswax was not an instant hit for me but we all love working with it now and here’s why:
1. What I thought was a really expensive item turned out not to be because we’ve been using the same pack for over three years now – so let’s see, I spent about $8 per year on a material that we’ve used at least once a week in preschool, kindy, and first grade and will continue to use.
2. It really is beautiful and so lovely to work with – if you follow some basic steps (read on!)
3. Beeswax modeling is a will-building activity – and so is learning new things as a homeschooling mama. I don’t always want to build my will, but then I’m always glad I did. This is getting off-topic. Let’s get back to modeling….
Tips for working with beeswax:
A friend of mine tells her daughter, “Tea teaches us patience.” I think you could say the same thing about beeswax. It requires more focus, will, and warmth than other modeling materials, but it can be very enjoyable if you approach it with joy and wonder.
1. Start by giving your child one small warm piece of wax at a time. Work with one color at a time.
2. You might like to pre-warm the wax by setting it in a warm spot (like a radiator or direct sunlight) or putting it in a plastic baggie and letting it sit in a bowl of hot water. You can keep warmed-up wax warm in your armpit or bra (and then you’re diehard Waldorf – congratulations!).
3. Let your child hold a piece of wax in her hands while you tell a story. See what shapes naturally arise as you tell the story.
4. Start as simply as possible. After you and your child are very comfortable playing with beeswax modeling clay and shaping it, then you might like to start making some simple forms from nature or a story such as apples, vegetables, a basket, a bear’s cave, or a toadstool.
5. When you’re done, return the wax to the shape of small disks about the size of a half dollar – this will make it easier to warm up and work with next time. (Balls take longer to warm up because they have less surface area).
6. Sometimes you might want to keep creations in a storytelling play basket or for display on the nature table.
7. Keep it light in kindergarten. Some children might find working with beeswax too intense and that’s ok. Make sure they have opportunities to play in the sandbox, knead dough in the kitchen, and play with playdough.
8. Modeling could be part of your weekly rhythm, or available for everyday playtime. Beeswax is also a wonderful take-with-you activity. Your children might love to hold it in their hands during a story, in the car, during rest/quiet time, while you read a picture book, while waiting at the dentist’s office…..and watch what beautiful forms emerge!
I would love to hear from you! What modeling materials does your child love to play with? Have you tried beeswax? What do you love most and struggle with the most? Share with us in the comments below!