Since this is a blog devoted to paper mache, what I’m about to say may seem like blasphemy–I’m going to suggest that paper mache may not be the best craft material for very young children. First, I’ll tell you why I think that’s true, and then I’ll tell you why I think paper clay is a better alternative.
I realize that traditional paper mache, (strips of paper with a paste made with flour and water), does has two very positive points in it’s favor: it’s really cheap, and it’s wonderfully messy.
But I think there are also reasons why it’s not the easiest or most intuitive craft material for very young kids. First of all, paper mache needs to be layered around some kind of form. Balloons are often used for this purpose, but they’re difficult to handle, (they slide around and jump off the table), and you can only make something that is shaped like a balloon.
Also, traditional paper mache needs several layers to make it strong enough, and the second, third and fourth layers of paper strips can get a bit boring for young attention spans. (OK, I admit it – I get a bit bored after the first few layers myself).
Some preschool and kindergarten teachers have asked if my paper mache clay recipe would be a good alternative for toddlers and kindergartners, and my answer is always “no.” This home-made “clay” is made from products normally used in the construction industry, and the hardware store is not a place where you’re likely to find child-safe materials with a non-toxic rating. The clay was developed to replace traditional paper mache, but it should be used only by artists who are old enough and mature enough to know they can’t eat the stuff. It looks a lot like cookie dough, so it would be perfectly natural for a young child to sneak a taste when teacher isn’t looking. (I don’t recommend using wall-paper paste with paper strips for this age group, for the same reason.)
Plus, the paper mache clay still needs an armature, just like paper strips and paste, because it won’t stand up on it’s own. It can be spread over a found object, but that has the same problems as I discussed before. And although it’s fairly easy for an older child or adult to spread the clay onto an armature with a table knife, this does take a little more manual dexterity than very young children might have – and that can be frustrating instead of fun.
Since all types of paper mache require an inner form, the actual sculpting is done before you begin using the paper mache itself. The sculpting is the fun part, and I make all my armatures with crumpled paper and masking tape, because it can be formed into any shape you want. I highly recommend that method to all my older readers – but I do admit that it isn’t very intuitive, and managing the paper and tape can be a real challenge for small fingers.
Give a child a piece of paper, and they don’t immediately think to start crumpling and squishing it to make an elephant or a cat.
But give them a lump of clay, and that’s exactly what they do.
And now I get (finally) to the point of this post: I suggest that paper clay is a better alternative sculptural material for very young children. You make it by mixing ordinary low-fire pottery clay with recycled paper pulp.
There are a number of commercial products with very similar names, so I want to be clear that I’m talking about ordinary pottery clay that has paper pulp mixed into it. A 25 pound bag of clay costs about $25 – $30, if you can find it at a local pottery supply store (shipping is expensive, of course). Many pottery stores sell clay that has paper in it, so ask for it as “paper clay.” 25 pounds of clay, with paper pulp added to it, will make a lot of small, child-sized projects.
Or mix your own:
Paper clay can be made with any sort of recycled paper, although it might be fun to use colored construction paper if you use a white clay that lets the bits of paper show through.
- The clay does not need an armature like paper mache, because it can stand up on it’s own.
- Small children will enjoy playing with the clay and forming it into little animals and people — it’s as intuitive as making mud pies.
- The clay dries quite hard without being fired. The finished pieces won’t be as durable as fired pottery, of course, but they hold up surprisingly well unless there are long skinny pieces, like tails, that could break off.
- When the pieces dry they can be painted with water-based paint.
Although it does dry with less cracking than most pottery clays, if the item is quite thick, the clay might still crack as it dries. For smaller objects, this shouldn’t matter.
I found a very good description of the process of how to make paper clay here.
You would need to make up your clay at least a day before your young students start their projects. If you use a red clay with a high iron content, the clay might stain clothing, so the kids should wear old t-shirts on their project day. White clay will not stain. Clean-up is easy (lots easier than cleaning up spilled paper mache paste after it’s dried onto the floor).
The little pinch sculptures the kids make will take several days to dry completely, and once they’re dry, the little artists can paint them with water-based paints. Dry the pieces again at least overnight. If you want to go one step farther, teacher might want to give the pieces a final protective finish of acrylic varnish. You’ll be quite surprised by how well these little sculptures will hold up without being fired.
So there you have it – my recommendation for an easier, more intuitive alternative to paper mache for very young artists. Let me know what you think — your comments are always helpful.