Young children get lots of manipulative practice when they squeeze, roll, pinch, and pound clay. They gain more control over hand and arm movements and improve their coordination. Children often incorporate music into their play as they rhythmically repeat their movements -- "pound-pound-pound, pound-pound-pound!"
When a group of children tries to connect all of their clay coils together to form "the longest alligator in the whole wide world," they're learning to cooperate with one another. Even when children play independently, they often like to share their ideas and experiences with you or other children in the group. Creating with clay also inspires dramatic play. Social conversations occur as two "customers" sip tea from clay cups and pretend to munch on plasticene cookies.
Because of the very responsive nature of clay, it's a natural outlet for children to express their emotions. Children who are feeling angry can relieve their tensions by pounding the substance, pulling it apart, and slamming it back together. If preschoolers feel frustrated, they can squeeze the clay together and use their hands to control what they want it to do. Manipulating clay is a wonderful way for nonverbal children to release their emotions. Older children may deal with their feelings by creating clay objects and using them to act out scenarios and talk about problem situations. Children gain self-esteem as they express themselves through tactile experiences.
Children sharpen their problem-solving skills as they figure out how to divide their dough in order to make a hamburger and a hot dog. Older children learn to distinguish size, shape, and space, as well as to classify representational items as they create more specific objects. Messy play also stimulates language development. Children listen to the sounds they make as their fingers squish the clay, read recipe charts for making play dough, talk about the "green pickles" they just rolled out, and write letters by placing plasticene lines together.