Forming Shapes with our Bodies and Clay

Lesson Plan


Students will investigate the nature of clay and the different ways that it can be molded. Students will discover how the malleability of clay can change, and they will create a simple design on a hardened form of clay.

Intended Age Group

Early childhood (ages 3-5)

Length of Lesson

Two 30 minute lessons

Standards Area

Visual Arts


Students will be able to:

  • describe the characteristics of clay;
  • create different kinds of shapes using clay;
  • explain that the malleability of clay can change; and
  • create a simple design on a form of hardened clay.


Day 1

  1. Warm-up: Encourage children to make as many different shapes with their bodies as they can. Can they form their entire body or part of their body into a circle? A triangle? A square? How about a squiggly line?
  2. Give each child a fist-sized amount of air hardening clay. Allow children to explore the clay for a few moments, then ask: How does it feel? What different kinds of shapes can you make with the clay? Can you roll it into a ball? Can you make a flat circle? Can you make a flat triangle? How about a bowl shape? Have students form the clay into one of their favorite shapes.
  3. Ask the children what they think might happen if they left their clay shapes out overnight. Do they think it will still feel the same tomorrow? How might it be the same or different?
  4. Display the image of Maria and Julian Martinez’s Plate and tell the children that it is made out of clay, just like the clay that they just played with.
  5. Ask the children what shape they see. Did any of them make a circle with their clay?
  6. Ask the class what kind of animal they see on the Plate (serpent or snake). How would the animal move? Have the children demonstrate with their bodies.
  7. Collect the children’s clay shapes and let the clay dry overnight.

Day 2

  1. Display Maria and Julian Martinez’s Plate for the students to see. Ask them: Do you think this plate is hard or squishy? Are the plates you eat off hard or squishy? What might it be like to eat off a squishy plate?
  2. Allow the class to discover that overnight, their clay shapes hardened! Just like the clay used to make the Martinezplate, their clay shapes have gone from squishy to hard. Have paint, paintbrushes, and aprons or t-shirts ready for the children to decorate their clay creations. Encourage them to paint their favorite animal (like the serpent on Maria and Julian Martinez’s Plate) or other favorite shapes onto their clay figures.


  • Small amount of clay for each child
  • Paints for clay
  • Paintbrushes
  • A paint apron or t-shirt for each child
  • Newspaper to cover surfaces where children will be painting
  • Rags and water dishes to rinse brushes
  • About the Art section on Maria and Julian Martinez’s Plate (included with the lesson plan)
  • One color copy of the plate for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening

21st Century Skills

  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art



About 1925

Maria and Julian Martinez, San Ildefonso Pueblo

Who Made It?

Maria Martinez is probably the most famous American Indian artist of the twentieth century. She was born in the late 1870s and produced pottery for over eighty-five years until her death in 1980. She learned the art of pottery-making from her aunt, Nicolasa Peña. Maria and her husband Julian created the first black-on-black pottery, of which this plate is an example, in the early 1900s. In Pueblo tradition women shaped and polished the pots, while men were responsible for painting the surface with designs. Maria and Julian worked within this convention.

Maria and Julian lived in San Ildefonso [ILL-day-FON-so] Pueblo, near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their innovative methods and designs shaped a new tradition for San Ildefonso pottery and influenced many artists both within and outside the American Indian community. The black-on-black pottery was so popular with collectors that Maria began teaching the firing technique to others, and by the mid 1920s nearly all San Ildefonso potters were making black ware. Maria also shared her skills with her children and grandchildren, and many of her descendents carry on her legacy today through their own pottery.

What Inspired It?

Maria and Julian began producing black pottery after an archaeologist asked them to recreate whole pots based on pieces of pottery that were found in the ruins of ancestral Pueblo homes. The couple experimented with various methods of firing the pottery and eventually achieved the black color by blocking oxygen from the pottery as it was fired. After discovering this technique, Maria and Julian continued to improve upon their pottery. Maria became extremely skilled at creating beautiful forms and achieving a smooth, glossy surface. Julian painted designs on the pottery after it was polished. He used a fine clay slip (a mixture of clay and water), which resulted in matte areas that provided a contrast to the highly polished background. In the beginning Maria was quite skeptical that black pottery was a part of her heritage. Until she finally acquiesced, she hid pottery she and Julian were making underneath the bed.

Drawing upon their heritage, Maria and Julian decorated their pottery with traditional Tewa [TAY-wah] designs. The design on this plate is an avanyu [ah-VON-you], a horned water serpent. The jagged line that comes out of the serpent’s mouth represents lightning, and the curves of its body symbolize flowing water. According to Santana, Maria and Julian’s daughter-in-law, Julian was the first painter at San Ildefonso Pueblo to use the avanyu decoration. “I think he got it from paintings on old pottery from the ruins,” she says. “Julian was a real artist, a real painter. He used to fill little notebooks with ideas for designs—he carried it wherever he went.”



Maria and Julian produced their first black-on-black decorated piece in 1919. This technique brought the couple worldwide acclaim, though they had been producing pottery for years prior to this time. The pottery is buried in ash during the firing process to keep out oxygen, causing the clay to turn black rather than red. Maria was once quoted as saying, “Black goes with everything.”

Shiny Surface
Shiny Surface

In order to achieve the glossy surface you see here, the pottery is first burnished with a stone to a high polish. This occurs before the piece dries completely, prior to firing. There is no glaze used in this process. Maria is admired for the mirror-like surface she could achieve using a stone to burnish the clay.

Matte Black
Matte Black

Designs are painted onto the polished surface of the piece with a fine clay slip, creating matte areas that contrast the shiny surface. Julian used the same clay that was used to make the plate to paint the matte design.


Maria made all of her pottery by hand, without the aid of a potter’s wheel. To smooth and shape pottery she used a scraper made out of a gourd. The smooth forms and shiny surfaces that she could achieve by hand are a testament to her incredible skill as a potter.

Serpent Design
Serpent Design

Julian painted the avanyu design on many of the couple’s pieces.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.