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Introduce sculpture–and build math skills


When you hear the word , what image do you see? Maybe you think of the Statue of Liberty or Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Or maybe you think of the statue of a local historical figure in the town square.

Sculpture is all around us. We see it outdoors on the grounds of libraries, museums, and colleges as well as in gardens and cemeteries. We also see it indoors in art museums, government buildings, and homes.

Without realizing it, you probably have been introducing children to sculpture for as long as you have provided clay, block, and sand activities. Consider introducing sculpture in a more formal way, not only for its value as art but also to help children build a foundation in math.


What is sculpture?
The distinguishing feature of sculpture is that it’s . That means it occupies space in three dimensions: and . As British playwright Tom Stoppard has said, “If it hangs on a wall, it’s a painting, and if you can walk around it, it’s a sculpture.”

Much sculpture is or , which means it depicts something easily recognizable such as a person, an animal, or a familiar object. But sculpture can also be , consisting of geometric shapes, designs, or patterns. One example is “The Kiss” by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

Brancusi went so far as to include architecture in the sculpture category, calling it “inhabited sculpture.” Architecture has been classed as art for centuries. It’s routinely included in art appreciation courses, and many great architects have also been painters and sculptors. Among the most famous was Michelangelo, who sculpted the famous “Pieta,” served for a time as architect of the Sistine Chapel, and painted “The Creation of Adam” on its ceiling.

Some modern architecture appears to be sculpture on a grand scale. Consider the whimsical shapes in Barcelona’s Park Guell designed by Antoni Gaudy and the curved walls of the Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Frank Ghery.

Like buildings, sculpture can be created from a wide array of materials, including stone, metal, wood, cement, and glass. But unlike buildings, sculpture can also be made from clay, plaster, wax, plastic, and sand. Most sculpture is meant to be permanent, but other sculpture—that made of ice, for example—is not. Sculpture can also be made from natural materials such as sea shells and pine cones as well as found objects such as aluminum cans, wood scraps, buttons, and plastic tubing.

From that perspective, many early childhood learning activities—modeling with clay, creating papier-mâché, building with blocks, and making shapes in sand—can all be considered forms of sculpting.


Take a sculpture field trip
Begin your sculpture study by taking children on a field trip to see sculpture first-hand. Find a museum, library, or college with sculpture that children are allowed to touch and photograph.

Follow standard field trip procedures, such as obtaining written permission from parents, packing a bag of emergency supplies, making a list of children’s emergency contacts, and getting an adult volunteer to go along.


Here’s what you need:
photographs or postcards of sculpture, or a resource book such as by Francesca Romei (Peter Bedrick Books, 1995)
measuring tape or knotted string
pad and pencil


1. Before the field trip, show children the photographs. Introduce the words and . Explain what you are going to see.
2. During the field trip, talk about the sculpture. Discuss the person or animal depicted, if any, as well as color and material (marble, bronze). Talk about the sculptor and how the piece might have been made, such as by carving or welding. Use the tape or string to measure how tall, how wide, and how thick the sculpture is.
3. Show the photographs again and ask how a photograph of sculpture is different from the real thing. You might ask questions such as those below. Let children dictate their answers as you write them.
Which one is flat? Which one do we have to walk around to see it all?
How tall is the picture? How tall is the sculpture?
How wide is the picture? How wide is the sculpture from one side to the other? Note that the sculpture may have several different widths—the neck versus the chest, for example.
How thick is the picture? How thick is the sculpture? Note that the sculpture may have several different thicknesses.
4. Explain that the picture has two dimensions: and . The sculpture has three dimensions: , and or . Introduce the terms for two-dimensional and for three-dimensional.
5. Take a picture of the children with the sculpture.
6. Back in the classroom, place the photographs in the math and manipulatives center. Add unbreakable figurines and other decorative objects along with measuring tape and string so children can explore on their own.
7. Invite children to make their own sculpture with dough clay at the art table.

Variations: If you can’t take a field trip, invite a local artist to bring a piece of sculpture to your classroom and talk about it. Or take a walk around your neighborhood and point out yard art, such as cement birdbaths, gazing balls, and resin frogs, for example.


Getting started with clay
Dough clay is the standard in preschools because it’s safe for children, inexpensive—especially if you make it yourself—and cleans up easily. Dough clay is usually meant to be re-used, but some types can be air-dried or baked.

Other types of modeling clay are commercially available for artists and crafters. Art clay is used in elementary and high school art classes, and an earth-based type is used for making ceramics and pottery. Plasticine, a soft, oil-based clay that neither hardens nor dries, is used in making figures for animated films such as .

Many preschoolers will enjoy the simple pleasure of mixing, shaping, and reshaping clay. Most will come up with their own ideas for play, and they need plenty of free time to learn what they can do with it.

As children become accustomed to handling clay, you can gradually introduce some basic techniques that they can further develop into art objects and geometric shapes.

Sheet. Using a rolling pin, roll a lump of clay into a sheet like a pie crust. Provide plastic knives to cut out two-dimensional shapes, such as square tiles. Offer cookie cutters, jar lids, and kitchen utensils (potato masher, meat tenderizer tool) to make various shapes and designs.

Cord. Place a lump of clay between flattened hands and roll it back and forth to make a long cord or snake. The cord can be coiled into a bowl, pinched off to make an animal tail or tree trunk, or curled or braided into a pattern, for example.

Ball. Place a lump of clay between the hands and roll in a circular fashion. The ball can then be formed into a person’s head or body, a building dome, or an apple, for example.

Pancake. Make a ball first. Use a large lid or plastic plate to press the ball down to the table surface, until the clay is fully flattened. One pancake can be a wheel, and several pancakes stacked on top of each other can make a tower.

Cube. Make a ball first. Flatten the top and bottom and then the sides into a cube, ending up with six equal sides. In similar fashion, make a rectangle or pyramid.

Cup or bowl. Press both thumbs into the center of a ball. Use fingers to pinch, poke, and pull out the clay into a cup or bowl.


Sculpture activities
Use the activities below to provide children with hands-on experience with sculpture and math. Invite school-age children to use encyclopedias and a search engine like Google™ on the Internet to see images of sculpture created by the artists mentioned in the activities. Enter the name of the sculpture and its artist. One general resource is


Rock sculpture
Many artists create sculpture from stone. Jesus Morales, for example, creates large-scale sculptures of granite, such as “Lapstrake,” a 64-ton dual-column structure across from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Having children work with rocks provides a natural link to science.


Here’s what you need:
assortment of rocks
paper and fabric scraps (optional)
wood scraps or cork (optional)
wood or tile squares


1. Ask parents to help children collect small rocks from their yards or roadsides. Encourage them to look for an assortment of colors, sizes, shapes, and textures.
2. Invite children to create sculpture by gluing rocks on a wood or tile base. Children might choose to create a pattern, paint designs or faces on rocks, glue bits of paper or fabric to the rocks, or add wood scraps.