Art in the Early Years - Part 8: 3D (Three Dimensional)

A wide range of common EYFS experiences, from block play to clay to recycled materials, can offer children the chance to explore working creatively in three dimensions.

The three dimensions are commonly called length, width and depth. Working in three dimensions (3D) provides opportunities for young children to explore a range of materials, natural or made, both indoors or outside.

Children gain an understanding of shape, form and texture by handling a variety of materials. For very young children, sand and water play provides an appropriate introduction. Skills can be further developed through the use of dough and clay.

Children can also explore and develop ideas in relation to three-dimensional work through discussion and experimentation during many commonly offered experiences in the EYFS, such as:

  • imaginative play;
  • block play with hollow and solid wooden blocks;
  • building and constructing using larger materials such as boxes, crates and planks; and
  • creating models and structures using recycled materials.

Creating three-dimensional models and structures helps develop children's co-ordination, communication and collaboration.

It is important to surround young children with interesting 3D objects, both large and small, to stimulate ideas and develop their awareness of form and shape.


Modelling: Introducing young children to clay

'I have no problems with Play-Doh and similar modelling products as materials. However, gadgets like extruders, moulds, cookie cutters, or any design suggestions or pattern books take away original thinking, problem solving and creativity. Too often when it is modelling time in a pre-school ... the children rush over to the rolling pins and cookie cutters. If I want children to respond to clay in healthy creative ways, I first hide ... the gadgets and any tools that limit possibilities.'

Marvin Bartel, Emeritus Professor of Art, Goshen College, Indiana, USA

Form (shape in three dimensions) is a key element in visual art and practitioners should consider offering clay as a useful medium with which to explore this.

Clay is an extremely versatile material.

It provides children with the full 3D entitlement as it offers opportunities to mould, form and construct. Clay offers open-ended possibilities - there is no right or wrong way of using it and no end product in sight when manipulating it.

Very young children delight in its tactile and sensory properties. It is a very satisfying medium to manipulate, as the smallest of actions results in an immediate change. Children will enjoy poking, pressing, squeezing and rolling it.

Practitioners frequently offer 'play dough' as a choice for children in early-years settings and it has a place as an activity for the exploration of form. Consider offering the natural material clay at least as often as you offer play dough.

Whichever of these malleable materials you offer, before introducing equipment such as rollers, cutters and moulds, it is important to allow lots of time for children to use just their hands to touch and their other senses to experience more fully so they can:

  • explore the properties of the material;
  • find out what it does; and
  • discover what they can do with it.

Provide children with opportunities to manipulate and experiment with clay. Cover a table with sugar paper or a piece of hessian fabric, which soak up the excess moisture from the clay and make it easier for the children to handle.

Encourage the children to hold the clay, pushing, pulling and kneading it as they see fit. Introduce words that they can associate with manipulating the material, for example, 'pull', 'press', 'flatten', 'squeeze', 'squash', 'roll' and 'pinch'.

Encourage children to work with the clay in different states. For example, wrap some, freeze some, chill some in the fridge and dry some out in the sun; then comment on the differences.

Provide small pots of water and natural sponges so children can experiment with making the clay wetter and more malleable.

Once they have a good understanding of the properties and possibilities for clay, consider introducing:

  • objects such as buttons, straws and beads that can be pushed into the clay; and
  • different textured surfaces such as lace, textured card, bark and netting onto which children can roll the clay.


Three-dimensional activities should be offered both indoors and outside. Working outside provides the opportunity for children to work in 3D on a much larger scale than inside and provides highly valuable experiences to develop their understanding of depth, width and length.

Develop the learning environment so there are opportunities to:

  • work in 3D as well as 2D;
  • use a variety of materials for 3D model-making - for example, boxes, rope, clay, Plasticine, wooden and plastic blocks;
  • self-select materials for use in 3D construction; and
  • keep 3D models for a period so the children can enjoy them, refer to them or develop them further.

Provide opportunities outside to work together with large objects such as plastic crates, boxes, logs, twigs and branches, planks, rope, lengths of guttering and tyres and large pieces of fabric. Aim to have this range of easily accessible open-ended resources available on a daily basis if possible.

Easy access to a range of smaller materials and equipment such as fabric pieces, beads, small-world figures (people, cars and animals), decorative glass nuggets and natural materials such as shells, fir cones, pebbles, leaves and feathers will enable children to take their play in any direction they want it to go.


Provide opportunities for the children to:

  • experience a variety of malleable materials (clay, play dough, Plasticine, cooking dough);
  • build with mud and sand;
  • experiment using a variety of 3D materials (sticks, straw, wood, leaves);
  • explore and develop ideas for creating hanging sculptures - for example, by tying and threading materials such as strips of wood, shells, beads and leaves onto string or wool;
  • use a variety of tube structures (socks, tight legs, stockings, net tubes) and fill these with a material (newspaper, fabric, foam, wool) to create 3D forms (children can use these in imaginative play activities);
  • construct towers, bridges and tunnels, while talking about, and trying out, options as ideas develop using, for example, tyres, planks, rope, building blocks and cardboard boxes;
  • play, experiment with and describe the images seen in large mirrors and observe light passing through crystals and prisms. Record ideas, thoughts and feelings using a variety of media;
  • invent ideas for designing wind chimes using natural materials like strips of wood, shells and feathers;
  • explore the use of clay to create representations of faces and figures;
  • play with shadows. Use a projector to explore ideas for producing large and small shadow shapes and movements. Photograph or use a video camera to record them;
  • respond to the 'feel' of water; and
  • press, pinch and mark clay in response to the textured surfaces of shells, bark, and so on.


Here are some suggestions for introducing 3D art into some familiar experiences and commonly used themes.

Theme - Creatures and where they live

  • Experiment with a variety of 3D materials to make a home for a chosen creature indoors or outside. Use questioning to encourage imaginative thinking on the needs and likes or dislikes of the creature. This activity may also use weaving techniques (see Art in the Early Years - Textiles, Nursery World, 26 July).
  • Create an activity centre or amusement park for a chosen creature. Encourage group discussion, developing ideas and selecting suitable materials as the work progresses.
  • Use techniques such as pinching, pulling and rolling clay to form worms, snakes, or caterpillars, and 3D representations of other creatures.
  • Create a real or imagined creature using a sock as the basis and adding features such as eyes, wings or whiskers, and use it in imaginative play.
  • Decorate boxes with 'creature patterns' such as spots, blotches and stripes, experimenting with different materials and processes. Some children might like to use their individual boxes together to create a real or imagined group 'creature' and add eyes, ears and tails using selected materials.
  • Use natural materials to construct a real or imagined creature.

Theme - My environment

Starting from the natural and built environment in which your setting is situated:

  • Make individually or as a group, a garden or landscape.
  • Talk about and develop ideas for making a model garden or natural landscape for real or imagined people or creatures.
  • Use natural and made materials and objects to make a garden or landscape indoors or outside.
  • Discuss ideas and reasons for their choice of materials and construction, and photograph the outcomes.
  • Make building blocks or slabs from clay. Add textural details and use together to form a surface or structure.
  • Experiment with building structures from mud, sand and other natural materials.
  • Explore the use of a range of found, made and natural 3D materials to respond to buildings and structures observed or imagined.
  • Use existing structures such as poles, sticks, natural and made materials to construct dens indoors and outside.
  • Explore ideas for creating an interior environment inside a box.

Theme - All around me

Experiment with ice and water:

  • Make ice with children or buy bags of ice from a supermarket before the activity. To make the ice, you will need moulds, water, food colouring and a freezer.
  • Encourage the children to pour food colouring into the trays, add water and allow these to freeze.
  • Once the ice has frozen, remove from the moulds and allow the children to make ice shapes and piles of ice.
  • Encourage the children to observe what is happening to the ice and talk about the changes, puddle colours and shapes.
  • Talk about ideas for a water park and other uses for water. Encourage children to use different materials to move water around such as tubes, guttering, buckets and plastic containers. Photograph or video the process.

Extending block play

Provide a set of wooden blocks made of different shapes, which work together as a system. (Individual blocks that can be put together to make infinite arrangements.)

Although these can seem to be an expensive resource, they are a very worthwhile investment as they have limitless possibilities. They last for years as they are very hardwearing and virtually indestructible.

Introduce the children to the blocks, giving them plenty of time to become familiar with the shape of the blocks and what can be done with them. Then provide additional resources to support the play as children begin to extend their thoughts and ideas.

Provide opportunities for children to:

  • self-select a range of blocks for use in 3D model-making;
  • decorate their block creations with fabric and natural objects, such as pebbles;
  • make a drawing of the resulting creation; and
  • photograph the results.


  • Bartel, M, Clay and Kids: the natural way to learn. Available from First appeared in Studio Potter (June 2002).
  • Jenner F, Block play: A guide for Early Years Foundation Stage practitioners (Suffolk County Council 2010) From:
  • Suffolk County Council (2005) Art and Design in Suffolk Key Stages 1 & 2.
  • A scheme of work available in book and CD form from:


Wigwams Nursery in Ipswich visited the Orwell Bridge as part of a project on bridges. During the visit, staff recorded the children's comments and observations and noted their particular interests.

Afterwards, at the nursery, activities were arranged for the children based on these responses. They were given a large selection of balsa wood, with different lengths and widths and some clay too. They made a number of different bridges: some tall, some long and some that didn't stand up very well; this offered lots of opportunities for discussion, problem-solving and learning.

Large-scale equipment such as crates, logs and planks were provided outside and the children were given a long piece of shiny blue 'river' material. As a group, they assembled the materials and strategically positioned them around the garden to recreate the Orwell Bridge. This took most of the morning session as they discovered new and better ways to build their structure through experience and some negotiation. While the children made a number of other creations during the project, these 3D activities facilitated very active learning sessions with high levels of engagement, which particularly worked well for the boys.

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