Doughn’t Worry, Be Happy

Professor Worm mixes a satisfying green color.

Professor Worm mixes a satisfying green color.

A Pinterest find for Cloud Dough inspires an activity for this week. Anticipating that some of my group may just want to play with the dough and not mix it themselves, I prep some at home. I find that the blogger was right, the consistency of the conditioner dictated a need for more corn starch than she said (one part conditioner to two parts corn starch in her recipe). What I make is a sticky, drippy mess, difficult to get off my hands and something that I think my students will love for the most part, but also something that will be super messy and not easy to clean up quickly. In the world of preschoolers, quick transitions are a necessary thing so a sticky mess isn’t ideal (I know you’re shocked to hear me say this, and, it’s true, sometimes.) So, I add more corn flour and I knead and knead and knead. When we revisit the dough I made on the day of this activity, the dough is crumbly, too dry and not satisfying to play with because unless it is warmed in the hand, it won’t stay together.

I chalk this up as another notch in the collection of failed dough recipes that I have been collecting for years. Every single one has its issues. I’ve never found a dough I was ecstatic about and it’s not for lack of trying. On this particular day, the children explored the dough I had brought. They crumbled it, stirred it in a bowl and talked all the while about what they noticed, what they thought and all of the other lovely, random preschool thoughts that came up.

Shine says, "we LIKE messes, don't we!?"

Shine says, “we LIKE messes, don’t we!?”

The children and I decide to make some new dough. I tell them they can choose one color for their dough because I was thinking that we would end up with three or four lumps of different colors in the end. I tell them it will be messy and that it might not work. “That’s okay, we wanna see it and make some ourselves, right guys?” Shine says as the three friends watch me set the ingredients on the table in front of them.

Lightening choose purple, then decides she actually wanted pink so called the purple dough pink and all was right.

Lightening choose purple, then decides she actually wanted pink so called the purple dough pink and all was right.

We mix and stir and then add color. Once it’s a sticky mess in the bowls, we turn it out onto our mats and begin to knead in more corn starch. Shine’s dough comes out perfect-the ideal play dough. Her friends are making gooey messes and loving it. The children start to want to add more colors to their dough and begin negotiating trades of lumps of their color with their friends.

Dr. Kitty's was the first to turn out like actual play dough. It didn't last.

Dr. Kitty’s was the first to turn out like actual play dough. It didn’t last.

This is when the seriously excellent though potentially easy to miss work begins. Each child has a different consistency of dough/goo, along with different interests, different goals, and different thoughts or preferences about color mixing. One friend prefers for her colors not to mix. Another friend wants all the colors even though I tell her that will make it turn brown or gray so it won’t be pink like she wanted at first. As they play side by side, the children talk together and watch each other and begin asking for what their friends have. Rocket’s dough is very dry so I squirt more conditioner on it and tell him to mix it in to a chorus of other friends saying, “I want some of that white stuff too!” Professor Worm decides he wants his to be more green so asks for some yellow to be added to it. When Dr. Kitty’s dough gets too gooey, I sprinkle corn starch on her hands and it puffs into her face making her cough and another friend says, “are you okay?” It looks like a sensory activity, it is so much more than that!

This kind of activity is not for the faint of heart my friends, Rocket tends to flick his hands when he has gooey stuff on them so there are strings of dough goo flying into our eyes and onto the china cabinet behind him (we’re in a home, not a classroom, remember) and bits of dough fall on the floor daring us to track them into the carpet. Some children don’t care for the stickiness on their fingers so as a group we talk about ways to keep that from happening–this is problem solving at work!

While they push and knead at the dough, these kids build control over the small muscles in their hands. When they ask for a new color or for more of one of the materials, they practice conversational skills and social rules of speaking. Doing an open-ended activity like this helps children work on learning new vocabulary. As the children sit and talk about what they are doing, they practice the very basic skill of listening to each other. Observing the ways that the colors change as they are mixed build scientific understanding and creative problem solving. The ability to watch peers and apply what we see to our own play is a skill that shows up big time in an activity such as this. Measuring our own ingredients and using real spoons and bowls teaches children to use tools properly, builds pre-math understanding and helps them know that their work is important and valuable.

No matter the kind of dough or what the children do with it or whether the teacher feels it was a successful activity, learning is happening. No matter the size of the mess, the worth of dough play is great. Let my students be your teachers…doughn’t worry, be happy now!