Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dwelling in the Magic Kingdom of Playdough

It's the middle of August and we're nearing the end of Term Three. This is significant because of the Secondary Entrance Exams (SEE) which will take place in early October, shortly after Term 4 begins, and are the END ALL AND BE ALL in the Tongan Education system. Class Six students basically chart their future for life with the scores they receive on these tests. Class Six teachers and students are in an absolute FRENZY of preparation--giving and taking exams/sivi every single day from 7:00 a.m., when the school day begins, until 5:00 p.m., when it ends.

My part in the preparations? I decided to make playdough.

As a lifelong educator, I am keenly aware of the value of playdough as an instructional tool. I have used playdough with learners of all ages, from preschoolers to adults and am certain that it contains not only flour, salt, and water, but a healthy dose of magic, as well. I recently had an opportunity to introduce the Tongan education system to the magic of playdough.

A week or so ago, I was informed that my “program” for the following day would have to be cancelled due to the fact that the Class Six students would be away from school for the entire day on a field trip (this is my terminology, the Tongans don’t really have a word for field trip). After much more enquiry on my part, I discovered that the students would be participating in a daylong celebration of culture, Kava Kuo Heka (Literally, this means kava, the national drink made from the root of the pepper plant, now and always rides), sponsored by the Ministry of Education. The celebration was to include demonstrations of traditional crafts, talks, video presentations, and an art show. I decided to tag along.

The day of the field trip, I was again reminded that, “You’re not in Kansas, any more, Toto.” The boys all assembled at the given time and marched off up the street, a trek of about a mile. I began to ready myself for departure, but when I looked outside, I noticed that all the Class Six girls were still playing on the playground. When I asked what was going on, I was informed that it was too far for the girls to walk so transport was arranged using one of the Class Six teacher’s vehicles, a small Toyota-style pick-up. The pick-up pulled onto the playground, about 20 girls piled into the back, and the teacher drove off, emptied the pick-up at the destination, and then returned for another load. I decided to walk.

Once at the convention center, the children, teachers, and I were treated to an incredible display of art by Tongan artists. The display included wood carvings, clay bowls, glass sculptures, paintings, stone and wooden sculptures, clothing made from bark cloth, fiber arts, photography, tapa (bark) cloth, weavings, and even a demonstration by a tattoo artist (a traditional art form that was stamped out of existence by the missionaries). The various artists served as docents, patiently describing the plethora of art to small groups of children. I was enthralled.

As I observed the children’s awe and wonder, I became convinced that it was important for them to have an opportunity to respond to this experience in some authentic and meaningful way. I began taking a mental inventory of my stash of art supplies—nope, I didn’t have anything in a large enough quantity to meet the demand of over 120 students. Financially, I just couldn’t afford to purchase paints or paint brushes. I didn’t know of any reasonable source for art materials. Finally, the idea of playdough came to mind. One of the docents had introduced the children to the word and concept of sculpture, shaping or molding a media into a form/figure. Playdough would provide them with an opportunity to mold, shape, and physically experience the material, while allowing them to have a creative experience, trying on the idea of being an artist.

The next day, armed with flour/mahoa’a and salt/masima, bowls, measuring cups, and a recipe for uncooked playdough I had received from a Peace Corps colleague, I took the plunge. Remember, Tongan students are not EVER allowed to explore or experiment with materials. Every aspect of the curriculum and each school day is carefully scripted. The students are seldom allowed out of their assigned seats and are never encouraged to express themselves creatively. In this kind of setting, it is a bit daunting to introduce a full-on “messy art” activity; the results could be disastrous. But, that’s never stopped me before.

I set the stage, eliciting from them responses to the art gallery visit. I asked them for their favorite pieces of art, recalling some of the terms introduced by the docents. We created a list of the images they had seen depicted in art, including the ancient pagan Tongan gods, war clubs, the Ha’amonga, a trillithon (stone structure) located on the main island, and even the Tu’i Malila, a Madagascan turtle that had been a gift to the first Tu’i Tonga (now stuffed and displayed in a glass case).

I then divided each class into groups, gave each group the required materials needed to make playdough, and had them set to work. The only rule: the flour must stay INSIDE the bowl. The students mixed their dough with great care and seriousness. Some groups ended up with dough that was a bit too sticky. No problem, just add a bit more flour. Once the dough was mixed, I told them to count the number of people in their group and divide the dough evenly amongst the members. Some groups did better than others at this task…but I was committed to providing them with a real world application of the math concept of fractions as equal parts of the whole.
Once each child had his/her own lump of clay/dough, the work of creative expression began. During this time, I emphasized the importance of the process, working with the material, and experimenting with various shapes/techniques. I also emphasized the individuality of creative expression.

As our class time drew to a close, I provided each child with a “base” (piece of cardboard) to mount his/her piece of art. I asked each child to put his/her name on the base, along with the title for the piece of art. I then had them carry their pieces of art to the library, which was transformed into an art gallery, exhibiting GPS Nuku’alofa students’ work.

There are days when, as an educator, you just know deep down in your soul that you’ve done a good thing. This was one of those days. Feeling pretty good about myself, I left school on Friday afternoon, looking forward to a long weekend.

Do you know what happens to playdough in a humid, tropical environment? Well, I didn’t either. When I returned on Monday, after a rainy three day weekend, I found the playdough sculptures sagging, melting, and seeping into the bookshelves and display cases. Evidently, since playdough contains so much salt, it soaks up moisture from the environment, resulting in a soggy, doughy, gooey mess. Hmmm, what to do?

I know what the Tongan teachers would have done…because several of them suggested that I dump the blobs of goo in the garbage. But, again, I’m committed to providing the children with opportunities for choice and decision making. And, since the pieces of art were the children’s own creations, shouldn’t they be allowed to determine what happens to their art? So, for the past week, I have invited the children into the “gallery” in groups of two or three, explained to them what happens to sculptures made of clay/playdough in humid environments, and allowed them to make the choice: garbage or squish up the goo into a ball, add some more flour, and return to the drawing board…or pottery wheel, as the case may be. So far, they have all chosen to retain ownership… providing for more creative expression. I noticed a few of the more athletic boys experimenting with the dough’s adhesive capacity as they threw it against the cement block walls of the school. Some of the girls achieved vibrantly colored dough by using the ink in their pens as coloring agents, infusing the playdough with indigo blue, inky black, emerald green, or cardinal red.

I have also discovered that the dough is everywhere. Class One children show up in the library carrying their treasured lumps of dough. Class Five girls are making batches of playdough at home, bringing it to school to share with their friends. Class Four children are making pen holders out of playdough. That’s the thing about magic—it’s contagious.


  1. What a great idea Kathy..sounds like you had a lot of fun. I also agree that there isn't much opportunity for creativity in the schools it seems so, as the Aussies say "good on you".