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Playdough Teaches Kids to Get Creative (And Why That’s So Darn Hard)

October 7, 2011

From the Field

One of the reasons The SOLD Project invested in a Resource Center was to provide an alternative support system to the local schools, in an attempt to supplement what education the kids receive in the schools – an education that often leaves much to be desired.

In a system that places high value on deference to authority, to memorizing facts rather than encouraging creative thinking or logic and analysis, and that often resorts to teaching via video rather than live teachers, one of the first things children lose in school is their natural sense of imagination.

As the Freedom Project’s Education Program Manager, I have tried to build writing and drawing classes geared towards having the children re-learn how to engage with the world around them. Instead of listening to me tell them how the world is, I encourage them to observe with their own eyes, and then to translate that onto the page.

I started working with the older kids. But then younger and younger kids started showing up to the drawing classes. The art classes focused on fine art skills like linear perspective, working on tones and dimensionality, and drawing from life. But that soon became too difficult for the younger ones. And these children are not taught to ask questions because asking questions implies the teacher is not teaching well.

So instead of asking me for help when they aren’t sure what to do, many stare off into space. Likewise, in the writing classes, a common complaint I hear is “kit mai awg!” Or, the thoughts don’t come out.

Recently I decided to try an experiment in imagination. I wanted the kids to rediscover the power they have right there inside their own heads, to stop worrying about whether what they were doing was right or wrong, and to just find the courage to try…something. Anything. I needed a baseline to work from, a foundation upon which we could build.

So I made playdough. I made playdough in bright pink, violet, orange, blue, teal and green, and I gave it to the kids and left them to their own devices and just watched to see what they came up with. When it comes to playdough, I believe kids know what to do, given time and space. Creativity is in there. You just need to give them room to play.

It was tough going at first. I showed them you could mold the stuff and, unsure of themselves, they spent the first little while tossing the balls of dough up and down, flattening it into rounds to toss back and forth in their hands, getting the feel of it as they pulled off little pieces and rolled them into balls. There may or may not have been a moment of panic where I thought that might be all that they’d do.

And then they started to have fun.

They traded observations on what you could do with the stuff, and started to poke and prod and push and pull at the material.

Uneasiness soon melted into laughter and conversation, and soon a pile of little dough creatures started to emerge.

There were flowers and fruit, trees and caterpillars, smiley faces and hearts.

And as the creatures began to emerge, so did personality.

The kids were having fun, all the while not realizing they were doing with playdough exactly what I’d been trying to get them to do on paper. It was something I knew they could happen upon in their photography, but that I hoped practice in a variety of media could teach them to harness and control. They were taking pieces of their world, from plants and animals to thoughts and feelings, and translating it into something they created all on their own. For the first time, they didn’t copy each other, but began to express themselves.

By Jade Keller, SOLD’s Education Manager

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2011 11:19 am

    Jade – beautiful. Well done!

  2. October 7, 2011 12:02 pm

    I use play dough with my Kindergarteners all the time for fine motor development. I never thought about it as an expression of creativity – but even for 5 year olds it is. Now that I think about it they make pancakes and pizzas and all sorts of creations using their imagination. Fun!

  3. October 7, 2011 12:39 pm

    How truly wonderful!! I personally love the caterpillar and the cookie monster-ish one at the end.

  4. Linda permalink
    October 7, 2011 8:08 pm

    You are so wise. And you are going to be a wonderful mom. This is the essence of it.

  5. October 9, 2011 8:10 am

    Jade, you have my dream job! It’s so exciting to see what you’re doing with these precious children.

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