At one point last year, I asked my students what color play dough they wanted to make. After a few rounds of run-off voting, they decided unanimously for rainbow. Of course.
So we made it. Or tried at least. We followed our usual recipe and when we got to the point where we added food coloring, we put in all the colors we had and stirred. The result was anything but rainbow, instead yielding a muddy brown. “It’ll turn rainbow once we cook it!” Several minutes of applied heat did result in a change, but rather than rainbow, we now had a shiny chocolatey brown. “It needs to cool! Then we’ll have rainbow!” Four hours later, the shiny, chocolatey brown play dough remained shiny and chocolatey.
All was not lost. Color aside, this was a great batch of play dough. It had the perfect blend of firmness and elasticity, the type that the kids can really get to work with. And though the color was not as expected, it still served a special purpose: one child, a dark skinned African-American marveled at how similar it looked to his complexion and cherished the opportunity to play with “Michael play dough*”.
After a few weeks, the shiny, chocolatey brown play dough slowly lost its play doughness and a new batch was called for. Again, I put the choice of color to the children. “Rainbow!”
“We can certainly try to make rainbow again. Should we try the same plan or a new plan?”
The agreed that a new plan was in order and set to work considering alternatives. A few brainstorming sessions later, we narrowed down the viable options to three: paint the brown play dough; make separate batches, each a different color, and mix after cooking; and making a single batch but adding the food coloring one at a time. Another round of voting led them to choose the separate batch method. And we were off!
A few hours later, we had four glorious lumps of play dough: red, green, blue, and yellow.
“Did it work?” I asked them.
“Silly, Mr. Kazzy. We haven’t mixed them yet! You have to mix the colors.”
And we did! And it worked! And just like that, a very determined group of preschoolers made rainbow play dough, a feat even their teacher presumed impossible.
I have the best job ever.
* If you walk the halls and classrooms of most schools, you’ll rarely see shades of brown or black used decoratively. You also might here teachers admonish children to use “pretty colors” in their drawings and to askew these supposedly unsavory ones. I recognize that this is often done in pursuit of a certain aesthetic, but people ought to consider the impact such decisions and such language have on children (particularly young children) of color and their self-image. Michael was so enamored with the play dough that I let him take him home with him when we were done using it. He still talks about it to this day, a full year later.