If you have never mixed flour and baby oil together, you are in for a treat.  Just imagine starting with a mixture of about four parts flour to one part oil — mix it with your hands, and voila.  The finished product feels smooth, pleasantly scented, and pillowy; the makings of a very calming morning of sensory exploration.  Can you picture it in your mind?  Rubbing the dough between your fingers to incorporate the two materials, the smell of lavender wafting through the air?  Pressing and compacting the flour in the palm of your hand and watching it fall again into the tub?

Now, change the picture in your mind a bit.  What if there were five other pairs of hands close to yours?  And instead of using your own individual tub, you were tasked with finding a way to negotiate this shared use of space with such a compelling material? Does this change the experience? Perhaps so.

Here’s the situation.  I have had lots of practice in social situations.  A few decades of practice, to be precise.  But the crew is less experienced, and they need supported situations to flex their budding social strengths.  Very frequently, I intentionally create situations that challenge their self-regulation and problem solving skills and then stand close by to support the interactions.  For example, I might ready the art table for five friends with only four glue sticks, or set up the dramatic play area for three friends but only two baby strollers.  In this particular exploration, there were six children involved and only one sensory tub.

Things became a little tense when we added the liquid watercolor.  Some friends wanted to use pipettes, some wanted to use spoons.  Some friends wanted to scoop the flour/oil creation out of the tub and into their bowls of color, and some wanted to do the opposite.  I had six colors mixed up, so one bowl was in front of each child, further testing their social aptitude as they tried to get the color they wanted at the moment.
The more challenging interactions to mediate tend to fall along the “equity” lines, the “You have more than me!” types of concerns.  I heard this concern many times while we were mixing our flour and oil together.  Tekoa (who was overly tired on this particular day) was convinced that everyone had more than she did, when in fact she was working in a section of the tub that was piled highest with dough.  Issues of fairness arise repeatedly throughout the day, and often, our gut impulses press us to respond in one of two ways.
Gut impulse #1: Prove the equity of the situation.  “It is fair! Look at how much you have. If anything, you have more than your friends.”
Gut impulse #2: Deny the situation’s significance.  “Life isn’t fair. Get over it.”
What’s tricky about both of these responses is that they don’t allow a child to learn to manage the situation.  I hope to raise children who will speak out in situations of injustice and work to make things fair.  Responding in one of these ways to a child who perceives injustice communicates that their initial perception of injustice is invalid.  Instead, there is another way.
Connect and empower.
Tekoa: “I don’t have any!”
Me: “You wish you had more.”
Tekoa: “Yes. Simone has too much!”
Me: “You wish you had more and you would like some of Simone’s.”
Tekoa: “Yes!”
Me: “Would you like to tell her that?”
Simone can hear the whole conversation — after all, it’s a small table and only one tub — but part of the goal of social skill building is to equip children with language to help them advocate for their needs.  Tekoa needs to voice her concern to Simone directly to see how Simone responds and then proceed in dialogue.  Nothing can happen until the two girls begin to talk to each other.

Tekoa: “Simone, I need some of your dough.”
Simone: “Then I not have any.”
Tekoa: “But I want some more.”
Me: “It sounds like Simone is using the dough she has right now. Would you like to ask if you can have some when she’s done using it?”
Tekoa: (to Simone) “Simone?  Can I use some when you are done?”
Simone: “Okay.”

I am inspired watching the crew negotiate their feelings around what is fair and what isn’t.  What’s more, by raising the stakes during their sensory play – by creating a situation where children would bump up against challenging social situations – we adults can stand by to help reflect and model a way of being that accommodates the needs of friends and learns to advocate for our own. The experience children get while they are very young lays a foundation for the way they operate with the world as they grow.  The more experience they get handling these types of situations, the more adept they become at managing them independently. We played for a long time, eventually dumping all of the water and all of the different colors into the tub.  Because of the oil, the colors don’t immediately mix together, which makes for a very cool speckled/marbled effect.  The end result was a very smooth dough that smelled lovely.

We put it into a bag to save, and used it for the two days following. By the third day, I noticed something peculiar.  When I sealed the bag, I made sure to get as much air out as possible in order to keep the dough soft.  But, the bag had expanded since the previous night and looked ready to burst.  A light bulb went on — the dough was fermenting!  If I had thought for two seconds, I would have snapped a picture of the bag, but honestly, I was afraid I might somehow puncture the bag.

By the way, if you are reading this wondering where the sixth member of our exploration team is (and I’ll give his family one guess!) — he stuck around for a few minutes and wondered away to engage elsewhere.

Happy exploring!