Preventing Mutiny with Playdough

Written March 19, 2012.

My little Montana natives are getting restless. They tell me repeatedly they want to go home. “Home” as in our new house in Minnesota that they only saw for a few hours total, six months ago.

It was a full month ago now that their dad hauled most of our stuff to that house. At the time, when we loaded up two full trailers, we thought another two weeks here in Montana would wrap up all of his work projects here. And now, a month later, it looks like we are still two more weeks out from that elusive moving date. If you listen closely on a calm day, you might be able to hear our collective sigh from 1,000 miles away.

Understandably, my kids are getting tired of it all. We’ve all been living out of duffel bags for a month. When I set aside their clothes to keep here, I grabbed only long-sleeved shirts since it was the middle of February at the time. Now, with this stretch of crazily warm weather here in MT (and even hotter in MN, I hear), I’ve been accusingly asked more than once why I didn’t pack them some t-shirts.

And of course, when St. Patrick’s Day rolled around, they wondered why one month ago I didn’t think ahead to make sure that they each had something green to put on for that day. Silly me.

For several weeks they’ve been troopers about living in a mostly empty house, devoid of their usual assortment of toys and their own comfy beds and blankets. But a few nights ago, when the end of the day weariness kicks in and emotions heighten, my 6-year-old came to me with tears rolling down her cheeks, telling me that this house here “doesn’t feel like home anymore. Now it just feels like an ‘icky’ old house.” Then she asked if we could just move to Minnesota in the morning. I told her I wished we could.

It’s certainly not for a lack of effort that we are still here in Montana. My husband, Jarred, has been logging long hours for weeks. Every morning he leaves after breakfast and doesn’t get home until supper has been cold for a long time.

Three nights in a row, he didn’t get home until after the kids were already in bed. The older kids understand that he is working hard to finish his scale projects so we can move, but at the same time, they really just want their dad around to play with them. With their favorite live-action super hero gone installing scales until bedtime, hanging out in this empty house feels all the more, well, empty.

One morning this week when our almost one-year-old sweet baby spied Dad after not seeing him since breakfast the day before, she giggled and leaned toward him so he would hold her. Then she laid her head on his shoulder, grabbed onto his shirt with one hand, and patted his back with the other. That’s the sweet side of it all.

On the not-so-sweet side is the bickering and arguing of kids who are getting tired of the empty surroundings and miss being in a house that feels homey. My two oldest kids are just fifteen months apart, and being that close in age, they know each other all too well.

They sit next to each other at meals, and lately, they bicker and push each other’s buttons like a grumpy old married couple. “It’s not actually peanut butter and jelly. It’s really jam.” “Well, I say jelly.” “Well, that’s wrong. It’s jam.” “But I call it PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY!!!!” Follow this actual exchange with an angry growl and one squeezing the other’s arm, and you’ve got an accurate picture of family meals these days.

After several of these days this week, I knew we needed a little something different in our lives. So, I dug in our kitchen cupboards and I made a toy that cost next to nothing and can happily engage them for an hour at a time. Playdough.

Growing up, I thought homemade playdough was a sad, sad excuse for the “real” stuff that came from the store. My childhood recollection of homemade playdough was a stiff, salty, grainy mass that dried out too quickly, was too hard to shape, and not pliable enough to roll. It was useless (and tasted terrible, I might add). We added water to it trying to fix it, and it became a thick spackle that probably wound up in the garbage.

Apparently, we didn’t have the right recipe, because now I absolutely love homemade playdough. The recipe I use makes a wonderfully soft, smooth, easily pliable dough that is a tactile dream. And the beauty of it is that it’s a two-for-one: a science experiment/cooking project in the kitchen, and a fun toy when the project is complete.

On the day we whipped up a batch of fun, my three oldest kids eagerly gathered around to stir together the dry ingredients in the saucepan before I cooked the batch on the stove. In bickering mode, they argued over who got to dump in what and how the mix should be stirred, but we forged ahead because I knew eventually they would be too engrossed in activity to argue.

The big kids stir together dry ingredients and argue a bit while Kathy held the baby and kept her out of the flour mess.

Once I cooked the dough, we divided it into baseball-size clumps. Then each clump got a few child-selected drops of food coloring, and they eagerly kneaded it until the ball became a satisfyingly bright color. My kids are into rainbows, so they decided we needed all the colors, including indigo and violet. I mixed and tweaked food coloring drops, and they smushed and squeezed away, until we had seven bright balls of playdough.

A complete rainbow of playdough colors, including indigo and violet. Thank you, Cat in the Hat, for teaching my kids the Rainbow Song. I sing it in my sleep.

Best of all, once we finished making the playdough, I turned them loose. Snakes, circles, birthday cakes, pizzas, and animals took shape and then got smashed into oblivion. Sure, our baby was fed a few pieces of playdough “food” by a kind two-year-old brother. But when the ingredients came straight out of the kitchen, the kid squabbling was gone, and quiet, industrious play reigned supreme, I called the playdough project a great success.

Contentedly slicing playdough cookies before rolling them into snakes.w

It cleans up nicely, too. And I mean it. I would not make a playdough that would smear in the carpet and hold up this eagerly anticipated moving process…

Kathy’s Peace-Making Playdough

2 c. flour

1 c. salt

2 tbsp. cream of tartar

2 c. water

2 tbsp. oil

food coloring

Mix dry ingredients together in a saucepan. Add water and oil. Stir until smooth. Cook over medium heat until mixture thickens and sticks to spoon. Cool. Add food coloring as desired, mixing by hand. Play until you feel happy. Store in an airtight container.

© 2012

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