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Play Dough & Identity

December 7, 2009
Times Observer

As time takes our hands and pulls us around the turn where one year ends and another begins, we tend to reevaluate our identities, analyze, dissect, and pull apart the person we have been for the past year. A beginning, like a new year, presents a blank page, an opportunity to reshape one’s identity and potentially become a better version of oneself.

Like everyone I know, I too have my own resolutions for remolding myself into something better than I have been. And these thoughts become more intriguing to me as I squish, mold, and reshape a soft clump of green play dough in my hands. I watch “my kids” press cookie-cutter shapes into the colorful dough’s soft surface, making it become something more than a lump of dough. Some of them use their own little hands to roll out a long, skinny body, giving physical form to an imaginary snake. These children, only four years old, have the ability and power to take a shapeless object and mold it into their own imaginations’ creations, giving it a form, a name, an identity. And in this moment, playing with play dough with my kids, inspiring questions and contemplations fill my mind of just how every experience, every person, and every moment in our lives since we were cradled in our mothers’ wombs have shaped our identities.

As I move from the play dough table to the classroom sink, I saturate a paper towel with warm water and wipe traces of the afternoon’s snack off the round cheek of a freckled-faced girl. She smiles at my gentle touch. Smiling back, I stare at my own hands cradling her face, and suddenly I feel a heavier responsibility weighing on me. I look back over my shoulder at the little hands squishing, molding, and reshaping play dough. At twenty-four-years-old, my hands hold the power to influence the beginning stages of the formation of my four-year-olds’ identities. Wow. That’s a big responsibility. And it must have been in the fine print of my job description.

Although parents or guardians potentially carry the greatest influence on the creation of their children’s identities, it is the babysitters, the daycare providers, and the teachers of young children that are entrusted with the equal responsibility to build a strong and safe mold for which within each child can begin to shape their own identity. I have yet to become a mother another aspect of my evolving identity but I use mothering techniques as an aunt to nurture my two young nieces and as a preschool teacher (assistant) to care for my 16 four-year-olds. I become more conscientious of each decision I make in every little moment of their lives because I now understand the immensity of how my influence will slowly shape who they become. Who knew play dough had such power for metaphorical connections and existential contemplations?

In one of my favorite poems, “Children Learn What They Live,” author Dorothy Law Nolte writes “If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn [but] If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.” I carry her inspirational words with me each day to remind myself that I am responsible for 16 individual lives during my workday. Although I am human (with the imperfect influence of the individuals that have helped shape my identity) and at times I make mistakes and fall short of being the best teacher I can be for these children, it is the greatest, most fulfilling obligation to be an influence in their lives.

To know that a young, small-town girl like me, still trying to define her own identity, possesses the power to add at least one piece of a positive foundation for these children inspires me to continue to squish, mold, and reshape soft lumps of play dough. At the Heritage House UPK, we call these lumps of play dough “The Busy Bees.” When time yet again takes our hands and pulls us around the turn where one year ends and another begins, my greatest hope will be that I have helped to give a form, a name, an identity to all 16 lumps of play dough. I already know that every little hand that touches me each day is continuing to reshape my own identity.

* “Children Learn What They Live” by Dorothy Law Nolte

Lindsey Staples, a teacher’s assistant for the UPK program at Heritage House Childcare and Learning Center, earned a B.A. degree in English/Creative Writing from Keuka College in May of 2009.



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