Fun stuff for kids, or grownups who still are kids inside
The evolution of dish gardens--Art project, therapeutic play, spiritual aid, or maybe all three…
Nearly six decades ago, my mom brought home a sand table the church didn’t need any more. It rapidly became a magnet for all the kids in the neighborhood. We subdivided it into individual ‘building lots’ with the understanding that we each kept within our own boundaries, unless invited by a neighbor to share a project. We spent many happy hours building our own private worlds, adding accessories such as rocks, twigs, leaves and flowers. Some built raceways for tiny cars; others made mountain or beach scenes or planted fantasy gardens. It was day-dreaming made visual.
Some years past that time, an artistic aunt showed me a miniature ‘bonsai’ tree she had made. She embedded a piece of twisty manzanita in plaster in a little Japanese bowl, sprinkled the plaster with rock salt to simulate gravel, and glued tufts of plastic pine needles to the branch tips. I wanted to make one of my own, and even went so far as to accumulate the materials, but never followed through.
In many years of teaching Sunday School off and on, I had worked up several simple craft projects that would adjust to almost any age group. One, sometimes used for such occasions as Mother’s Day, usually consisted of a bouquet of artificial flowers planted in playdough in a small container, such as a detergent bottle cap. When my daughter joined Girl Scouts and I was asked to lead a craft project, I combined all of the above and we made dish gardens. I furnished containers (mostly margarine tubs), lots of home-made playdough, and an assortment of materials: twigs, rocks, shells, buttons, bottle caps, plastic flowers and greenery, fir and alder cones, aluminum foil, and other odds and ends. I explained the basic concept: choose what you want from the materials provided and make a miniature version of some special place, real or imagined. Then I stood back and left them to their own imaginations. The results were varied and delightful.
One little girl made the heart-breaking pronouncement, “I’m not creative.”
Had her home life or school already stifled her natural creativity at so early an age? I told her, “Of course you’re creative. Maybe you just haven’t been allowed to make a mess. It’s okay if we make a mess here, because we’ll clean it up afterwards. Now just imagine you’re really tiny, and this dish is part of your world. How would you like it to look? It can be anything you want.”
When she proudly showed me her beautiful little garden, complete with a small pebble path and flower beds, I felt like I’d struck a blow for humanity. Not creative indeed!! What sort of dead-from-the-neck-up stodgy adult would tell a child such nonsense?
A few years ago, my friend Anita asked me to substitute in her Sunday School class. I explained to her that I had mostly worked with mixed-age classes, and found the best teaching technique for me was to get their hands busy and then sneak in the lesson. She was okay with that, so we made dish gardens, but with a spiritual twist. We talked about prayer and meditation, and I asked the kids to think of a place where they felt safe and happy, somewhere they could feel closer to God. I told them that when they had problems, when they were having a bad day, they could make things better by closing their eyes, imagining that special place, and pretending they were there for the moment, like a mini-vacation. While they were there, they could talk to God about whatever was bothering them, and He would listen. They could also tell Him “Thank you” for all the good things in their lives.
Special places and memories varied from a fishing trip with Dad to a spot at the beach to their own back yard—or the yard they wished to have. Even the youngest seemed to understand the concept of making a visual representation to help them “be there.” Kids have a special knack for entering into imaginative play. Working along with them, I made an image of a spot at Double K Ranch where I had gone on a women’s retreat, and told them what a special time that had been for me. They all shared their stories as well
Just recently, Anita asked me to do dish gardens again, but with the women’s group she leads. They had just as much fun as the kids, and the ‘play’ atmosphere helped them to open up and share their stories. I showed them the little garden I had made with the kids, which had been to California and back with me, and had helped anchor me as I dealt with my mother’s Alzheimer’s and all the challenges of being so far from my children and grandchildren. One lady made a representation of her baptism in the Jordan River, which was obviously a deep emotional experience for her. She said later that explaining the image to her husband had also helped her communicate her feelings to him.
All that from a little playdough and odds and ends. Try it.