Tuesday, September 06, 2022

How To Make Stink Dough . . . If You Dare

The boy was sinking his fingers into the freshly-made play dough in a slow, controlled manner, forming them into fists as it oozed between them. When they were finally firmly clenched, he paused for a moment, then ripped both hands away, leaving rough patches on the otherwise smooth skin of the ball of dough. Holding his hands on either side of his head, he began pinching the dough, rubbing it between his fingers, causing it to crumble a bit, although something was apparently not as he had expected. He inspected the dough in his fingers with his eyes, nose wrinkled. 

"This play dough stinks," he said, looking at me not in accusation, but rather with an expression of surprise. Normally, we would add a minty or vanilla-y scent to our dough. We normally didn't play with "stink dough."

Several months prior we had conducted an experiment in which we first floated water atop molasses in a glass jar, then floated vegetable oil on top of the water. We had then dropped various objects into the tribar jar -- a grape, a pink eraser, a paper clip, an apple slice, a pencil stub -- watching them sink through layers of liquid before finding their level. The kids had not wanted to throw it out when we were done, so we put a tight lid on the jar and left it on a shelf to, well, fester. Occasionally, at first, we had spontaneously made observations, noting that the molasses eventually dissolved into the water or that the apple slice was growing a beard, while the grape seemed to remain as plump as ever. It had now been at least two months since any of us had even thought about it.

That morning, while making a fresh batch of play dough, I discovered that we were out of oil, an essential ingredient in the world's best play dough recipe. That's when I remembered the jar. When I pulled it from the back of the shelf where it had been languishing, I was impressed by the hoary mess it had become, but despite that, there was still a layer of oil floating atop it all . . . I just needed two table spoons . . . 

The odor wasn't immediate, but when it finally hit my nostrils, it was like the most intense mildew I'd ever encountered. I quickly skimmed off my oil, then popped the lid back on in an effort to contain what was becoming an overwhelming and extremely off-putting experience. I did, however, put the jar where we could all see it. This would certainly be a topic for conversation once the kids arrived, but first I needed to get that play dough made. 

As I continued to prep for the day, I noted the acrid smell each time I entered the room. I cracked the windows. By the time the kids had arrived, however, I'd forgotten all about it, but now, sitting in the same corner as the play dough, I could smell it again. And so could everyone else.

The boy began to share the experience of stink dough with his friends. Soon, other children were crowding around, sticking their noses into it, then recoiling, joyfully. "Ewww!" "Stinky!" "Stink dough!" 

"I made a stink cookie! Eat it!"

"It's poop!"

"No, it smells like my dad's stinky cheese!"

"It smells like dirty underpants!"

They played with it for the rest of the morning. It turned out to not be the kind of odor to which you grow accustomed. By now I could detect it in every corner of the room and even, I thought, out in the hallway. As we tidied up, I asked an adult to carry the stink dough out to the parking lot dumpster, but the kids weren't having it. So, we put the dough in a plastic bag, then put that inside another bag, and that inside another in an effort the entrap the smell, but to no apparent effect. I stashed it in the outdoor shed overnight.

When I later pointed out our old experiment jar and explained to the children why the play dough was stinky, they, of course, wanted to take turns smelling it from the source. I didn't want to risk it spilling because, frankly, we would probably would have had to move, so I held the jar firmly under the noses of the children who wanted a turn, which was all of them. Meanwhile, several of the adults absented themselves, one saying she was certain it would make her vomit. The children, however, enthused and giggled, most coming back for more, some again and again and again. They took turns falling to the ground in feigned prostration. A few screamed. Most pinched their noses, then released them again for another whiff.

I told them as they delighted in the stench that we were going to have to throw it away. I pointed out that it made some of the adults feel sick. I warned that if even a drop got spilled we might never get rid of it. But they fought me, insisting they wanted to go to a "stink school!" At the time, we had an old greenhouse on the playground, one that we were mostly using for storage, but in which the children would occasionally play. We agreed that we would keep the jar out there, on a high shelf, and only get it down when we needed to smell it. So that's what we did.

For several weeks we smelt it every day, but over the course of months it was once more and finally forgotten. Only then did I feel okay about tossing it. It's now been several years, but to this day, there are still times when I think I can smell it.


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