Banning playdough really for the dodos

TAHU POTIKI
Last updated 09:39 07/09/2012

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Tahu Potiki

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OPINION: I have to say I was a little surprised a couple of weeks back when I heard that playdough for children was considered to be culturally insensitive to Maori.

I have also learnt that things such as potato prints and macaroni murals are a thing of the past in many creches, kindergartens and playcentres.

There have been a few follow-up comments that suggest that food is not to be played with and that to do so is offensive to (some) Maori and that was the foundation for the original comment. From what I have read this restriction of food-based play derives from the idea that such activities breach fundamental Maori religious protocols.

Although I understand some of the theory behind these ideas, they were not a part of our upbringing.

My father was not a follower of such things although I know that he grew up in a community where certain traditional practices were observed in a limited way.

There were things that the children of his generation were not allowed to do because of residual beliefs, but when dad was a child his parents and their peers were fiercely Christian.

Reference to Maori beliefs was often met with stern reprisal.

My father's sister, now in her 90s, has often expressed suspicion about the revitalised Maori rituals that we now engage in, such as dawn blessings, questioning whether or not they are devil worship.

The origin of food as a source of cultural concern almost certainly stems from the idea of food as noa, or secular, and as an agent that could dissipate the godly and sacred powers of tapu.

From what I can tell food that has been cooked, and therefore is fit for consumption, has had its own sacredness modified, and the power of this can be transported into other sacred zones, thus altering them.

In ancient times, when soldiers returned from battle, there were certain things that could take away the tapu of Tumatauenga, the god of war.

One was lying in an oven that had cooked kumara, the theory being that if it could alter the state of kumara, supposedly a descendant of the god Rongo, then it could alter other tapu states as well.

When, nearly 70 years ago, the new marae at Otakou was opened, one of the elderly women crossed the threshold of the building with a cooked scone. This had the effect of removing the tapu state of the building that, during the construction phase, would have traditionally been dedicated to Tane, god of the forest.

I was once told a story about a master carver who, about 90 years ago, was working on a new house in the North Island when one of the local women approached the work site to deliver food. As she climbed the stairs, the master carver became aware of her presence, lifted his boot and kicked her down to the ground rather than have her contaminate the house with cooked food.

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Some modern-day carvers continue to observe the stricter aspects of these beliefs but, in general, their practices are now highly modified and represent more of a values-based belief system as opposed to adherence to fundamental religious views.

Other common Maori practices that have survived, or been revived, include such things as not looking at whakapapa on a kitchen table.

Whakapapa, which is basically genealogical tables, are names of ancestors that have their own associated tapu and placing books with ancestral names in them in food-associated areas are considered by many to be a breach of their sanctity.

All of these observances are based in religious fundamentalism. That is why I am surprised that it is tolerated as a reason for considering the restricted use of playdough in early childhood facilities.

Like most Kiwi kids, I can recall making dough with my mother, squeezing the food colouring drops into the mix and adding the salt so we wouldn't eat it.

Despite that, I ate my fair share, and just two weeks ago, at the same time as this dough business was making headlines, I wandered into my kid's creche to find a wee 2-year-old Maori boy feeding his face with playdough.

His little face was all screwed up, no doubt reacting to the salt, but it didn't stop him going in for seconds.

I have to say that, for me, the value of shared playtime experiences significantly outweighs an irrational retreat into outdated religious ideology.

Generally, as a society, we have avoided such things while still finding ways to celebrate important cultural rituals such as Christmas, Easter and, more recently, Matariki.

I don't expect any religious paradigm to be introduced into the early childhood sector, and Kiwi education must be secular.

Banning dough is really for the dodos, or should I say dough-doughs?

- The Press

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