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Interview - Issue #1

Hikaru Dorodango

An interview with Naoto Kanesaka
Translation by Ayaka Oba

Naoto Kanesaka is the director of the Children’s Centre in Kobe City, in Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture. When studying early years education at university he discovered dorodango, the process of making mud balls, or dumplings. He now encourages the practice at the centre, and among adults via a Facebook group that he manages.

Where the Leaves Fall What is dorodango?

Naoto Kanesaka Children around Japan are making dorodango (mud dumplings). Often they are made in nurseries and kindergartens. They roll balls made with mud and sand, try to make them firm, then compete against each other’s balls, or make them hikaru (shine) by polishing them for days. It’s believed that the way the kids play differs depending on the soil in the area or their playground, or even the environment they are in.

WtLF When did it start?

NK It’s not yet known when the practice started. I found out about it while studying early years education at university but it is the now retired professor Fumio Kayo, of Kyoto University of Education, who did the research and wrote papers on dorodango. He developed a process where the polished dorodango don’t lose their shine even when they are dried up. He published his methodology and it became a media sensation in Japan. It is even recognised as an art form outside of Japan.

WtLF Is there a particular type of soil that you need to make dorodango?

NK I often hear teachers say: “The sand of our school’s playground is not suitable to make dorodango.” We believe that you shouldn’t need some special soil, it is important that it is made with the soil from local parks and schools. Within Japan some soil contains volcanic ash and some soil is red. The colour of the mud differs depending on the location. Therefore the dorodango from different areas can look different. However, the mud used to make the core of the dorodango does require some preparation. Go to a place, touch the mud, sprinkle some water and feel the hardness. Grip the mud that’s mixed with the water and when you open your hand if you see the shape of your fingers and the wrinkle of your hand on the surface, that is the best condition. If you grip your hand and the mud is coming out between your fingers, that means there is too much clay, so you need to add sandy soil. And if the mud easily breaks in your hand then it’s lacking stickiness, so add the clay. You may imagine that the clay is the glue that makes the sand stick. For grownups finding the right proportions may take some practice, but for kids it’s all about play. Enjoy this process – it’s a conversation with the soil.

WtLF How do you make dorodango?

NK Soil is made up of clay, sand and silt. When the soil is the right consistency you can create the core. Hold the mud in your hands, and shape it as if you are pushing out the humidity. Sprinkle the fine sandy soil, remove the excess and pat it gently using the soft part of your thumb. Repeat the process, add the sand, shape, rotate then add the sand again. By repeating this process you create a sphere. As you continue, the surface dries up and if the fine sand you sprinkle doesn’t get stuck on the surface you put it gently in a plastic bag and leave it in the shade (from 30 minutes to a few days). Take it out of the bag and you’ll find that the moisture from the ball has come out and the bag and the surface of the ball is humid. This means that you can sprinkle more fine sand. Repeat the patting. Sprinkle the sand, pat and roll, then if the surface is dry put it back in the bag and store. Repeat this until there is no more moisture coming out of the ball.

‘For grownups finding the right proportions may take some practice, but for kids it’s all about play. Enjoy this process – it’s a conversation with the soil.’

WtLF And how do you make it shine?

NK For the shining dorodango it is necessary to have the suitable physical environment, which has the right balance of the soil in the playground or the park, but also the right human factor, that is to have teachers or friends who know how to make them. There is a very fine powdery dry soil, which, when blown, flies away. We call this sarasuna. Kids in nursery and kindergarten know their own hidden places where they find sarasuna – it could be under the slide or under the doormat, but it is their secret. When a ball is made you sprinkle and gently rub the fine soil to make the surface of the ball shine. You can use a cloth to polish – fine denier stockings and denim work well. Start by polishing in a line and end by polishing in circles – you must be gentle.

WtLF Is getting soil from under a doormat clean?

NK Sarasuna can be found in insanitary areas. The dust under the door mat could be very dirty. The dust near the edge of the park may not be clean. The problem is that these days kids don’t want to touch soil, plants or animals because they feel they are dirty. It is because their parents use the word dirty to describe these things in front of the kids so they’ve come to recognise them as dirty. Today it’s possible to buy a dorodango kit from vending machines that contains the clay soil obtained from 100m underground - its selling point is the sanitary aspect of it. However, the five senses grow through various experiences in early childhood - the sense of touch is one of them. By physically touching things children’s senses grow and by using their fingers their brains get stimulated in their infancy. The environment where they play cannot always be safe. It is important to tell the children about taking care and cleaning well after.

‘Dorodango, made with the materials around, might not always work yet this is an important part of development. Children learn to concentrate, to think, to invent and create. They learn from failures and feel a sense of accomplishment when they succeed.’

WtLF What are the benefits of making dorodango?

NK One of the issues in early childhood education these days is that the adults over prepare and set everything up to lead to success. However, something given as a gift is different from something gained by not giving up and pursuing it with long, hard work. Looking for the appropriate mud or fine sand inside their own playground is just like a treasure hunt. Dorodango, made with the materials around, might not always work yet this is an important part of development. Children learn to concentrate, to think, to invent and create. They learn from failures and feel a sense of accomplishment when they succeed. There are many types of games and play that require maximum strength, but not so many that require them to control their strength. If they make a mistake in the control they break the ball, so they learn to adjust it. An unsuccessful experience is not simply a negative experience, it could be an experience of discovery, where they could discover what went wrong. As they mould the ball in their hands, if it doesn’t break apart, if they’re successful in what they want to achieve the mud ball becomes a treasure – that is the true significance of dorodango.

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