Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sensory Feast

Every year my class does a project based on collection and classification. I noticed that they kept getting stuck on the same set of categories: size, color, light/dark, and other purely visual cues. I was lucky to work with chef Tara Lane to develop this workshop that gets students to switch off the visuals for a while and consider their OTHER senses, opening up a whole range of new ways to think about the things around them. The exercise itself is a lot of fun, and the work students come up with afterward is consistently innovative and multisensory.

Note: We do this project in the dark, so I don't have any photos - hence the borrowed images from the web!

1.) one very dark room (or simple blindfolds for everyone in the class)
2.) butcher paper to cover all the tables, with something for each student to write with
3.) a whole lot of small dixie cups (enough for 6 - 9 for each participant
4.) a variety of "mystery substances" to put in each set of cups, for tasting, smelling, feeling, etc. Some we have used include:
* "graduates" baby yogurt melts * powdered soup, hummus, etc. * vanilla extract * lemongrass stalks * black salt * poppyseeds *steel-cut oats *splenda *dried fruit *oddly-shaped dog treats (for touch/smell) * bubblegum-flavored cavity-revealing blue mouthwash * giant cheese-balls (for sound) * spray icing (applied to fill each student's hands) * cookie dough * various spices
Others I'm thinking of now:
* cotton candy or halva 'floss' * unflavored pop rocks * anise seeds * shiso leaves (fresh or dried) * something warming/cooling - ginger chews, mentholated drops, etc * got other good ideas? Please post 'em in the comments section!

Preparation (takes about an hour):
- Cover tables with clean butcher paper and secure with tape.
- Set each student's place with a pencil and 6 - 9 cups filled with your sensory ingredients. keep the order of these cups consistent so that you can guide them through the experience!
- Fix lighting if needed to get a very dark (but not completely pitch black) room. If you need to cover windows or add a small nightlight, do so. If using blindfolds, have them put on in the hallway and help students to their seats.

Sensory Feast:
- Have students start with one cup and experience its smell, texture, and taste.
- Ask them to write down at least three words or short phrases that are sensory associations, descriptive words, or memories connected to what's in the cup. Then move on to the next. Do this with each of the cups until you reach the end (we usually end with something a little dramatic, like the mouthwash or handfuls of icing)
- Initiate a conversation about some of the reactions, memories, and associations people had throughout the process, and answer questions about what some of the 'mystery items' were.
- Try a collaborative sound-poem with the words everyone's written down: Have all participants look over their lists to review what responses they wrote down, then close their eyes. Each person (instructor included) is asked to speak/whisper/sing/growl/yell at least three things from their list (this can be the same word repeated, or three different things), choosing the moments for these utterances in response to the words and phrases other participants are putting forth. Everyone keeps their eyes closed through this process, so that the focus is on response and sound (and sometimes laughter), but not on who's saying what. You can try different variations on this setting constraints of words uttered, repetition, voice etc.
- celebrate with leftover snacks from the experiment afterwards!

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