We have all heard of fiddle toys, and children with “sensory needs,” and there is a dilute understanding amongst educators of the value of such things. Some of us provide our students with them, some of us feel the costs in terms of disruption and clutter in class outweigh the benefits. As with any tool, the utility of these items is partly dependent on the choice of item and partly on how it is used. Imagine teaching a class handwriting skills but providing them with crayons. Similarly imagine a class equipped with the very best fountain pens but taught none of the skills associated with learning to write. Neither group is going to be producing calligraphy very soon. It is the same with sensory resources, there is absolutely value to be had from having them around, but we need also to be teaching the skills associated with their use. In my coming articles, I will be examining individual sensory resources and unpicking their application in the classroom. We looked at search jars last month, this month I will cover gak or slime.
Gak or slime
In schools today we are constantly meeting sensory crazes. No sooner were fiddle spinners banned than the production of gak (or slime if you prefer) began. That the young people of today delight in these sensory resources is reflective of a population with greater sensory needs than past generations. You may have been impressed, as have I, by the creativity unleased in children and young people as they develop even better gak recipes and turn up to school with ever more amazing colours and textures. This article is one of a series of articles unpicking the value of such sensory resources within our settings. As with any resource, it is not simply owning it that makes the difference but knowing how to use it. In this article I will explain how you can make gak and how you might seek to use it or other comparable resources to support the behaviour of your students.
What is gak?
Gak is a non neutonian fluid that can be stretched, poured and manipulated in a wide variety of ways. It comes in different scents, colours and textures.
How does someone use gak?
The malleability of gak is very enticing, unlike a search jar, which we discussed in the first article in this series, there is no set way to use gak, making it very supportive of creative play. As there is no end goal with gak there is no getting it wrong or right, meaning it can be explored without fear of failure. Someone exploring gak may shape it into different shapes, stretch and pull it to admire its colours and textures, or squeeze it in the palm of their hands so that it squidges out between their fingers.
How to make gak
- PVA glue
- Something with borax as its chemical agent, for example: contact lens solution, Lidl’s Formil Super Concentrated Laundry Liquid, or just plain old borax itself which is sold as a powder for you to dilute with water.
- Glitter, or other particulate matter to add texture, for example sand.
- Coloured ink
Gak results from a chemical reaction between the PVA glue and the borax. Failed attempts at making gak are often due to insufficient mixing, or not allowing time for this reaction to happen.
- Begin with your PVA glue, use an amount slightly smaller than the amount of gak you wish to end up with.
- Mix in any ink or glitter/particles that you want in your gak.
- Now add a small amount of your chosen borax carrier and mix well.
- Mix really well: you want the borax to mix with all of the glue. You will notice the consistency of the substance begin to change. At first it will seem sticky, with the mixture sticking to the sides of the container it is in and to the tool you are using to mix it with. Keep mixing.
- Add a little more of your borax carrier and repeat the mixing process, allowing plenty of time for the reaction to take place before adding any more borax..
- Continue this process until your gak reaches the desired consistency: this is when it forms a single lump in the bowl and no longer sticks to the sides. You will be able to lift it out of the bowl and knead it with your hands. If you add too much of your borax carrier your gak will go from too sticky to too slippery. You may be able to save your batch of gak by adding more PVA glue to make amends. Always mix really well and allow time for the reaction to take place.
Clearly gak is a substance made out of glue and detergent, it is not edible. Nor is it advisable to play with it for long periods of time. Horror stories can be found online of teenagers who spent their whole weekend making batches of gak to sell to their peers tell of hands burned by over exposure to the chemicals in the detergent. But used intermittently, and with hands washed after use, it is as safe and a lot of fun. (If you want to create a similar substance for someone who may be liable to put it in their mouth, you can find recipes for edible play dough online, or simply mix cornflour and water together to make a dough).
So far you may be thinking you have the beginnings of a motivating science experiment but gak has a utility beyond offering a beginner-level introduction to chemical reactions. On Exploring the Impact the Senses have on Behaviour, we look at gak, and other sensory items, not for their science lesson potential, but for their uses in helping people to emotionally regulate. Here we are going to think of two sorts of people as we consider the usefulness of gak, the first one you are likely to find among your friends:
Do you have a friend who is a fidget, the sort of person who at the cinema will twiddle their hair, who couldn’t sit at dinner without fiddling about with the cutlery or tapping their foot on the floor? Imagine this friend in an interview situation, facing all the stress of the adjudicating panel. Would they sit on their hands? Would they be embarrassed by their fidgetiness, would it be exacerbated by the stress of the situation?
All of us need to regulate our sensory systems in order to be able to access information from the world and be included successfully within society. Just as we would expect eyesight to differ between individuals, so we can expect other sensory systems to differ. A fidget may need more vestibular (balance and motion), proprioceptive (body mapping and movement) or tactile stimulation than the next person. In their fidgeting, they seek to regulate their systems so that they reach a point of homeostasis in which they are able to engage and concentrate.
If your friend sits in that interview and focuses their attention on not fidgeting, they are likely to miss the nuances of the questions being thrown at them. If they can find a way to provide their body with its fidgeting needs, then their concentration is freed to focus on the interview.
In the modern climate, gak offers us a way to allow children with significant sensory needs to have them met in a socially acceptable, even cool way! To take the comparison with vision again, in gak we have progressed from the old embarrassing bulky national health spectacles to the cool contemporary designer shades. Other contemporary fiddle toys have the potential to do the same: silly pencil toppers, fiddle spinners, along with the good old fashioned: blue tac, bent paper clip and rubber band. You may think you are running a tight ship by banning such things but if your ultimate aim is to improve behaviour in your classroom, you may find that adopting a more laid back attitude in response to them actually results in a better behaved class than rules that inhibit self-regulation.
The second person we are thinking of may also be among your friends, but often times, these people find themselves isolated because their inability to regulate their systems damages their friendships. These are people who are constantly tense or on edge, people quick to snap, jumpy people.
These people are likely to have had a traumatic early life, a life that has taught them that danger is around every corner. Neurodiverse conditions can also result in a hypersensitive response system, meaning people live with high levels of anxiety and feel the need to be constantly on guard and in control of the world around them.
This person two feels a little bit tense all the time, it is not a feeling triggered by a particular event or altercation, it is something they have to cope with all day, every day, and it is exhausting. We used to believe that people should “let out” tensions by indulging them by, for example, hitting a punch bag. But we now understand that practicing hitting in response to feeling tense makes us – rather unsurprisingly – more likely to hit out when feeling tense. A couple of things are going on within this piece of advice that are worth unpicking to prevent misunderstanding: 1) Exercise is great for enabling self-regulation and will help someone to feel calmer. 2) Disciplines such as boxing and martial arts do not simply teach people to hit, they also teach people when to hit and are often beneficial to people looking to learn to control their behaviour to a greater extent.
There are many strategies we can use to relieve tension for someone who is naturally prone to feeling tense: meditation practices can help to reprogramme the mind: exercise is wonderful, time spent in nature is also fantastic, but when it is not possible to go outdoors, for example in the middle of a maths lesson, then having the opportunity to knead gak, and to admire its colours, scent and sparkles – in itself a small dose of mindfulness – will help. And as with person one, the current trendiness of sensory toys provides us with intervention options that do not require us to single people out as different or weird but enable us to provide for each according to their need in community.
About the author
Joanna Grace is an international sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
Consistently rated as Outstanding by Ofsted, Joanna has taught in mainstream and special-school settings, connecting with pupils of all ages and abilities. To inform her work, Joanna draws on her own experience from her private and professional life as well as taking in all the information she can from the research archives. Joanna’s private life includes family members with disabilities and neurodiverse conditions and time spent as a registered foster carer for children with profound disabilities.
Joanna has published three books: Sensory Stories for children and teens, Sensory-being for Sensory Beings and Sharing Sensory Stories and Conversations with People with Dementia. Her latest two books were launched at TES SEN in October.