One of the pleasures of working with little kids is seeing how they react to the things that are familiar to me but brand new to them. When I dropped a heap of corn in the middle of a table of preschool summer campers, there was a little stir. Some of the kids knew what this was about having done this project with me during the school year; others, especially the youngest, were kind of stunned by these alien-looking objects. Everybody had eaten corn before, but husking it was another matter.
It isn’t that easy for small hands to peel off the husk of a fresh ear of corn, so I’ve learned to loosen it ahead of time. As the kids get to work, they notice the smell. The fresh, green husks on the outside smell almost sweet; inside is the scent of hay. As we’re husking, we talk about the parts we’re looking at. The husks are like leaves and act as a shell, protecting the corn inside. And why is this package called an ear? Well, it makes more sense seen growing from the side of a stalk. (Pause for all of us to stand up tall and hold ears of corn off the sides of our heads.) Then there’s the silk. It’s tempting to yank it out right away, but then we would miss seeing something surprising:
See how each strand of the silk is attached to a kernel? These strands transport pollen dropped from the corn’s tassel (the tiny flowers that grow at the top of the plant) to the eggs, which when fertilized grow into kernels. All of that said, the silk is instantly recognizable as Rapunzel hair.
Which leads us into our project of making corn husk dolls. We use only the husks and silks from the corn at our disposal—no string, yarn, or pipe cleaner. It’s helpful to make a pile of strips from the toughest and longest husk leaves for use as ties and arms. Arms can be made by twisting or braiding the tough strips. I try to make some ahead of time, so that the kids can concentrate on putting together their dolls. Depending on their age and dexterity, they can tie off necks and waists and stuff in the hair. Help from an adult or older child is necessary.
The more I do this project, the more I find in it. Making one’s own simple doll opens up all sorts of possibilities. Doll stereotypes are quickly dispensed with. Some boys asked for dolls wearing skirts and some girls wanted theirs to have pants. One boy said that he wanted his boy doll to wear a beautiful dress. Some kids wanted their dolls to have faces and some didn’t, echoing the traditional style of Native American corn husk dolls without faces.
I usually can’t resist making my own doll. Here she is: