The Value of Play Dough in Early Childhood

Play dough, many adults dislike it because it can get messy.  Almost all children enjoy playing with it.  Play dough is a wonderful learning medium as it can be used to help teach and reinforce every domain.  Yes, it will be messy when first introduced but once you and the children have established the rules, so much natural and fun learning can occur. 

             Many teachers provide children with trays that have sides to help keep the play dough on the table or you will be scraping play dough off your floors and the children’s shoes. Some teachers do not allow the children to mix playdough colors however I feel putting out two primary colors and allowing the children to mix them is a fun and easy color experience.  So, before you decide to hide the play dough near the back of the shelf, remember all the benefits.  It is worth using. Once the children are familiar with the playdough rules, minimal adult supervision is required allowing you to move on to other tasks and maybe even write an observation or two!

Language Development/Listening & Understanding

  • When you talk about the rules of play dough the child is learning to follow directions.
  • Play Transformation with the children.  Have the child make a ball of dough.  Then say, “Transformation” and show them how to make a snake.  When they have made a snake say, “Transformation” and show them how to pound out a blob.  Continue playing saying “Transformation” each time you change to a new shape.  It’s follow the leader using play dough.

Language Development/Speaking & Communicating

  • When children are playing with the dough, you are introducing them to words such as squish, pound, roll, and squeeze.  They in turn will use these words to talk about what they are doing as they play.
  • Play dough is a good medium to get shy children involved with group play.

Literacy/Book Knowledge & Appreciation

  • When children are manipulating play dough, they are developing their hand dexterity and control, which is needed to turn pages of books singularly.
  • Older children can begin sculpting with play dough to make figures that are in stories (after reading about farm animals, challenge the children to make a pig or cow using play dough and pieces of pipe cleaners).

Literacy/Print Awareness  & Concepts

  • When you make play dough with the children and read from a recipe card, children are learning that print has many functions.

Literacy/Early Writing

  • If you write a child’s name across a piece of paper and then challenge the child to go over the letters using play dough snakes or balls, children are practicing their letter forming.

Literacy/Alphabet Knowledge

  • A set of alphabet cookie cutters is a wonderful investment for play dough.  Children can cut out the letters in their name and spell simple words.

Mathematics/Number & Operations

  • Make math cards.  4+1=____, 2+3=_____.  The children make balls to represent the equation.
  • As children play with the dough and cookie cutters, ask them how many of each shape they have cut out.
  • Put a dice on the table and have the child roll the dice and then make that many balls of play dough.

Mathematics/Geometry & Spatial Sense

  • Put out cardboard shapes and plastic knives.  The child can roll out the play dough and then lay the shape on top.  The child uses the knife to cut around the shapes.
  • Give the children cookie cutters, small plates, and a shoebox (to be the oven).  As the children pretend to bake cookies talk with them about putting the cookies in the oven, taking them out.  Stacking the cookies on top of each other, and putting the little cookie on the top of the pile.
  • Straws cut to shortened pieces so the children can attach play dough at both ends and make triangles, squares, pyramids, and cubes.

Mathematics/Pattern & Measurement

  • Let the children roll the play dough out over different textures to see the patterns it creates.
  • Encourage the children to make snakes by rolling out the play dough.  Ask if they can make a longer one, shorter one, or one the same size.
  • Make a pattern with shapes of play dough cookie cutters.  Encourage the child to make a pattern just like yours.
  • Add several Bristle blocks and Duplos for the children to experiment making interesting textures.

Science/Scientific Skills & Methods

  • Watch what happens when a child washes her hands before coming to the play dough station but does not dry them well.
  • Add plastic knives, alphabet cookie cutters, a garlic press, and a few cylinder blocks to the center so the children can experiment using different tools to manipulate the dough.
  • Throughout the year add scents, glitter, sand, etc. to the play dough to see and feel how it changes the texture and smell.
  • As the year progresses children will gain more competence in using play dough in a variety of creative ways.
  • Add Mr. Potato Head pieces for the children to practice making people.

Science/Scientific Knowledge

  • Allow the children to mix two colors of play dough together to observe what happens (red+blue=purple,  red+yellow=orange,  yellow+blue=green).
  • Let the children see what happens to play dough over time when left out and not put away in an airtight container.
  • Make play dough with the children.  Let them help measure and mix, as this is both math and science.

Creative Arts/Music

  • Have the children make balls of different sizes.  When they are dropped onto a metal cookie sheet do they make different sounds?  Do they make different sounds when dropped onto plastic or wood?

Creative Arts/Art

  • Play dough can be used to make models and representations.

Social & Emotional Development/Self-Control

Creative Arts/Dramatic Play

  • Children often use their imagination and creativity while playing with play dough. 
  • Add small birds, silk flowers, rocks, and pipe cleaners to the play dough so the children can make up stories as they play.
  • Add cupcake trays and birthday candles.

Social & Emotional Development/Self-Concept

Social & Emotional Development/Cooperation

  • Children must learn to share the materials and tools that are put out with the play dough on any given day.  Make sure that you have enough basic materials so the children do not have to wait for long periods for another child to be finished with it.

Social & Emotional Development/Social Relationships

  • Play dough is a good place to start grouping young children together.  It lends itself naturally to onlooker play and parallel play.  As the children mature, associative play will begin. 

Social & Emotional Development/Knowledge of Families & Communities

  • Teach the children to pound, and squeeze play dough when feeling frustrated. 
  • Children learn to follow the rules that you set for your play dough activity.
  • Add tools such as hammers and saws to the play dough.

Approaches to Learning/Imitative & Curiosity

  • As children become more familiar with the play dough, they begin to experiment with different ways of manipulating it.
  • Add pieces of straws or Popsicle sticks, challenge the children to make bridges or buildings.           

Approaches to Learning/Engagement & Persistence

  • Many children seem to be able to stay focused with play dough for long periods of uninterrupted time. 
  • Show the children how to roll the play dough to make a ball/bead.  Use a straw to make a hole through the ball/bead and let it dry.  When dry, the children can paint the ball/bead and string it onto a piece of yarn to make a necklace.

Approaches to Learning/Reasoning & Problem Solving

  • Children begin to manipulate play dough and figure out how to roll, make balls, cubes, and models.

Physical Health & Development/Fine Motor Skills

  • Give the children scissors to cut the play dough into pieces.  This is a good first scissor experience as play dough is easier to cut than paper.
  • Manipulating play dough strengthens hand-eye coordination.
  • Through play dough, children develop strength, dexterity, and coordination that will be needed later for writing.
  • Show the children how to make pinch pots or coil pots.

Physical Health & Development/Health Status & Practices

  • Children learn the health practices that are associated with play dough exploration.  They learn the importance of keeping the play dough clean (thus washing hands before and after play dough experiences).  They learn how to clean up play dough and throw play dough that has hit the ground in the garbage.