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Published on March 17, 2020

sun, cloud, rainbow made of playdough

Boredom Breakers: Playdough

Do you have memories of playing with playdough when you were growing up? In the 1950s and 60s, clay was used in preschools and kindergartens to help children develop the small muscles in the hands that would be needed later to use a writing instrument and cut with a scissors. Clay was messy and hard to keep from drying out. It was replaced by commercial modeling doughs that are still used in classrooms today.

You can make your own playdough with ingredients from your kitchen. Here is my all-time favorite recipe:

Homemade playdough

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup salt
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • Food coloring

Directions: Add food coloring to the water. Mix all ingredients well in a heavy skillet, saucepan or electric frypan. Turn heat to medium and mix with a spatula until the dough thickens and is no longer sticky. Turn off the heat. Put the dough on a heatproof surface or plate. When it is cool enough, knead well. Store in an airtight bag or container. This dough keeps for a long time! It is non-toxic, but because it contains a lot of salt, children may get a tummy ache if they eat a lot of it. If multiple children will use the dough, wash hands before and after use to avoid spreading germs!

Commercial modeling doughs are fine. They are more expensive and often a little stiffer to handle than the homemade variety. One problem with commercial doughs is that they usually come as a part of a themed set like the ice cream shop or the dinosaur maker. This can limit children’s imagination when they only play in a certain way.

What will children gain from using modeling dough?

Most importantly, we hope they develop that group of muscles in their hands that is so important for future writing and other small motor skills. Encourage your child to squeeze, roll balls and roll “snakes” or flatten the dough. These activities stretch those muscles. Playdough can also teach about colors. Children can develop their imaginations and critical thinking skills as they think of new ways to use their dough.

What can we add to dough play?

For toddlers, be sure you supervise their play until you are confident that they won’t put too much playdough in their mouths. Be sure the things you add to dough play are not chokeable. Some suggestions are:

  • Things to stick into the dough like craft sticks, spoons, toy animals
  • Things that make interesting impressions in the dough like alphabet blocks, combs, safe kitchen utensils

Children three and older may have enough fine motor development to begin rolling out the dough with a small rolling pin. This will open the door to some possible dramatic play with playdough. Other interesting things to add for older children:

  • Googly eyes
  • Sea shells, pine cones or other materials from nature
  • Rocks, colored craft stones, beads
  • Foam shapes
  • Toy animals, people or cars
  • See what ideas your child has

Again, always think safety first and supervise until you are sure your child can play safely.

Other benefits of dough play

For many children, playing with modeling dough is soothing. If your child is having a bad day, or he/she just had a temper tantrum, playdough may be a way to calm things down.

Playdough is also a great way to introduce cutting with a scissors. Many children get frustrated when they cut paper because they can’t keep the paper at the correct angle. Let them roll “snakes” with playdough and practice cutting them. This activity lets them practice cutting skills without worry about the paper. Always supervise scissors activities and put scissors away when finished. Don’t worry if your child holds the scissors incorrectly. As the hand muscles develop, they will usually correct this.

Like most open-ended activities, playdough will usually keep kids busy for a long time. Make lots of colors, get out the accessories and have fun!

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