hand made playdough on a wooden tray with wooden tools and loose parts.

The Benefits of Play Dough

The Benefits of Play Dough

The Developmental Benefits of Play Dough for Children's Learning

playdough in jars on a woven placement. featuring rich vibrant colours in magnenta, teal, navy, moss green, sky blue, purple and a galaxy inspired black, blue, purple swirl with glitter

Play dough is a staple of early childhood play and learning.  In my 25 years in early childhood education it has certainly been a core part of the curriculum I’ve planned for children’s learning and development.  


Reflections on Play Dough and Children’s Learning

Back in 2013 in my past life,  I can recall a mentoring visit to one early learning service,  where I saw an Educational Leader setting up the play dough table for the day. She had a repurposed ice cream tub in the traditional blue ribbon vanilla blue with a few battered rolling pins, some mixed plastic cookie cutters in shapes and alphabet letters and pink play dough. 


I really started to think about the value of play dough and the silent messages we give to children when we offer them play dough resources. In that example I gave above, the children were being told that play dough can be rolled and cut into certain shapes and certain letters. There wasn’t a full set of the alphabet, it was just the leftovers. What does our resourcing of children's play tell children about their play?

homemade play dough in jars on a window sill


Now I’m not saying that the resourcing has to be perfect, and I’m not saying you should throw things out once they’re no longer a full set BUT what I am saying is that children deserve the thoughtful and intentional resourcing of their play. Resourcing should be an intentional mix of purchased for purpose resources, repurposed and recycled items, and natural elements. This truly provides children rich learning opportunities for children’s development and learning. You provide the resourcing and the children will drive the learning. 


vibrant purple playdough with a round playdough stamp on a woven playdough placement

Play dough offers children numerous developmental benefits. It's almost an infinite list! Play dough: 

  • Supports children in developing the small muscles of their hands that aids fine motor skills and dexterity
  • Is an open ended material that fosters children’s creativity,
  • Supports early literacy and numeracy development,
  • Is children to explore its sensory qualities
  • Strengthens small fingers, hands and wrists
  • Builds children's imagination as they play with it, creating as they wish
  • Developing self-esteem - no right or wrong to play
  • It's calming and helps children relieve stress through their hands
  • Involving them in making the dough and discussing things like colour and texture, and what happens when liquids are added

home made play dough using natural colouring on a marble base with a botanical decoration by loretta from made for teaching

The Benefits of Play Dough for Children’s Fine Motor Development

As children are manipulating the dough by rolling, pinching, poking, squeezing and squishing they are building the muscle strength in their arms, hands and fingers. These muscles are the very same muscles that children use when they are learning to dress and undress themselves, do up their buttons, zippers and shoe laces and then later on when they learn to draw, paint, and write, use scissors to cut and paste.

The Benefits of Play Dough for Children’s Hand-eye coordination 

Play dough is a fantastic tool to nurture children’s hand-eye coordination which is the brain coordinating using the sensations in our arms, hands and fingers accurately with our eyes. 

Children are learning hand-eye coordination as they use their hands to shape and manipulate play dough. Every which way children shape play dough: squishy, squeezing, rolling and squashing, pushing and pulling, chopping and cutting 

The Benefits of Play dough for Children’s Creativity and Imagination

Play dough, as an open ended material that can be used in a multitude of ways. Children can use it in a home corner where they can pretend to prepare food, cook their family favourite recipes. Acting out 

While engaging in pretend play with play dough, children are using symbolic thinking when they pretend that play dough is something other than what it is. Piaget referred to this as the Pre-operational Stage which occurs when children are aged 2 to 7 years old. Children use items to symbolically represent their ideas which is why children’s play around these ages are so intrinsically driven by pretending!

While playing with play dough, children begin to use symbolic thinking or pretending the  is something else. This is an important part of cognitive development and how children are able to express their ideas. 

Younger children begin to make simple, familiar items such as worms, pancakes, pizza and balls while preschool children will typically see more complex play dough creations develop. When playing with friends, these creations can become much more involved, with different characters and buildings, which enables children to work together and explore ideas. 

Extend and Enrich Children’s Play through Loose Parts With Play Dough

hand made playdough on a wooden tray with wooden tools and loose parts by loretta at made for teaching

Adding open ended materials to another open ended material provides children rich  learning opportunities for children to explore.

Poking and pulling out different objects strengthens finger muscles, hand-eye coordination and concentration.

I’m a big fan of loose parts, as well as nature play. It is after all part of our name: Sticks & Stones Education. 

Some fantastic natural loose parts to add to your play dough space:

  • stones, sticks, twigs, branches
  • Stones, pebbles and gravel 
  • Feathers both crafty and found
  • Crystals and crystal chips
  • Sea shells 
  • pine cones, sticks, bark, leaves
  • Tree branch slices, twig sticks
  • Seed pods, banksia pods 
  • Glass pebbles, glass marbles

Some fantastic repurposed and recycled loose parts to add to your play dough space:

  • dry pasta shapes, both natural and dyed
  • coloured rice
  • cleaned food containers such as yogurt tubs.
  • cupcake cases, paper and silicone
  • shape and themed cookie cutters
  • lids of various shapes, sizes and colours
  • patterned paper drinking straws (avoid plastic!)
  • wooden blocks and beads
  • buttons and pipe cleaners
  • muffin tins, egg cartons, chocolate boxes,
  • Fabric, netting and ribbons

Enriching children’s play by adding open-ended loose parts really extends children’s learning outcomes. Children are playfully engaged on a deeper level when their interests are involved. They also play for longer and as a result develop their concentration spans. This also means children are engaged in multi-sensory learning. 

The Benefits of Play dough for Children’s STEM Learning: 

By making play dough with children you’re actually extending children’s learning and development. Children are given the opportunity to measure and mix as well as transform the ingredients from dry and wet parts into a solid. While it may seem magical, it’s actually STEM learning: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

By adding in sensory elements to the dough mixture you create new experiences for children. This in turn deepens children’s experience and learning. And when you use intentional teaching strategies such as using descriptive vocabulary to describe the dough to children or using open ended questioning to encourage their thinking and language - you’re deepening the learning even further. 

How to Make Your Own Play Dough:

When making your own play dough all you need is a few ingredients that are easily sourced at a supermarket.  Children can help by measuring quantities and mixing ingredients together.

Traditional Play Dough Recipe:

 The Ingredients:

  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 1 cup plain salt
  • 2 tablespoons of oil (cooking oil, coconut oil, jojoba oil)
  • 4 tablespoons of cream of tartar
  • Food colouring 
  • 2 cups boiling water

 The Method:

  • Mix all the dry ingredients and the oil together and mix well 
  • Add the food colouring to the boiling water
  • Slowly add in the coloured boiling water and stir with a wooden spoon to combine. If the dough is coming together then hold off on adding all the water. Play it by feel. 
  • When the mixture has cooled to the touch, mix with your hands. It’s important to work the dough. It brings the mixture together. 
  • Make sure you store the dough in an airtight container. 

Play Dough as a Therapy Tool: Turn Play Dough into a Rich Sensory Experience 

You can turn play dough into a rich sensory experience by adding in different elements such as 

  • safe essential oils in small amounts 
  • fresh or dried citrus zest: lemon, lime, mandarine, orange, grapefruit
  • cocoa or coffee powder 
  • ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, or turmeric
  • chai tea and matcha tea powder
  • fruit juices such as beet, citrus 
  • natural food colouring
  • natural food flavouring such as vanilla, coconut, almond, or coffee essences 
  • lavender flowers and leaves
  • rose petals and rose water
  • fresh herbs such as sage, dill, rosemary, thyme, coriander 
  • cold or hot brew fruit teas that include rosehips and rich aromatics
  • child safe acrylic paint and/or eco glitter
  • flower petal confetti 
  • eucalyptus confetti

What are some common play dough themes? 

 

Mermaid Play Dough Kit

 

Mermaid Play Dough Kit

 

Construction Site Play Dough Kit

 

Construction Site Play Dough Kit

 

farm play dough kit

Farm Site Play Dough Kit

 

Frog Pond Play Dough Kit

 

What Other Types of Play dough and Sensory Doughs are There? 

Stay tuned! There's more to come! 


Links and more ideas to come!:

Play dough kits for the themes 

Play dough tools 

Play dough/clay dough 

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