Squish, shape, thrive: How play dough nurtures development and imagination


The developmental benefits of play dough

Amongst kids and adults alike, play dough is an absolute favorite toy with endless possibilities. Honestly, I still like playing with it as an adult when my son pulls his play dough out. And while the squishing, building, and rolling provides endless fun, playing with play dough also has a ton of developmental benefits for kids. From fine motor skills to creativity, the positives of play dough are enough for us to recommend all parents keep this toy in their homes.

Sensory exploration

Play dough offers numerous opportunities for sensory play. The dough itself is an easily manipulated material that allows for squishing, squeezing, and kneading. This tactile feedback increases their sensation of touch. You can also add to the sensory exploration at home by adding spices like cinnamon for smell or new colors to engage multiple senses at once. Additionally, you could try adding small beads or sequins for a new feel. Sensory play is all about exploring using all their senses, and there’s so many ways you can do that with play dough.

Development of fine motor skills

Playing with play dough is an excellent way to develop and strengthen the small muscles of the wrists, hands, and fingers. All the pinching, rolling, and shaping of the dough is a fun, and very effective, way to bring in fine motor skills. Not to mention all the different tools that can be used with play dough that also help build fine motor skills. For example, play dough is a great place to start for scissors skills.

Language Development

While using play dough, there’s so many areas of vocabulary that you can highlight with your kids. Talk to them about using texture words such as soft or squishy (or hard if you left the play dough out). You can also use action words they may have never heard before like kneading, pounding, or pinching. Narrate what you do as they watch you play with the play dough. Encourage their verbal vocabulary by asking questions about what they are making or how they are playing with the play dough.

Encouraging creativity and imagination

Like other forms of messy play, play dough encourages learning through exploration during open-ended play. This toy offers endless possibilities spurred on by the child’s own curiosity and imagination. Children can experiment with the play dough as their ideas come to life in a way that few other toys offer. Play dough even encourages imagination through storytelling as children dream up stories of their own to go along with their creations.

Cognitive development

Play dough may seem like a simple tool, but there’s so much going on you may have never thought about. While playing, kids are learning cause and effect when they create, destroy, or remold new things. They’re also learning problem solving as they try new techniques to make their ideas possible. And play doh is great for pretend play. All these skills are essential for cognitive development and are the beginnings of critical thinking down the road. You can also use play dough to help them learn colors, shapes, letters, and numbers!

How do you teach a child to play with play dough?

Because play dough is a form of messy play and a very open-ended toy, don’t think of ‘teaching’ your child so much as guiding them. They will need guidance, especially at the beginning, but the benefits of play dough come from letting them explore. We do have some tips for getting started and giving guidance.

Using play dough for the first time

The first time you give play dough to your child, you’re going to want to explain to them what it is. And emphasize it’s only for playing with, never for eating. Begin by demonstrating yourself. Explain how the play dough will change shapes and can be molded and remolded into anything they want.

Invite them to touch and squish the play dough you have. They may need a little time and practice to get used to the feel. New sensory experiences can be overwhelming for little ones, so don’t be surprised if they need extra encouragement.

Encourage their participation

Start with small, simple activities using the play dough to get them engaged. Try rolling tiny balls or rolling out long ‘snakes’. Talk to them about how it feels, what they think they can make, or different aspects of the play dough itself such as the colors or shapes.

Then, try giving them different tools to use with the play dough. At our house the favorite tools are rollers, scissors, and shape stamps. But try them all! Or bring in other toys that your child favors like plastic animals or cars. Once they get the feel for play dough, let them explore. Don’t give too many commands or tell them what they should be making. As they continue to play with it, you’ll be amazed at what they come up with!

13 Activities to try with play dough

Because of the open-ended nature and creative medium of play dough, there are limitless possibilities for activities. But if you need a place to start, here are our favorites (as voted on by kids):

  • Letters-either by stamping, writing with a stick, or physically rolling out the letters
  • Numbers-similar to letters but try numbers this time
  • Animal tracks-have different animals walk across the play dough
  • Shapes-practice stamping or cutting out shapes
  • Colors– practice your colors or mixing colors together
  • People-try making little play dough people of everyone in your family
  • Food– ask your child to make their favorite food
  • Birthday party-make some birthday cakes together (feel free to pull out real candles)
  • Smells-try making play dough with different spices with the recipe below
  • Zoo-bring in some play animals to feed or dress with the play dough
  • Car tracks-find different toy cars that will make fun tracks
  • Dress up-grab their plastic toys to dress up
  • Scissor practice-practice cutting the play dough with scissors

What can you add to play dough to make it more fun?

While play doh is extremely fun on it’s own, there are definitely ways to change it up! First, you can try to add new tools to the play dough. Add in some real kitchen utensils as they try to make food with the play dough. Or try adding in toys like plastic toys, animals, food, or vehicles.

You can also try adding things to mix into the play dough for a different sensory experience. For different colors, try food coloring, jello powder, or drink mix powder. Adding glitter will also change the look. Changing the smell is another way to mix things up. The easiest way to do this is to add in spices, herbs, or extracts to the play dough. For the biggest sensory mix up, try mixing in items that will change the feel of the play dough. Some of our favorites are small beads, rice, sprinkles (again emphasize not to eat it!), sequins, and sand.


Is play dough toxic?

Technically, Play-Doh, the popular brand, is not toxic. But that doesn’t mean you should ingest it. Make sure to emphasize not to eat it when your child starts with play dough. We recommend supervising at all times. If your child gets a little bit in their mouth, try to get it out, but no need to panic. If you’re buying any other brand of play dough from the store, make sure the box says non-toxic.

What kind of play of dough set should I get?

This is really up to you based on your child, budget, and interests. We do recommend you start small as they get used to the play dough. Additionally, we recommend getting a set with small tools like scissors to help their fine motor skills. Try these: Play doh set or Letters for play doh. Or you could always make your own play doh (and give them kitchen utensils as tools!). Here’s an easy recipe we like to use:

The best DIY play dough recipe

  • 1 cup salt
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons alum
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Optional: 1 envelope unsweetened drink mix like Kool-Aid OR food coloring OR spices like cinnamon

Mix together the salt, flour, alum, and drink mix/coloring/spices in a large bowl and stir. Make sure to break up any clumps. Pour in the cold water then the oil while mixing. Once the ingredients are basically combined, you can start kneading the play dough with your hands until it’s soft and pliable.

We encourage you to involve your kids in the process of making the play dough if you do decide to make your own. They will love pouring ingredients, stirring in the bowl, and kneading the dough.

Let us know how yours turns out!

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