Purpose of playing with play dough

Beyond just being fun, play dough supports early childhood skill development in several ways.

Explore five ways children learn while playing with play dough.

Explore five ways children learn while playing with play dough.

Play dough has long been a staple of early childhood fun. Whether it’s store bought or homemade, play dough can keep children occupied for a long time, using their imaginations to create all sorts of doughy fun. Beyond being fun, play dough has several important benefits for children’s development. Michigan State University Extension highlights the following five ways children are learning while playing with play dough.

Fine motor skill development

While children are busy rolling, poking and squishing dough, they are building strength in the little muscles in their fingers and hands. These same muscles are used for later skills such as cutting and holding a pencil with a pincer grasp.

Children are also learning hand-eye coordination as they use their hands to shape play dough. Each different way children shape play dough—pushing, pulling, squashing, squeezing, rolling, chopping, cutting—builds fine motor development in a different way.

Creativity and imagination

When playing with play dough, children are beginning to use symbolic thinking, or pretending the play dough is something else. This is an important skill for cognitive flexibility, and a way in which children express their ideas.

Watch children play with play dough, often you will see younger children begin to make simple, familiar items such as worms, pancakes, pizza and balls. As they move into the older preschool years, you will typically see much more complex play dough creations develop. When playing with peers, these creations can become much more involved, with different characters and buildings. The opportunities are endless!

Science and math

Take time to make a batch of play dough with your child. Think about all the math and science skills you are supporting. Measuring, mixing, experimenting, predicting what will happen and watching this gooey mix transform into dough right before your eyes. You can add in colors, mix colors to create new colors and even add in spices such as cinnamon to create a new sensory experience. As adults, we expect to follow a recipe and have a predictable outcome; to children, this can be a very new experience. You can introduce new vocabulary words such as those to describe texture (grainy, smooth, lumpy) and discuss the process (what would happen if we added more flour? Less water?).

As children are shaping play dough, they are also learning about cause and effect. You can further these experiences by engaging in conversations with your child during this process. Ask open-ended questions, allow experimentation and have fun!

Basic Play Dough recipe

  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 2 tablespoons cream of tartar
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 cup water
  • Food coloring and/or spices as desired

Combine dry ingredients in a medium-size pan. Mix well. Add water, oil and food coloring if desired. Mix well. Cook over medium heat stirring constantly for several minutes. Mixture will thicken and begin to clump. Continuing stirring until large clump forms. Remove from heat. Allow to cool enough to handle. Knead dough for several minutes or until texture is smooth and consistent. Store in sealed plastic container or bag.

For a fun, seasonal variation, try making gingerbread play dough and providing children with gingerbread cookie cutters. The dough will naturally become a rich brown color, no need for food coloring, and smells good enough to eat! Begin with the Basic Play Dough recipe above and add gingerbread spices. You may enjoy experimenting with the quantities of spices.

Gingerbread Play Dough recipe

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 2 tablespoons cream of tartar
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves

Combine dry ingredients including spices in a medium-size pan. Mix well. Add water and oil. Mix well. Cook over medium heat stirring constantly for several minutes. Mixture will thicken and begin to clump. Continue stirring until large clump forms. Remove from heat. Allow to cool enough to handle. Knead dough for several minutes or until texture is smooth and consistent. Store in sealed plastic container or bag.

Interested in learning more about the value of play dough in early childhood education? The National Association for the Education of Young Children’s article, “Playdough Power,” offers more information, recipes and tips to expand on play dough fun!

For more information about this and other early childhood education topics, visit the MSU Extension website. 

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