The benefits of playing with play dough

We all know that play dough is fun and popular with young children, but apart from making a mess what is it really good for? Here are the fabulous benefits of allowing kids to play with play dough and the many learning opportunities that happen along the way!

article benefits of play dough kids
Using play dough (or in fact any type of dough) with young children is beneficial in so many ways. Here are some ideas of how fabulous it is, divided into the areas of development that it helps:

Fine motor development:

The malleable properties of play dough make it fun for investigation and exploration as well as secretly building up strength in all the tiny hand muscles and tendons,  making them ready for pencil and scissor control later on. 
Poking in objects and pulling them out of play dough strengthens hand muscles and co-ordination

As part of simple, tactile play it can be squashed, squeezed, rolled, flattened, chopped, cut, scored, raked, punctured, poked and shredded! Each one of these different actions aids fine motor development in a different way, not to mention hand-eye co ordination and general concentration. And as soon as you add another element to it, the list of benefits and creative play possibilities continues to grow!

play dough tool kit ideas
These are the materials that we have to hand ready for any play dough free-play session. We keep these stored in jam jars in the cupboard and the girls can request any or all of these to add to the dough. [See more in the photo below!]

Having a wide range of additional extras to use while playing extends the investigation and play possibilities endlessly. Poking in sticks provides a challenge and a new physical skill. Squeezing through a garlic press leads to wonder and amazement at seeing it change shape, as well as using a gross motor movement to accomplish it. Sticking in spaghetti requires a delicate hand and can lead to threading and stacking pasta shapes or beads over the top. 

Providing boxes and containers with various shaped compartments can lead to cooking play, sorting, matching, ordering and counting, all naturally and without pressure to learn. 

By providing objects from nature with a wide range of textures, colours and shapes, children can have multi-sensory experiences and engage with the world around them in a whole new way. 
play dough pizzas kids
Using leaves and herbs from the garden with some pasta and spices to make play dough pizzas!
List of additional extras needed to create a play dough free play kit!

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but all of these elements can be used to create plenty of exciting, open-ended play times:

toy creatures
rolling pins, plastic knives, scissors, pizza cutters
cupcake cases in different sizes
coloured and natural feathers
pine cones, sticks, bark, leaves
 muffin tins, egg cartons, chocolate boxes,
small cups and shot glasses
alphabet, number and shape cookie cutters
pasta shapes
glass pebbles
toy vehicles
wooden letters and numbers
fabric, netting and ribbons
match sticks and lolly sticks
play dough ideas for learning

Imagination and Creativity:
As soon as you introduce open ended play items to add to the mix, play dough becomes the perfect medium for numerous types of imaginative play and can represent so many things in a child’s eyes.

A jar of candles and cupcakes cases leads naturally to birthday party role-play, counting out candles and singing! Glass pebbles can lead to sea-side imaginative small world play with story telling about sea creatures and mermaids!

 It can be chocolates and sweets in a sweet shop, cakes and bread in a bakery, grass and mud in a garden centre, sand or ice cream in a beach scene, soil, pebbles, ice or snow at the zoo/ jungle/ farm/ ocean and so on! The list is as endless as a child’s imagination!
play dough candy store sweet shop play
Play dough sweet shop imaginative play with chocolate, strawberry and vanilla scented play dough!

List of additional flavours and textures to add to play dough:

scents and colours
cocoa powder
fruit juices
food colouring
food flavouring
essential oils
kool aid

cous cous
coriander seeds
poppy seeds
sesame seeds
rock salt
tiny pasta
glitter glue

Calming and soothing:
As any adult who has played with dough can tell you, the effects of all that squeezing and pummelling are great for stress relief and can feel extremely therapeutic! Little children can struggle to express their emotions and using dough while talking and singing can really help that process. 

How about adding some essential oils to create the ultimate aromatherapy experience for little ones too!

Maths and Literacy development:

In more focused play, play dough can be used as a fantastic way to practise letter and number work. Children can form letters of the alphabet, spell out their own name, make numbers, form 2D and 3D shapes, compare lengths/ thicknesses/ weights, count out rolled balls to match numeral cards, match and sort by colour and SO many more ideas too!

alphabet play dough
Creating letter impressions in play dough by pushing in wooden letters, then decorating with beads!
Science and Discovery:

The actual act of making the play dough together with your child can lead to lots of questioning and prediction skills. Here we have some solid materials (flour, salt etc) to which we are going to add some liquids (oil, water.) What do you think will happen? What can we make? The child gets to explore and observe the changing state of materials in a hands-on way, and be filled with wonder as the bowl of unrelated ingredients comes together to form a sticky then smooth and squishy ball of dough! We often take these things for granted, but in the eyes and hands of a child that’s quite some transformation! 

Following a recipe and instructions, counting out cups, stirring and mixing and just being able to spend time on a collaborative project with an adult are all meaningful and important experiences too!

What an incredible substance play dough is! Let’s all start using it as part of our daily play and learning times with the young children in our care!

making cupcakes with play dough

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  1. Anonymous says

    I love some of these ideas but have children who eat play dough as they have sensory issues. Do you make the play dough full of cocoa increases this issue?

    • says

      Hi Anonymous, it might depend on what type of sensory issue your child has. Have you talked to an OT about this? (they can be really helpful in suggesting ideas to support sensory issues but not everywhere has the same level of provision/OT support, I’m not an OT so can’t advice professionally. Some children seek extra sensation e.g. enjoy massage, smelling things, walking without shoes- to gain extra sensation. Others avoid it and other do both seek and avoid it at different times. Other children ‘mouth’ things because that is the stage where they are at developmentally. If you wanted to use homemade dough and were worried about your child eating it you could make it so that everything that was in it is child safe (and you were happy with them eating) – you could use less/no salt (this does mean it won’t keep), and a suitable flavouring e.g if you weren’t happy with them eating chocolate (or they couldn’t eat it because of an allergy) you could use something that you were happy with e.g. vanilla. I personally always like to use homemade dough as it meant that I know exactly what’s in it – rather than shop bought things, but its a personal preference. I’d defiantly chat to the professionals involved in your child’s care first though and see what they think- as they will know your child and what maybe be helpful/not. This link might also be useful

  2. says

    We put vanilla in our last batch…Yum!!!
    How often do you make new dough…do you save it after play sessions or just start over next time? How best have you found to store it…ours is just in a ziploc bag at the moment.

    • Anonymous says

      i find a zip lock bag only lasts about 3 days, but working in a child care setting the playdough is out for long periods of time.I find a dinner box works best, atm we are using a plastic haribo container with a lid. if you use large items in the playdough they can be removed before you store it as this helps it last logner, but if bits are stuck then i just leave them in adds to the sensory aspect next time.

  3. says

    This is a fantastic post, so much info and inspiration in one place, we’ve been inspired so many times by your play dough ideas and we also have a stack of little boxes with bits and pieces for open-ended play dough fun, am always on the look-out for new things to add to the mix. Thanks for sharing, this must have taken quite a while to write and put together – what a great resource.


  4. says

    Play dough is a staple at my in-home daycare. I make it on a regular basis and the favorites seem to be gingerbread (ginger, cloves and cinnamon added to regular play dough recipe) and chocolate (cocoa), as well as all the kool-aid scents and colors. The kids just love making it and then playing with it immediately after it’s done while it’s still a little warm (making it an extra-sensory experience!). I’ve seen it made with old (dried) coffee grounds, which smells AMAZING and has a gritty texture.

  5. says

    Thank you so much for these wonderful ideas with playdough… I have to check out your recipes… How old would you start? (my son is 13 months old, I’m sure he would love this). I have discovered your blog not so long ago and love it! In fact we’re putting together a little playgroup in LA to do some of those messy sensorial activities on your blog. Very excited about it! :-)

  6. says

    Wonderful post. Such amazing ideas. I love the sweetie shop – so pretty and much nicer than the branded playdoh sets you can buy. E

  7. Catherine says

    Thanks for this inspiring post! I wonder – does the dye come off the coloured pasta or rice? And where did you get the wooden letters and shells from? Many thanks. :)

  8. Catherine says

    Just to add – I found some small coloured stones in a local shop – the size is just a little bigger than rice. I’ll be back to buy them next week, they look wonderful. It will save me dying rice! :)