Tips and Tricks for Play Dough Success!
Play dough is so much more than the fun, messy, sensory experience that brings children running. It is often the first three-dimensional art medium that students experience. Sadly, many students very rarely get to revel in squishing soft play dough in their hands anywhere except in the classroom.
Unfortunately, play dough is a resource that many teachers and parents have negative feelings about. Commonly heard when asking adults about their feelings on this “messy subject” include:
- “I don’t let them use play dough unless it’s a special occasion.”
- “The clean-up is awful!”
- “When we are done, I find it EVERYWHERE!”
- “I avoid using it entirely – it dries up too fast.”
- “They mix all the colors together and it looks disgusting.”
- “It’s what I give kids if I hate their parents.”
But play dough doesn’t have to be painful! With the right setup, it’s an amazing resource, keeps students engaged for long periods of time, and literally oozes with potential for developing skills across the board!
Setting Up for Success
Learning is a messy business. Children love to explore and lack the inhibitions of adults – maybe because they aren’t responsible for vacuuming or cleaning the rug! Most students happily smear, smush, and splatter while they explore sensory materials. This is all part of learning, and the best thing a teacher can do is mitigate the mess by preparing well ahead of time.
Please note: these are only suggestions to cut down on the mess. If it is easier to skip this step and clean up when the students are done, by all means, go that route!
- Take it outside! Yes, it will likely shorten the life-span of the play dough, but it will be very easy to clean up. This is a fantastic choice for adding natural components like leaves, twigs and rocks into the play dough.
- Tablecloths are amazing dropcloths. The flannel-backed kind are the most durable, but even the thin “party” tablecloths from the dollar store can serve as a table covering or a dropcloth – or both!
- Make it a “table only” center – by having the center at a table (over linoleum or a dropcloth) students are more likely to keep it off the carpet and out of the gerbil cage.
- Contain it – use it in a sensory table, dishpans, or even a wading pool.
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But…Messes will Still Happen. Here’s How to Clean Them Up!
Despite the best of precautions, sometimes messes just happen. It’s just a simple truth of preschool – and kids in general. Thankfully, there are ways to solve any problems as they arise.
Just Add Water
Coming across a hardened bit of play-dough hours or days after play has ended can feel so frustrating. However, it doesn’t have to be! Simply get a washcloth damp with hot water, place it onto the dried dough and let it sit for about an hour. After the hardened dough has rehydrated, it will probably be malleable enough to clean up, just like when it was fresh.
Let It Go
One of the easiest ways to get play dough out of carpet and clothing is to let it go. Leave it to dry out, and then use a stiff brush to loosen the dried dough. Smeared into a more delicate fabric? Again, let it dry, but use a softer brush to gently massage the sticky stuff off of the fabric.
Bubbles to the Rescue
If play dough gets stuck on clothing and just won’t come out, try hydrogen peroxide. Test on a small spot of the fabric first to ensure that it won’t harm the item. Then, take a soft, dry brush and massage a small amount of hydrogen peroxide into the spot. Rinse well.
A Hairy Situation
If a student is unlucky enough to experiment with a “hair treatment,” don’t despair! Comb the hair out up to the spot where the play dough is stuck. Get a bowl of warm water and add a small amount of dish soap. Soak a washcloth in the hot, soapy water, then use the washcloth to grasp the gunk. Massage the washcloth over the dough until you see it start to dissolve.
A Special Bonus!
Play dough doesn’t have to be the cause of the mess – it can also be the best clean-up tool for another material that teachers love to hate – glitter! After using glitter at the art table, invite students to roll older dough around in the messy area. The glitter sticks right to the dough, and it gets a new life as “sparkle dough!”
The Benefits of Play Dough
Play dough is more than just a fun way to keep young children occupied and entertained. Children playing with the dough get so much more out of it than just fun!
- Fine Motor Strength – Pushing, pulling, and shaping the dough work those small muscles of the hands. The same muscles that hold pencils, tie shoes, and move board game pieces.
- Sensory Stimulation – Playing with play dough is a calming activity, even if the students are very excited to play with it. Sensory play also helps students grow neural pathways in their brains, grow the ability to focus and tune out distractions, and regulate their impulsivity.
- Math Matters – Measuring, capacity, numbers and the concepts of more and less are all important preschool math skills that get exercised. Play dough also is a fun way to learn number formation.
- Literacy – Using play dough encourages vocabulary development. Symbolic play connects an idea that students read about or experienced to what they are playing as well. Enhance letter recognition with customized mats or use it as a seek-and-find activity as well!
- Small World Play – If there ever was a medium just MADE for small world play, it’s play dough! As a supporting cast member, it can hold small parts as a base, as terrain, or as props. It’s perfectly comfortable being a main character too! Students can mold figures and use these to incorporate small parts into play.
- Social-Emotional Learning – Emotionally regulating, play dough and other sensory play activities are a key into the emotional side of students. Working and kneading the dough is soothing and opens up students to more meaningful conversations, helps them tackle deeper topics, and also encourages conversation between peers. Play dough also develops creativity and representational thinking!
- Science/STEAM – There are so many recipes to make DIY play dough (here is the best one!) which makes it a fantastic science project. How can these ingredients make something so much fun? What happens if one ingredient is taken away or changed? How can it be made better? Little scientists have a field day with following procedures, experimentation, and more!
Play Dough Variations
Play dough is pretty exciting stuff all by itself, but with a few different mix-ins, it becomes even better! In the fall, mix up some apple cinnamon dough or pumpkin spice dough, or provide fall-themed accessories. Winter just begs for a batch of gingerbread play dough! Spring flowers and small twigs are great accessories for some spring-themed play doughs as well. No matter the season, there are ways to keep it even more engaging than it already is!
Here are some posts on amazing variations of play dough and ways to incorporate them into your classroom:
- Apple Cinnamon
- Birthday Cake (link from Parenting Chaos)
- Cloud Dough
- Foam Dough (link from AndNextComesL)
- Ice Cream (link from Smart Schoolhouse)
M.I. Swartz, 2005, “Playdough: What’s Standard about It?,” Young Children 60 (2): 100–09.
Gluten-Free Play Dough Recipes: https://www.aaaai.org/Conditions-Treatments/Just-For-Kids/Allergy-Free-Play-Dough-Recipes