As an Early Childhood Educator, I love playdough. It is a material that has the means of offering learning for children in a million and one ways.
Children use their large and fine motor skills to manipulate the dough and the tools, which leads to strengthening those muscles that will be used for writing (etc, etc, etc) in the future. Using those muscles is a lot more tiring for children than we think as adults, so it makes a nice activity to do before nap or bedtime, too.
While playing with playdough, children learn about gravity, physics and space as they build and squish the dough into towers and forms. Working with your child, there is a lot of language learning that goes on, too, when you talk about and describe what you are doing, what you are using, and what you are making. It makes the perfect means of casually familiarizing children with shapes and other conepts (“Let’s make a star!” “Oh look, you made a circle.”), whether made free-form or with cookie cutters. By making long “wormy” shapes, you can arrange them into letters and words as an introduction to written language and symbols for the younger set, and as an interesting means of reading and “writing” for the older child.
You can practically make anything out of playdough. This lends itself to endless opportunities for imagination as well as creative expression, which is so important within Reggio philosophy (and my own). Giving children an outlet to explore the world and experiment with the concepts they are building is helpful for enhancing those concepts and working through any hesitancies and confusion that they might have. Take for example a child who has heard of a “restaurant”, and may or may not have been to one their self. By playing “restaurant” with playdough (or any other imaginary props), children share their understandings of the concept and learn from eachother and facilitating adults what might happen at a restaurant, who is in a restaurant, what the expectations are of patrons and employees, new language associated with going to or working in a restaurant, and on and on.
Recently I put out an activity for three children of various ages who I care for: one 7-year-old, one 5-year-old, and my own 19-month-old. First we made a batch of fresh playdough together using this recipe. It really is the best recipe I’ve found so far for playdough (and as an ECE I’ve tried a ton). It’s super fast, easy, and is safe for little ones who may be prone to sticking everything in their mouths. Plus, it lasts for months, which means less time spent making it, less money spent on materials, and more time to play.
Once the playdough was all ready to go, we set it at a child-sized table to allow the little ones the best access for pushing, poking and prodding at in a defined space. (Giving children easily identifiable spaces to work within helps to keep them focused and confident in where they are playing, while keeping the mess somewhat confined for easier clean-up.)
At the table, I encouraged the children to work with the playdough with just their hands to start out with. Becoming familiar with a material, as it is, touching and moulding it in their own hands, helps to build a relationship with the material to better understand it and how it can be worked with.
After a few minutes, I added a bag of small, glass beads to the centre of the table. The sight of these shiny little lumps seemed to excite all three children, who were eager to use them. Using visually appealing materials and set-ups really does make a difference in how motivated children are to try a particular activity or invitation.
The children needed no instructions as to how to use the beads, as their imaginations were already brimming with ideas. The older children set out at once making patterns and pictures out of the beads on their play dough. My toddler also started incorporating the beads into her play dough, sticking them one at a time to cover the top of her creation.
After a while, one of the older girls mentioned how much she wished we had a roller to more easily make the playdough flat for placing designs on. I rifled through the block box and found three wooden columns, and these worked really well in place of a traditional rolling pin. Watching the older girls roll out their dough, my little one quickly caught on and in a matter of minutes had picked up a new skill with a new tool, and was rolling out her play dough, too.
I was actually surprised at how much time the children spent (more than half an hour after the dough was made!), fully engaged in what they were doing. They were all using their muscles to push at and roll out the dough, their fine motor skills to pick up and stick on the beads, and their creativity to place the beads into beautiful designs.
I’ve had these glass beads for a number of years, so I can’t remember where I got them, but I’ve seen them in dollar stores and craft stores for relatively cheap. A couple dollars worth of jewels, 5 minutes worth of play dough making, hours of engaged entertainment. Of course it’s always best to be actively involved with your little one, but it’s also nice to be able to sneak away to throw dinner on or sweep up the lunch mess while the little one is busy poking away without you. Balance is the key to happiness, if you ask me.
What is your favourite play dough invitation? Share your ideas in the comments below!