Occupational therapists always has a container of play dough in their therapy bag…there are just so many benefits of play dough. Squish, squeeze, pinch, flatten, roll, cut, stamp, and mold and other fine motor playdough activities are just a few of the ways children can engage with play dough. It’s a classic modeling compound that is timeless, holds popularity, as well as longevity in childhood development. We know that the primary job, or occupation, of children is play and playdough offers a tool for play while building skills. Because of that fact, one of the main benefits of play dough is it helps to develop skills while providing hours of satisfying fun for children of any age.
Benefits of Play Dough
Learners of all ages and stages can reap the benefits of play dough. As an adult, don’t you still enjoy the squishing, squeezing, and molding fun using play dough?
Play dough can target many areas of skill development. Tons of inspirational ideas can be found online. There are many creative individuals online who share awesome ideas for play dough fun. As therapists, you can take those fun ideas and add your Occupational Therapy (OT) eye to build the skills a child needs for their specific development.
Play dough is a tactile gem, and occupational therapy practitioners know this! There are so many benefits of play dough. Playing with this dough regularly is great, as it is a toy with no right or wrong way to play, is safe, and appeals to many people with various learning styles and needs. Children can make their own play dough making it even more fun!
The benefits of playing with play dough include:
- Fine motor skill development
- Tactile sensory challenges
- Bilateral coordination
- Sensory development
- Self regulation tool
- Creative development
- Eye-hand coordination development
- Gross motor development
- Social skill development
- Life skill development
- Learning skill development
- Rapport-building tool
We’ll cover how to use play dough as a tool to support development in all of these areas in greater detail below.
As a side note, did you know that playdough was originally created as a wallpaper cleaner? This “mistake” turned out to be one of the most desirable and iconic playthings around…and kids gain all of the benefits of playing with playdough!
How to Develop Skills with Play Dough
So, when you pop open a tub of colorful play dough, you probably aren’t thinking about the benefits of playing with playdough…but your pediatric occupational therapist probably is!
Fine motor skill development
Play dough helps build multiple fine motor skills, while promoting play, as it instantly provides multi-sensory hands-on interaction. Children who are tactile seekers love to engage with play dough, and instantly begin squishing, squeezing, and molding it.
If you are looking for ideas for therapeutic sessions, try these fun fine motor play dough activities to encourage fine motor skill development and hand strengthening throughout the year.
If learners seem tired of routine fine motor and visual motor activities, adding these super fun play dough game boards and cards to your OT Toolbox will keep kids engaged, while building their skills.
Fine Motor Skills Developed through playing with Play Dough
- Pinch strength
- Eye-hand coordination
- Intrinsic muscle strengthening
- Separation of the sides of the hand
- Pincer grasp
- Tripod grasp
- Wrist extension
If more strength and dexterity is needed, traditional thera-putty can be swapped for play dough.
Specific skill areas can be developed using play dough including:
- Pencil grasp by building hand strength of the tripod grasp and arches
- Scissor skills by cutting playdough along lines pressed into the dough.
Another one of the benefits of play dough is building bilateral coordination. Bilateral coordination can be both sides of the body doing the same thing, working together, like squishing the play dough.
It can also be one hand holding the dough, while the other hand uses a tool. The addition of playdough tools can enhance skills and play.
Rolling a play dough snake is particularly effective for developing bilateral coordination skills. In many functional tasks, both hands do symmetrical task (buttoning a shirt, pulling up pants, jumping rope, etc. When rolling a lump of play dough with the hands together, one needs to use the same amount of pressure or force with both hands, and move the playdough together at the same time. Otherwise, the play dough snake is lopsided, or thin on one end and not the other.
There are many commercially available play dough tools, but there are also tools that can be found in the home! Kitchen tools safe for children to use, are some of the best tools for bilateral hand skills. Start with simple flatware such as butter knives, forks, and spoons. Next, look through your utensil drawers.
Do you have a spatula, pizza wheel, cookie cutters, garlic press, rolling pin, scissors, potato masher, skewers, or a muffin pan? These are perfect for play dough playtime! Experiment and see what your learners like to use. Build those bilateral coordination skills, while also building early life skills, with the use of kitchen tools. It’s a win for childhood development.
Using play dough can be great for the sensory seeker who loves texture. Those who seek out heavy work through the hands can benefit from
While touching sticky or messy textures is difficult for the individual experiencing tactile defensiveness. For those who avoid textures, play dough can support development and tactile challenges with a sensory medium that is consistently the same texture each and every time. It is not as easy for the avoider who does not like to get messy. Sensory touch can be very limiting in some, so this is a good starting point to address defensiveness.
Traditional play dough is not as sticky as slime or other putties, making it a great tool for some individuals.
To use play dough to support tactile defensiveness, try these tips:
- Add gloves for play with the learner with extreme avoidance, until they can tolerate touching the play dough.
- Add different textures such as salt, glitter, beads, rice, to add more tactile input for your sensory seeker.
- Be considerate of the smell of play dough. Some love it, while others can not tolerate this familiar smell.
- Add your own scent in home made dough for olfactory input.
What other kinds of sensory input can you think of using play dough?
Provides calming and quiet time
Play dough can be used as a relaxing medium that provides calm and quiet time for children who are feeling anxious or stressed and need a break away from the noise and the action.
This happens by the feedback of the dough as a resistive material, which offers heavy work through the hands, fingers, and arches of the hands. This feedback of proprioceptive input can be a coping strategy used in a sensory diet or as a self-regulation tool.
Play dough manipulation also provides tactile sensory awareness and proprioceptive input, which can serve to be therapeutic by giving deep pressure to the hands, fingers, and arms in a calming manner.
If making your own play dough, add a little calming essential oil, and you’ve given it another desirable element for calm play, and time away. Another great benefit of play dough!
One especially calming play dough recipe is our crayon play dough, and playing with the dough when warm is very calming.
As an added benefit, playdough mats support emotional regulation. These emotions playdough mats can be used in combination with other self regulation strategies to offer heavy work through the hands while building emotional intelligence in kids.
Boosts creativity and imagination
Working with play dough helps unlock the creative juices of a learner. Since there is no right or wrong, their creativity is unleashed and ready to go, using whatever materials are around and available. We covered using play dough imagination activities in greater detail on a previous blog post.
Pretend play activities like pressing flowers and rocks into play dough is a pretend play activity while building underlying areas of sensory and motor development.
If you have a few kiddos who seem to struggle with creativity, or imaginative play while at the play dough table, The OT Toolbox has you covered with these great play dough mats to facilitate engagement and boost creativity for kids.
Take a look at these play dough mats, and get your FREE copies in the links below:
- Play Dough City
- Space Play Dough Mat
- Toy Theme Play Dough Mat
- Play Dough Hand Strength Astronaut Mat
- Roll and Write Play Dough Mat Bundle Deal
- Ice Cream Play Dough Mat
- Bird Play Dough Mat
Play dough Develops eye-hand coordination
Play dough is the perfect tool for kids to work on important eye-hand connection skills. Learners utilize hand-eye coordination to poke, cut, smash, and pinch the play dough.
Eye-hand connection is developed when using cookie cutters to cut playdough, and add accessories to decorate. Using stampers or objects to press into the dough to make images or scenes, can further build eye-hand coordination.
If you want a fun way to encourage play dough engagement, it can be fun to add a weekly or monthly theme to therapy sessions way to facilitate hand actions, for play dough manipulation, including tool use. Just use play dough in each session and switch out the manipulatives, cookie cutters, or items to hide in the play dough.
- Get out a set of Mr. Potato Head pieces and work on pressing these into the dough to make a funny character.
- Another idea is to use play dough ropes to form letters and pre-writing lines and shapes with play dough.
- Still another idea is to match colors with play dough using small objects and different colors of play dough.
Gross motor skill development
Play dough can be used for gross motor development also. Include playdough in an obstacle course as a stop between obstacles, or gross motor exercises.
Try this: walk the balance beam, then create a play dough stick figure, do a bear walk, next create a play dough bear face, roll in the tunnel, then roll a ball of play dough flat with a rolling pin, etc.
Use the same idea for exercise programming: complete an exercise, complete a play dough activity, and so on.
the benefits of play dough as a Multi-level tool
Play dough can be used as a foundation when using materials included in (Amazon affiliate link) play trays, and other themed activities.
There are many cool play dough tray ideas and inspiration for other themed activities that will make your play dough table the coolest table in the school building.
Examples of play trays
- Use play dough in a recycled candy box
- Use mini-figures such as plastic animals
- Make play dough cupcakes
- Create themed play bins with play dough
In addition to the above play dough tray ideas, there are several play dough kit ideas online ideal for the traveling therapist who needs to move throughout several buildings or homes. These kits are the perfect engagement tool, easily transported wherever you end up seeing a child for therapy.
play dough builds life skills
Engaging with play dough can help to build important life skills as children follow simple recipes to make their own play dough, and use kitchen tools for engagement. They are measuring, mixing, and creating, while developing knowledge of tool use and hand skills in the kitchen.
When kids use play dough tools like plastic knives, play dough scissors, and other sculpting tools, they are strengthening the skills needed to hold a fork and spoon, developmental progression of grasping utensils, and particularly the skill of cutting food with a knife.
Play dough recipes can be adapted from a very simple dough recipe to add in different ingredients and materials to create recipes on a spectrum of abilities and cooking tasks.
Simple play dough recipe- This play dough recipe without cream of tarter is probably the simplest version which still challenges life skills.
Advanced play dough recipe- Did you know you can use crayons to make play dough? Pick a color or shade, or mix them a few to create a new shade. This crayon play dough recipe does require an adult to perform the stovetop part of the recipe. An older, or more advanced learner could do it with supervision.
On that spectrum of play dough recipes with varying difficulty are many of the best play dough recipes for therapy that we have here on the website.
Social skill development
Interacting with play dough provides social emotional learning and social skill development opportunities between children in a small group or child and adult.
When using play dough as a tool, children participate together by talking, sharing, and co-building.
When using play dough with no right or wrong way to play, play it is the perfect tool for social interaction without competition.
One of the many benefits of play dough, is learning. It can be a multi-level teaching tool for areas including math, literacy, and handwriting.
Use playdough as a creative way to practice math skills and concepts, or use it to mold and shape letters to work on handwriting.
This is especially beneficial for kids who struggle with letter formation, and have weak fine motor skills. You can use play dough as part of a literacy routine, by creating scenes, acting out stories, stamping out sight words, representing new vocabulary terms, or using push pins to form words.
Rapport building tool
Play dough can help therapists/teachers/caregivers build rapport with new learners on their caseload or classroom during back-to-school rapport building periods or when meeting a new therapy client.
Simply present it and play. It is really that easy.
Use a kit, tray, or a few cookie cutters, and you’ve got an instant engagement tool that allows for conversation and creation, while building that important therapeutic relationship.
Now, go have some amazing playtime with this classic toy. You know you want to!
Regina Parsons-Allen is a school-based certified occupational therapy assistant. She has a pediatrics practice area of emphasis from the NBCOT. She graduated from the OTA program at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute in Hudson, North Carolina with an A.A.S degree in occupational therapy assistant. She has been practicing occupational therapy in the same school district for 20 years. She loves her children, husband, OT, working with children and teaching Sunday school. She is passionate about engaging, empowering, and enabling children to reach their maximum potential in ALL of their occupations as well assuring them that God loves them!