Kids and Modeling Dough
We all know that using modeling dough, clay and Play-Doh are very important sensory experiences for young children. These activities strengthen the fine motor skills students will soon need for handwriting. Working with dough encourages imaginative play. It's also part of early science learning. There are several things you can do to maximize your kids' time with this fun material.
First, be sure there is enough dough for each person to use. Preschoolers will want at least a cup or two to start, and probably more later on. Either make a lot of it available or limit how many children can use it at a time.
Provide tools for the children to use with the dough, or it may bore them quickly. Plastic cookie cutters come in countless shapes and are easy for small fingers to grip. Small rolling pins are important to have on hand; cylinder blocks work well too. Try the Dollar Store for cheap kitchen utensils such as wooden mallets and large spoons. Try a colander to push dough through. Muffin tins and small molds provide shaping and sorting possibilities. I also give the kids safety scissors and dull plastic knives for cutting. More mature children can be offered spray bottles to moisten drying clay.
You can purchase all sorts of accessories intended for commercial Play-Doh, but beware: those with moving parts, like presses and machines, break easily and will be fought over. I dislike using commercial products like that in my own classroom anyway. (Did you know that children are exposed to 20,000 advertisements a year?)
In addition to tools, try giving the kids objects that can also become part of sculptures. Tongue depressors, craft sticks, toothpicks, and large wiggle eyes are great additions. Beads and buttons are fun. Pipe cleaners, cut in half, make cute antennae and legs.
You may need to model what to do with the dough. Depending on your group you can do this with the whole class or just sit at the center and show those who come over. Show the kids how to roll, flatten, and pinch it. I make large and small balls and put them on a flat clay "plate" like peas. I roll out long strands, then smoosh them and form bowls. I poke holes with my fingers. Then, I show them how to cut shapes with cookie cutters and add wiggle eyes to make creatures. After you've demonstrated, leave the kids to their work. You don't want to stifle creativity by making them think they're expected to be as good at it as you are.
It's essential to make sure your students understand the limits and rules around playing with the modeling dough. I'll give you some examples from my classroom. Children at the sensory center each get a tray, and that is where their dough has to stay. A central tray holds extra dough, tools, and so on; I teach the kids to put the stuff there when they're done so it's available for others. Dough that falls on the floor is to be thrown away, a rule that encourages them to be conscious of what they're doing. I also teach them that it's never okay to put the dough in their hair, throw it, or try to eat it. (Some teachers use edible dough - intended for consumption - but I find that confuses the kids then next time I make non-edible dough. It also gets in the way of me teaching them not to play with their food.)
Expose your kids to several types of dough. The soft Play-Doh variety isn't the only kind out there. Slick, non-drying modeling material is satisfying to use, although it does require more strength. Natural clay is also a core experience for young artists. Varying the kind of material gives children different sensory feedback, exercising small muscles and helping them interact better with the physical world.
You will also want to have times when the dough is just there to be played with, and other times when the children can save their creations. Play-Doh, and the dough recipe below, are not really intended to be dried out and saved. Oil-based modeling material won't dry either. Natural clay or paper-based clay can be air-dried and painted. Some clays are baked in a kiln (ask your local high school if you can use theirs). Polymer clays like Sculpey are baked in a kitchen or toaster oven. They are relatively expensive, but come in dozens of colors and hold detail very well. Makins Clay is similar to polymer clay but can be air-dried.
Finally, a note on colors. It's irritating for us type-A folks to make carefully measured portions of different colors (or spend a bunch of money on 12 colors of the commercial stuff) and then watch them get completely smooshed together within five minutes. Let it go, and let them do it. It's part of their learning. Leave the dough uncolored, or use only primary colors, and let them mix away.
This recipe makes enough smooth, soft play dough for two kids to use. I double or triple it for use in my sensory or science centers.
2 cups flour
2 cups water
1/2 cup salt
2 tbs oil
4 tbs cream of tartar OR 2 tbs baking soda and 2 tbs baking powder
1. Place water, oil and cream of tartar in a large saucepan and heat over low heat until hot.
2. Stir in remaining ingredients.
3. Cook, stirring constantly, until it gets so thick you can't stir any more.
4. Remove from heat, cool to lukewarm, and store in an airtight container. It may seem a bit sticky but improves with time and kneading.
Variations & Tips
• You can add food coloring to the dough while it's cooking, or wait until it's done and divide it up to make multiple colors. If you do the latter, wear gloves and knead in the coloring.
• You can add Kool-Aid powder for color and scent. You can also try vanilla or strawberry extract, cocoa powder, or lemon juice.
• Try varying the texture with a quarter cup of one of these add-ins: sand, rolled oats, lint, glitter, or rock salt.
• This mixture does not have to be refrigerated. I find it lasts about a week with daily classroom use as long as you put it in a sealed container after use. If it begins to get dry, put it in its container overnight along with a wet sponge or paper towel.