30+ Play dough activities for toddlers and preschoolers

Jun 14, 2016

Play dough is one of our favorite play materials: it’s versatile, cheap and engages the little ones on so many different levels. When they’re playing with dough they are exploring their creativity, building motor skills and, of course, developing their language. Here’s my BIG guide to our top 30+ ways to play with dough!playdough collage

First, some essential information: how to make it and how to control the mess!

Easy, no-cook, taste-safe play dough recipe

I make big batches of an edible play dough recipe, which keeps for a couple of months in an airtight container in the fridge. From time to time we do use some colorful commercial play dough, but I prefer the texture of the homemade stuff, plus with my own dough there are no concerns about blending the colors or the occasional taste!

The recipe we use is from Racheous. Here are the ingredients:

  • 2 cups plain flour
  • ½ cup salt
  • 2 Tbsp cream of Tartar (to help preserve the dough)
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 ½ cups boiling water

Mix all the dry ingredients, followed by the oil and the boiling water (while it is still as hot as possible). Mix, then once it’s cool enough to work with, knead into a lovely, soft, smooth dough. You may want to adapt the recipe according to your child’s preferences. I initially made mine somewhat drier with less oil and water, because my oldest preferred a dry texture, and this helped him to get used to the sensation.

It should go without saying that although this play dough is taste-safe, it is not food and could present risks for mouthing toddlers. Please carefully consider and control the safety of any activity for your child.

How to control the mess!

As with other arts activities, consider establishing rules to ensure everything runs smoothly. Have a designated area for using the play dough, e.g. a table or a mat spread on the floor. Be consistent in applying the rules, such as ‘Play dough stays on the mat’. Even if your child’s language skills are not strong enough to understand these sentences, she will grasp the point if you gently and firmly bring the materials back to the play area every time she tries to take them elsewhere.

We use an oilcloth mat for our arts activities, and it really helps to contain mess. The children understand that it is a special area for play dough, paint etc. They are excited to see me spread the mat out, so it also helps to secure their attention and interest.

Okay, now we’ve got our dough and our play area, it’s time for the activities!

Fine motor skills play

  1. For toddlers who are new to play dough, keep things simple! Encourage young toddlers to discover how the play dough feels by demonstrating simple actions. Use expressive verbs to describe what you’re doing. Our favorite early play dough verb was squeeze: squeeze your own play dough, or put a lump in your child’s hands, put your hands around hers and ‘squeeeeeeeeze’! You can do similar games with the words pull, push, roll, squash, pinch and press. You can encourage early language skills by making this an imitation game. Copy what your child does with the dough, narrating the action in simple words, then encourage her to copy you as you perform a simple action.
  1. Roll cars in play dough to make tracks, or press other objects (such as toy animals and figures, or Duplo bricks) into it to make prints. This is a fun way to introduce the concept of footprints.
  1. Stick things into the dough for your child to dig out. If your child is still mouthing, these need to be baby-safe. For example, try large seashells and stones or small plastic figures. We use our little dinosaurs, and say they are stuck in a swamp and need rescuing.
  1. Make play dough bugs. All you need is some dough and broken twigs, which can be pushed into the dough to serve as legs. Eyes can be made from small balls of dough.
  1. play dough monsters 2Make play dough monsters. Roll balls of play dough and provide craft objects for your (non-mouthing) child to stick into the balls to make monsters, e.g. googly eyes, pipe-cleaners, cut-up pieces of drinking straws, dry pasta shapes… You don’t have to use googly eyes for this; you could simply make eyes from smaller pieces of play dough). Talk about what the monsters you make look like. This is great for talking about body parts and appearance.
  1. Roll long, thin pipes and let your child cut them into small pieces using safe scissors. Play dough is a great material for early practice at scissor skills because it cuts easily. You could also use a blunt child-friendly knife and practice cutting. Teach scissors-related vocabulary as they cut.
  1. Roll or squash the play dough flat. Try using a mini rolling pin, such as a pastry roller, and letting your child have a go at this, but be aware that it isn’t as easy as we might think. Get out some cookie cutters and make shapes or pretend cookies.
  1. By the time they are three, children can often make three basic shapes from dough: a ball, a worm and a pancake. Show them how to make these things by rolling or pressing the dough. Carefully demonstrate the motions you use, and gently help your little one to copy.
  1. Put together a play dough threading activity, like this one at Laughing Kids Learn, using play dough, straws and pasta.
  1. Try a construction experiment with lumps of play dough and short sticks or pieces of drinking straw. This is suggested at Learn with Play at Home. But be aware that this activity is too tricky for most toddlers and might go better with an older preschooler!
  1. Use play dough to decorate a shape for a festive celebration: Easter egg shapes, Christmas trees, or a chanukiah.

Pretend Play

  1. Make simple objects for your child to play with, name and talk about. Preschoolers might be able to put these together for themselves. Here are some ideas:
  • A snowman
  • A bird on a nest of eggs
  • Airplanes
  • Animals (we like dinosaurs, snails and fish)
  • Ice cream
  • Cups and bowls
  1. If your little one enjoys pretend food play, cook up a play dough picnic or feast to share with their toys.
  1. Make a play dough construction site. Get your child to make small pieces of play dough, either by tearing, rolling or cutting, and fill a dump truck or digger. We like to use a child-friendly knife as a pretend saw.
  1. Use play dough to retell a familiar story. For example, while my children were enjoying the story The Tomten and the Fox, I often made them a play dough fox and tomten (a small friendly troll who guards a farm at night), and got them to make accessories (a bowl and a forest of trees) to retell this simple story: The fox is hungry. He comes to the farm looking for something to eat. The Tomten shares his porridge with the fox. The fox goes home to the forest feeling happy. Play dough is great for re-enacting The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Get your child to poke their finger through simple play dough fruits to make holes like those in the book. I retell the story, starting with a tiny egg on a leaf shape, then squishing the fruit shapes into a bigger and bigger ‘caterpillar’; finally I re-form this into a simple butterfly shape for my toddlers to play with.
  1. Use play dough for pretend play birthday party. Make cups and food for a tea party, or a cake with tiny candles for a birthday party. Gather some toys to celebrate and sing ‘Happy birthday’ to your child’s favorite toy.
  2. Build a snowman together with plain dough or snow dough. Get your little one to help you roll a small ball for the head and a large ball for the body, then decorate, either using little play dough pieces for eye, mouth, hat, scarf, arms and legs. This is great for fine motor skills, and can also teach body parts to first-words learners, or more advanced language skills including object function (‘The hat keeps him warm’), and pronouns (‘He needs a mouth? Where’s his mouth?’)
  3. Use little play figures (e.g. Duplo or Playmobil) for small world snow play. Act out a snow party: make and throw snowballs, make footprints in the snow, build an igloo. The people will eventually get cold and need to go home, dry off and warm up. Talk simply about everything you do and your child does, and retell it afterwards as a story.
  1. If you have toy animals such as a penguin or a polar bear bring them out to play with the snow dough. They can dig holes, catch fish and play in the snow. Narrate everything you and your child do!
  1. Play with vehicles in the snow dough, especially diggers and trucks, which can leave tracks and clear roads. Small cars could get stuck and need pulling out.
  1. Make a dinosaur small world with play dough if you have little dinosaur figures. Sculpt a volcano, a forest area and a swamp for your dinosaurs to explore. You could include some accessories such as stones, sticks and plastic trees.
  1. Make a play dough bird nest. You could add grass, flowers and feathers, and form small dough eggs. birdnestmaterials
  2. Use dough as a base for a small world forest, adding twigs and small woodland animal figures. I wrote about our twig forest activity for Hands on as we Grow.

Learning (Size, shapes, letters, colors, numbers)

24. Use the play dough to explore color and size. If you’re using commercial play dough, naturally you’ll label the color of the dough you’re using. Also talk about big and small pieces. Make balls of different sizes and describe them: small, smaller, smallest / big, bigger, biggest.

25. Make shapes to explore adjectives: long, short, smooth, bumpy, flat, round, empty, full.

26. Combine play dough and blocks on a pretend construction site by using a blunt child-safe knife to spread play dough ‘cement’ onto the blocks. Build walls! This idea is from…

27. Marbled play dough is a fun twist to explore colour, suggested at racheous.com. Make the play dough into small balls and create a well in the center of each ball. Drop food coloring in and pinch the well together. Smooth it back into a ball, without squeezing the dough, so the color remains in the center. Then give the play dough balls to your child and get them to squeeze the dough to find the hidden surprise. The color will spread through the dough the more it’s squeezed. This is a fun way to practice color words.

28. Use play dough mats to extend interest, build pictures and explore all sorts of concepts. We like the free printable mats at Planet of the Apels. They include a birthday cake, faces, numbers, a nest, trees and more.

29. Play a Count and Squash dice game. The idea is adapted from the dice ideas at Teacher Mom Plus 3. Make a grid of 20 or more numbers with a small play dough ball next to each. Roll a dice then squash the correct number of play dough balls.

30. Try color mixing with play dough. You could use play dough to act out the classic story Little Blue and Little Yellow, simply by preparing a ball of yellow dough and a ball of blue dough for your little one to squish together, as suggested at Buggy and Buddy.

Accessorize

31. If you have a Mr. Potato Head, present the pieces along with a big ball of play dough and make your own Potato Head.

32. If your little one loves dough play, you might want to explore some of the commercial options from Play Doh. We were given the Ice Cream set, which my youngest adores. He has played with it for hours!

33. Present your play dough with any safe collection of items or small washable toys to stimulate fresh play. This post has already made lots of suggestions, including figures of people or animals for pretend play, natural materials such as sticks, flowers and stones. What you use depends upon what is safe for your child. Older children can craft with dough and sequins, beads, foil, feathers, pipe cleaners, craft sticks and cotton buds. See what inspires!

Loads of ideas, but we’re always looking for more – I’d love to hear how you play with dough in the comments. Plus check out the Word Boosting Play Dough board on Pinterest for still more inspiration!

This post is adapted from my book: Word Boosting: A practical guide to encouraging your toddler’s language skills, with 365+ easy playtime activities.

I recently discovered this useful, short article on using play dough to encourage speech development on the Hanen Center website which includes some nice additional guidance.

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