If you look over the photographs of my last ten or so weeks of teaching, you’ll notice a lot of different kinds of dough showing up. We’ve been exploring what is possible with play dough and deciding which kinds of dough we prefer for which tasks. Some days, the dough holds the children’s attention for over thirty minutes. Other days it is interesting for ten minutes and then a dramatic play game erupts under the table. Still other times, I don’t put it out and the children ask for it. We’ve used all sorts of accessories with our dough this Spring/Summer session and I thought you all might like to see what we’ve been up to.
Poking items into dough builds fine motor control.
We’d been using beads and skewers stuck into sheets of Styrofoam as small muscle skills practice and the foam was getting too messy to have in a house with a newly mobile infant. So, we switched to sticking the skewers into a lump of play dough. This quickly turned into pushing the beads into the dough itself. Picking up beads and poking them into soft dough was a great way to build control over our finger muscles and to work on talking about what we notice.
Using tools allows us to practice imitating adult roles and to show what we know about the world.
The following class, I put out the dough and some tools and the children ask for the beads. Super D cuts a grid into his dough with a “pizza cutter” tool and says, “I made a grid”. He then pushes beads into the grid and describes that he’s making a garden and planting food. He spends twenty minutes exploring what is possible in combining the cutter tool, the grid lines and the beads. As he works, he tells his friends what he is doing.
I say that this is so much more than sensory play or fine motor development. These children are imitating adult roles, using real tools and developing vocabulary and communication skills. As they play with this dough, they’re working on asking for what they want, developing problem solving skills and learning how to engage with peers in a group setting. This is valuable opportunity ripe with possibilities for all kinds of learning!
Different dough provides a different set of problems to solve and explore.
Another day, we explore making connections between sticks with yarn. The play dough acts as an anchor for our sticks. We notice that this dough is sticky and hard to use. We notice that the sticks eventually lean over to the side if we pull too hard on the yarn. Some of us choose to make radial patterns in the dough using the sticks. Others engage in lengthy storytelling involving dough clams that clamp to the yarn power lines.
Coming back to an activity many times gives us a chance to explore ideas from many perspectives.
We return to the dough and sticks and yarn invitation for several weeks in a row and the storytelling continues. Even the infant siblings get involved and try out the dough. A little brother just learning to stand pulls up next to Dr. Kitty and watches her carefully wind yarn around a group of sticks for fifteen minutes! One child makes set of stick limbs with dough joints and asks his mom to show the homeschool reviewer the photo I email to her.
Observing cause and effect is a happy side effect of dough play.
There is so much problem solving happening in this kind of play, and it isn’t just the creative decision making kind of problem solving. This is science we are doing as we notice that pulling thread tightly around the tops of sticks draws the sticks closer together. This is math we’re doing as we select sticks that are all the same size. This is communication skill that we practice as we describe what happens when the dough sticks to the mat and slides off the table.
Pinching pieces of dough builds the small muscles in our hands.
A fresh batch of ten colors arrives and we get to practice making choices. As we sit and talk together about which color is our favorite, we have a chance to practice listening to our friends and telling what we know about colors. Pinching off little pieces of the dough helps us to build the muscles that we will need to be able to learn to write.
Once we begin to show interest in letters, we can use dough to practice making the shapes that form letters.
One of the great things about play dough in a multi-age classroom is that it is something that children can sit together and work on even if their interests and abilities are very different. In draws the teachers and assistants to the table too, gets them playing and making instead of only watching and describing. In the image above, Dr. Kitty explores how to “write” her friend’s name with dough. When she finishes, she says, “I made your name cause I love you!”.
We aren’t just having a simple sensory exploration, we’re building relationships and learning how to live together, side by side, loving each other in as many ways as there are play dough recipes.