Teaching the Skill of Playing with Play Dough (to Any Age!)

Five Best Practices for Getting Your Child Playing with Play Dough - Playing with Play Dough

How do I get my child to play with play dough (without losing my mind)?

Want to know one of the best things for kids of all ages to play with?

Play dough!

Want to know one of the things so many moms (and even some teachers!) hate getting out for their kiddos to play with?

Play dough!!!

I will admit, I never realized it was such a widely disdained thing until I was on a conference call last week. I told a few fellow moms about my website and goals for it and more than half looked at me like I was crazy and some even flat out told me I was.

“It’s so messy!”

“It gets everywhere!”

“My child gets out all of the dough and all of the toys, plays for a few minutes, and then wanders off. It takes twice as long for me to clean up as it did to get out!”

And, honestly, I get it. I’ve been there, and been there a lot. I also know that it’s worth it. The benefits of play dough are endless between all of the opportunities for tactile, kinesthetic, educational, creative, and therapeutic development.

If you feel like you’re at an impasse with play dough or are just not sure how to get started, these five simple steps will help you easily integrate it into your everyday routine!

Five Best Practices for Getting Your Child Playing with Play Dough - Playing with Play Dough

Five Best Practices for Getting Your Child Playing with Play Dough

1. Establish the Ground Rules and the Consequences of Breaking Them

Kids need rules, especially when it comes to arts and crafts. They’re basically the perfect opportunities for kids to test all of those boundaries you’ve been working hard to establish.

So, before you even crack open your first can of Doh, explicitly tell them your expectations.

The rules rundown for my three usually looks something like this:

  • Be nice.
  • Take turns.
  • Ask for help and help each other.
  • Put your tools back in our toolbox and the dough back in its container when you’re done.

They’re easy to remember, easy to follow, easy to implement, and non-negotiable. Remember: consistency is key.

The consequences are just as easy (on paper, at least… :)). They have to clean up any messes they make. If they can’t follow the rules, they don’t get to play with it. We call it “Toy Timeout” and it’s worked pretty well for us so far.

2. Pick your Parameters

One of my littlies is a wanderer. She loves to grab whatever art supplies I’ve laid out and stash them around the house for me to either 1) spend an eternity quizzing her about their whereabouts or 2) forget about and discover post-bedtime wall drawings or “tattoos” days after the supplies went missing.

To help prevent this, I’ve been working with her on where our “special supplies” need to stay, and where she needs to be when she wants to play with them. This way, even if I take a phone call or unload the dishes, I can quickly visually check-in and make sure she and the play dough are right where they need to be.

Do the same for your own sanity!

Establish the area where your kids get to play with play dough and don’t waver. Whether it’s the kitchen table, a play table, on the floor, on a tablecloth, in a big plastic tote or tub, in their sensory table

Wherever it is that you would like the play dough to stay, make that spot the only place play dough gets to be played with and stick with it.

3. Preparation is Key

After you choose a spot and determine your basic rules of play, you will need to prepare for what’s about to go down.

Yes, mentally for the first few (er, dozen) rounds. Big deep breathes mama!

But also physically.

Set out and set up the tools and add-ons your kids get to play with before the dough even gets opened. This is a great way to guide the play without controlling it.

This also makes it easy for kids over the age of three to work on independent play.

Another great way to make it easier to be independent? When you first open a can of Play-Doh, work on “breaking it in” by bending the lid back and forth in all directions. You won’t ruin the lid’s ability to re-seal the Doh, but you will make it a whole lot easier for you and your little ones to open it up the next time.

Five Best Practices for Getting Your Child Playing with Play Dough - Playing with Play Dough

4. Control what you can, let go of the rest

Confession: I’m a control freak. I have an idealized way things should be, and it’s really hard for me to accept when things don’t go according to my thoughtfully-made mental plan.

Motherhood has helped me make a lot of progress. Playing with play dough stretches that progress daily.

Why do I do this to myself? Again: it’s worth it!

In order to make this an enjoyable experience for both my kids and me, I’ve had to focus on the things I *can* control and let go of the things I *can’t*.

We’ve already covered a few of the main things to stay on top of: rules and location. Here are some other ways you can help guide your child’s play without over-asserting yourself into their discovery play time:

  • The amount of dough–We play with a few containers or fistfuls of dough at a time. There usually isn’t a need for more than that. We aren’t recreating Michelangelo’s David or anything!
  • Tools–Same idea as above. We don’t need 8,000,000 things out for a 15-minute activity. We have a box of play dough tools and cookie cutters that get to be used during this time and then stowed away until the next time.
  • Add-ins and manipulatives–…are totally up to you! If you’re a glitter person, add it in! Have a plethora of beads or gems? Offer them up! A play dough purist? Fabulous! They’ll be even more creative for it! Don’t fall into the Pinterest trap of ALLOFTHETHINGS. Stick with what you’re comfortable relinquishing to little hands.

And…here are two major things to let go of:

  • Your child’s individual level of interest–You probably have heard the saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Well, this is one of those times.

Some kids love anything to do with play dough, and some are way less enthusiastic about it. That’s okay! It still doesn’t negate all the good it can do for growing bodies and minds. Your job is to provide the opportunity. Pat yourself on the back for getting things ready and let the little one be.

  • The mixing of the colors–This one is MAJOR. The complaint I get most from moms, second only behind how messy things can get, is how all the dough colors end up mixed together. For developing brains, it’s incredible. For our fully-mature adult ones, it’s a headache.

The solution is simple. Let it go. It’s not your dough or your play time. If you want some play time and dough and want it to remain unmixed, do it!…with your own set of doughs. :)

Take more big deep breaths and celebrate how easy clean up will be when everything can all just go into the same undivided container!

5. Make it a Routine

Last but definitely not least, make playing with play dough part of your routine as much as possible.

Look at your day and determine when you could use a little extra help.

Not a morning person or could use a few minutes to drink your coffee in peace? Set up an invitation to play the night before and guide your kids to the table for some independent play time.

Need an activity for older kids while younger ones take their naps? Bring out the play dough every day at that time and let them get a little quiet play in.

Post-nap crankies? Give them a tool and some dough and let them re-engage with their world at their own place.

Looking for a better transition to bedtime than TV? Make it a family habit to sit down together and roll around some lavender-scented dough. Better yet, double it up with story time and get two steps of the nighttime routine accomplished at once!

Final Thoughts on How Get your Kids Playing with Play Dough

If the idea of letting your kids loose on a jumble of sticky art supplies and too many tools freaks you out, I get it. My goal is to reassure you that you can do this, we can do this together!

Hopefully these five simple steps I take every time we play with play dough will inspire you to integrate it into your daily routine, too!

Before you go…I would love to hear from you! How do YOU feel about play dough? Did any of these examples resonate with you??

Five Best Practices for Getting Your Child Playing with Play Dough - Playing with Play Dough

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