Once your toddler graduates from the stage where everything MUST go in the mouth, it’s time to start having some fun with play dough!
For little ones this age, I personally like to use homemade play dough because, let’s face it, there still is a possibility they will try to give it a taste. Here’s the recipe I normally use (and here’s a good gluten-free play dough recipe I’ve used in therapy if you need one of those). In addition to the play-dough-in-the-mouth factor, there’s also the play-dough-on-the-floor factor. Homemade recipes tend to yield several times the amount you’d get in a store bought cup, which means it’s not as big a deal if and when it ends up on the floor and in the trash.
There are several developmental benefits to playing with play dough including sensory exploration and, of course, using and developing fine motor skills! This post contains affiliate links for your convenience (see full disclosure here).
Specific fine motor skills encouraged in the activities listed below include:
- Shoulder and arm strengthening: Pushing, smashing, and pulling apart play dough all contribute to the shoulder and arm strength that supports the development of hand skills. More info and ideas related to shoulder strength and its relation to fine motor development HERE.
- Pincer grasp: Pinching with thumb and index finger. More info and ideas about pincer grasp HERE.
- Finger isolation: Activating a single finger on command (such as the index finger for pointing and pushing). More info and ideas about finger isolation HERE.
- Thumb opposition: Coordinating the thumb with the other fingers to help with holding, squeezing, and strengthening the space between thumb and index finger (known as the “web space”). More info and ideas about thumb opposition HERE.
- Digital Pronate grasp: Holding an item such as a toothpick with the fingertips (digits) while the palm/forearm faces downward (pronated). This is totally appropriate and expected for toddlers, and is a precursor to the famous tripod grasp. More info and pictures demonstrating the digital pronate grasp HERE.
- Hand-eye coordination: Coordinating hand movements based on what the eyes are seeing. Also known as visual-motor integration. More info and ideas about hand-eye coordination HERE.
- Bilateral coordination: Coordinating the use of two hands to accomplish a task, such as both hands doing similar actions, or one hand stabilizing an object while the other hand manipulates or works. More info and ideas about bilateral coordination HERE, plus an e-Book written by an OT that can be instantly downloaded with lots of bilateral coordination activities HERE.
If this is your first time exploring play dough with your child, you can try one of my three favorite ways to introduce play dough to babies and toddlers.
If your child is already comfortable with play dough, then it’s time to have some fun with play dough by introducing silly sounds, engaging in pretend play, and encouraging exploration!
10 FUN PLAY DOUGH ACTIVITIES FOR TODDLERS:
(Download a FREE printable version of these activities to share with families & friends)
1. Smash it with hands. A great opportunity for pure sensory exploration.
2. Smash it with a tool. Potato smashers work well, and there are so many different kinds.
3. Pull it apart. This is a good precursor for learning to tear paper later on.
4. Roll it with hands. Don’t expect your toddler to be able to roll a ball with coordinated motions at this age. Instead help them practice simply rolling the play dough back and forth to make an oblong form (snake, worm, hot dog…whatever you want to call it). This can be done between their hands as pictured below, or they can practice rolling it back and forth while the play dough is on the table (using either one or both hands).
5. Roll it with a tool. Hands can be placed either directly on top of the rolling pin, or on the outer handles. There are benefits and challenges both to using full-sized rolling pins (as pictured below) as well as kid-sized play dough rolling pins. Don’t have a rolling pin? Use the side of a firm cup to roll instead.
6. Use cookie cutters. I love using biscuit cutters with handles (as pictured below) for kids at this developmental stage because they are easy to grasp and push down on, but you can also use regular old cookie cutters. Don’t have any cookie cutters lying around? Simply flip over an open cup and show your toddler how to press it down into the play dough to make circles.
7. Poke it with fingers. Fun way to explore while strengthening those index fingers.
8. Poke it with golf tees. Golf tees are great because they’re not sharp and they are just the right size for toddler hands. Don’t have golf tees? Try using straws that have been cut in half instead (thicker straws meant for milkshakes/smoothies might be easier at this stage).
9. Poke it with toothpicks. Toothpicks are a good tool for older toddlers who have mastered the pincer grasp and are comfortable using longer tools (as opposed to pellet-shaped items). Toothpicks obviously have sharp, pointy ends, so be sure to exercise caution as necessary. Don’t have any toothpicks? Then take some Q-tips, cut them in half, and use them like the golf tees, with your child grasping the bulb end and poking with the end that has been cut. In addition to simply poking, you can start to show your 18+ month child how to make vertical and horizontal marks in the play dough.
Since children learn to feed themselves with a fork in the later toddler months, you could also use a fork instead of a toothpick to practice fork use (so long as they don’t try and actually eat the play dough). I like these these toddler-friendly forks for new fork users.
10. Decorate it with small items. In general, I would suggest you wait until your toddler is closer to 18-24 months and up before trying this one, both for motor skills and choking prevention reasons. Larger items such as big googly eyes will be easier to grasp and push down, while smaller items such as small eyes, coins, and beads will present an increased challenge for those finger skills. Older toddlers might enjoy hunting for partially (or fully) hidden items such as coins or beads within a lump of play dough. Just be sure you are wise about selecting items you are confident your toddler will not put in their mouth.
BONUS: Poke and cut at it with play dough scissors. I say this is bonus because even though typically developing toddlers technically possess the hand skills necessary to begin snipping with scissors by age 2 (SERIOUSLY!), I have yet to meet a parent (myself included) who would willingly give their TWO YEAR OLD a pair of real kiddie scissors. That being said, I love to introduce kids to scissor snipping by using play dough, and there are many toddler-safe scissors out there (like these ones).
Don’t force your toddler to try and get their fingers in the holes during the first several interactions with the play dough scissors. It’s great to give them a chance to explore and figure what exactly these things do. You might see them hold the scissors with one hand and poke the play dough, or you might see them use two hands to open and close them over and over. Keep in mind that children learn so much through observation and modeling, so I would encourage you to model scissor use for them during this stage of development. If they see you snipping with scissors alongside them during play dough time (or during other times of day), it will not only spark their interest but also help give them an idea of what these crazy things are for and how to use them.
If you don’t have access to play dough scissors or just don’t want to use them, try using small salad tongs instead (they provide strengthening and practice for similar hand muscles needed for operating scissors).
If you’d like to have a condensed version of this post in a one-page handout to print and post in your play area or share with parents, family members, or co-workers, please click on the preview image below!