Play dough is a fun and easy material to use with preschoolers for play, learning, and development!
As an occupational therapist, play dough is one of my go-to resources I use pretty much every day with kids who have a variety of needs. And as a mom, play dough has become a consistent part of my 4-year-old and 2-year-old’s rotation of playtime activities. It is so easy to use with kids of different ages, requires minimal setup and cleanup, and is sure to keep my kids occupied for a bit while also providing benefits to their development. This post contains affiliate links for your convenience (see full disclosure here).
There are several developmental benefits to playing with play dough including sensory exploration and, of course, using and developing fine motor skills!
Specific fine motor skills encouraged in the activities listed in this post include:
- Shoulder and arm strengthening: Pushing, smashing, rolling, and pulling apart play dough all contribute to the shoulder and arm strength that supports the development of hand skills needed for the Kindergarten years and beyond. 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.
- Tripod grasp: Holding and controlling a tool such as a toothpick with the thumb and index finger while stabilizing it on the knuckle of the middle finger. This is a grasp that continues to become more consistent and mature up through Kindergarten (age 5-6), though I see many children struggling with it in this this age of technology and touchscreens, even “typically developing” children who do not have a history of fine motor delays.
- 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.
Keep in mind that fine motor development isn’t just about hand skills, so doing a bunch of activities labeled as “fine motor” won’t always improve those hand and finger skills. I’ve outlined five things to keep in my when working on fine motor skills before, so please take a look at that if you want to learn more about how to support fine motor development from a “big picture” perspective. All the play dough activities included in this post can be directly applied to the concepts I discussed in that post, so you know they are good!
For preschoolers who still like to explore with the mouth, I personally like to use homemade play dough. 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. However, although buying a multi-pack of play dough only gives you a little bit in each cup, it also gives you a greater variety of colors than if you cooked one big batch of one color at home, so there are definitely benefits to buying it as well. It’s totally up to you!
12 SIMPLE PLAY DOUGH ACTIVITIES FOR PRESCHOOLERS:
(activities are listed roughly in order from easier to more challenging, for your convenience)
1. Flatten it with hands or a rolling pin. This is perhaps the easiest way to interact with play dough in this list of 12 activities. It provides not only some nice shoulder/arm strengthening and bilateral coordination practice, but also gives kids a chance to gain some “heavy work” sensory input to their muscles and joints, which supports the development of body awareness and can help kids focus or calm more easily. Learn more about the concept of heavy work plus lots more heavy work activities in my post HERE. If you don’t have a rolling pin, just use the side of a sturdy cup so your kiddo can roll it back and forth.
2. Roll a snake or ball. This gives kids practice using two hands together. Rolling a snake (or hot dog, noodle, whatever you want to call it) can encourage symmetrical use of the hands as it is rolled out on the table, as well as asymmetrical use of the hands (a more advanced skill) as it is rolled out between the palms of both hands moving back and forth in opposite directions. This may seem simple, but think about what a child has to do in order to roll a snake between the hands — secure the dough, move the hands back and forth without letting it fall out, and use enough pressure to actually squish the dough in order to make it “grow” . . . that’s a lot to coordinate!
Rolling a ball provides an even higher level challenge for asymmetrical use of the hands as they each have to work in the opposite direction of the other in a circular movement pattern, while also using enough force in the right direction and at the right time in order to form it into a nice sphere. That’s a lot of work for both the hands and the brain! Want to switch up this activity a little? Have your child try to use only one hand on the play dough while rolling a snake or ball on the table, then switch and have them use the other hand.
Can you believe there is actually a standardized fine motor assessment for young children which, among among other things, includes a test of how well children can manipulate play dough? It’s an important skill that not only helps them participate in typical preschool activities but also serves as an indicator of their strength, coordination, and sensory development.
On a very personal note: If you are viewing these pictures on a large screen and are wondering about the white spots on my 4-year-old’s hands…Those are his battle wounds, his scars from years of suffering through severe eczema from literally head to toe. The marks on his hands tell a story, a story that includes asthma, allergies, and eczema so severe they even landed him in the hospital (including the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) at the age of two. If your kiddo struggles with the awful symptoms of eczema, I just want you to know that I understand how wretched and itchy and painful and confusing the symptoms are for everyone involved. We have dealt with skin infection after skin infection due to relentless wounds and have had to educate ourselves on medical topics and treatments we didn’t even know existed. You are not alone! And I have chosen not to photo-edit his battle wounds in this post because his hands, though spotted and scarred, tell a story and are lovely just the way they are. Okay, back to the play dough activities…
3. Poke at it with tools and decorations. Toothpicks, Q-tips cut in half, golf tees, googly eyes, and beads are all great play dough tools and decorations. Pushing them into the play dough promotes hand and finger strengthening, while also encouraging the use of symbolic play as kids pretend to make birthday cakes with candles, chocolate chip cookies, monsters, and more.
4. Find buried treasure. What kid doesn’t like to hunt for buried treasure? Stuff your play dough meatball or burrito full of small items such as coins, beads, or Lite Brite bulbs. Tell your kiddo to find all the treasures either with their eyes open or, for a super tricky challenge, with their eyes closed! Digging for buried treasure is not only a great workout for the fingers and hands, but it also helps develop the sensory system responsible for helping us know what an object is just by using our sense of touch — the tactile system. As the tactile system is exposed to more touch-based experiences and matures, it develops the ability to tell the difference between how one object feels vs. another, such as the difference between how a coin feels vs. how play dough feels. Therapists call this “tactile discrimination” and it is actually an important part of helping kids develop fine motor skills such as controlling a pencil or accurately operating scissors because it helps them understand what they are holding and how much pressure to use. Learn more about tactile discrimination (also “tactile perception”) and related activities HERE.
5. Use cookie cutters. This teaches kids about pressure and force. They can learn that when they push with lots of force, they will cut all the way through the dough. And when they use less force, they will only create an imprint of the shape. This is an important part of early childhood development, as it will set them up for learning how to adjust the amount of force used when completing later school activities such as coloring, cutting, and writing, as well as self-help skills such as pushing a button through a hole or brushing teeth or hair. In addition to learning about pressure and force, kids can also use cookie cutters (or shapes from a shape sorter) to create their own puzzle! Learn more about how to make your own puzzle using play dough and shapes in my post HERE.
6. Practice cutting with utensils. If your preschooler doesn’t get much practice using utensils for cutting during snack and mealtime, then play dough time is the perfect time to bring out the child-safe forks and knives. I have grown to love these forks and knives during my time as a parent, both for mealtime as well as play dough time. From a developmental perspective, kids typically learn to cut with the side of a fork before they learn how to cut soft foods with a dull knife. If you don’t have utensils during play dough time or don’t want to use them, you can also use an old plastic gift card to cut play dough. It works just as well, doesn’t have sharp edges, and encourages kids to use their problem solving skills to figure out how to orient their hand and the plastic rectangle in order to cut the play dough.
7. Use tongs. Playing with tongs is a great way to exercise those hand muscles as well as practice the motor pattern needed for operating scissors (close, open, close, open . . . ). Tong play also brings in an added challenge for hand-eye coordination and is just generally a great way to incorporate tool use into play and learning time. Mini serving tongs can be found at almost any food-related store, especially places like your local grocery store or Wal-Mart, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and even the dollar store. Smaller tongs are better for smaller hands. Try to make sure your child is controlling the tongs with their fingertips as much as possible, rather than pressing them into their palm and using more of a whole-hand approach. And if they can do so while using their thumb, index, and middle fingers (the “worker fingers”), even better. For more ideas on how to incorporate tong use into play and learning time, read my post with 50 fun ways to play with tongs.
8. Snip it with scissors and progress to cutting out lines and shapes in the play dough. Developmentally speaking, kids are actually ready to begin snipping with scissors around 24 months of age. Isn’t that crazy?! I don’t know many parents who offer their two-year-old scissors! That being said, play dough provides the perfect opportunity for practicing scissor skills while minimizing the risk of injury. I have written before about how I love to use play dough for introducing scissor skills (which you can read here), and I am always using it at work to support the development of kids’ scissor skills.
Play dough is an ideal medium for introducing scissors because many preschoolers are already familiar and comfortable with it, you can control the size and shape of the piece to be cut, and you can easily make it yourself. Using play dough to teach snipping also causes less mess because you don’t have to worry about tiny pieces of paper flying everywhere. Kids can just smash the play dough pellets all together or make a new creation once they’re done! And as an added bonus, play dough does not discriminate between right- or left-handed snippers (unlike paper), so it can be easily used by everyone. The biggest things that are important to learn in the snipping stage are A) how to hold an item in one hand and cut it with the other hand, B) how to hold the scissors with fingers in the loops and C) how to keep both hands in the “thumbs up” position (as pictured below). This will be important for later development of cutting skills when lines and shapes come into play.
Once your young preschooler is comfortable with snipping single pieces of play dough, they can try to cut a few consecutive snips forward across the play dough. You can add a line in the play dough and ask them to cut on the line to increase the hand-eye coordination challenge.
And once your kiddo has mastered cutting along a line of 5+ inches long and is closer to four years old, you can begin introducing how to cut out shapes! Children are typically expected to be able to cut out a circle and square between 4-5 years of age. Righties should ideally cut counter-clockwise while lefties should ideally cut clockwise (as pictured below with my little lefty). For even more challenge, partially press a cookie cutter into the play dough, pull it out, then have your child cut along the imprint to cut out the shape/character (e.g., heart, pumpkin, snowman). Remember that the best position for the hands while cutting is “thumbs up”!
9. Build basic 3D creatures. This is one of the biggest and most fun things that sets preschool play dough time apart from toddler time! This is especially true between 4-5 years as kids’ developmental skills begin to soar and they can use their pretend play skills, independent thinking/problem solving skills, hand-eye coordination, and fine motor skills together to create original, 3-dimensional creations with their own two hands. Give them a chance to create for themselves or provide a model as they make a snowman, caterpillar, turtle, person, and more!
10. Build shapes and letters by rolling out the dough into lines and curves. Of course with the preschool years often comes the introduction of shapes, letters, and numbers. Give your child a chance to use their growing fine motor coordination skills to support their development of literacy skills! When starting out, help your child understand that there are big lines, little lines, big curves, and little curves that all work together to make shapes, letters, and numbers. Those size concepts will be important not only for learning to form letters, but also for pre-math skills. When introducing play dough letters, it can be helpful to have a model of the targeted shape/letter/number visible to your little one, particularly one that the play dough can be placed right on top of. Handwriting Without Tears has play dough cards for letters and numbers that sit in a tray with a border to not only teach kids formation, but also to introduce them to the concept of maintaining their letter within a size boundary, which will be important for Kindergarten. Those HWT play dough cards and trays are great and can be found online HERE. When working with preschoolers, I have also used mini whiteboards, drawn the letter large on the whiteboard, and then have had the students roll the dough and form the letters on top of the dry erase letter I wrote. You could do the same thing with letters written/printed on a piece of paper and either laminated or stuck inside a plastic page protector so it can be reused. It doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective.
11. After building a shape, letter, or number, pinch or poke along its path. This provides strengthening to those “pincher” fingers needed for writing, cutting, play, and self-care and, when done in the same sequence as writing the letter, can help reinforce correct formation of shapes, letters, and numbers.
12. Write letters in the play dough with a toothpick, golf tee, pencil, or pointy end of a paintbrush. This is a really tough one. Have you ever tried it? You might be surprised at how much resistance play dough provides when attempting to write in it. If your kiddo doesn’t know how to form letters yet, then you can either lightly create a model of it in the play dough so it can be traced, or you can draw a true model of it on one side or at the top and then have your kiddo copy it in the remaining open space. This is great not only for hand and finger strengthening, but also for general pre-writing skills because of the added sensory input that goes into the nervous system when forming the shapes, letters, and numbers. Hooray for multi-sensory learning!
BONUS: Use play dough mats for more fun, as well as an additional visual-motor and pre-academic challenge. Have you used play dough mats before? If you have, then you know what a gold mine they are for play dough play and learning. And if you haven’t discovered them yet . . . you are missing out! My boys and I have been playing with the same old play dough and add-ons for at least a year and, after getting onto a play dough mat kick recently, play dough time has become so much more exciting, particularly for my four-year-old!
Play dough mats are basically just pictures or drawings that can be laminated or placed in a page protector, and they encourage a child to interact with the pictures through the use of play dough. So, in the photo examples below, you’ll see that the snail needed to have a shell made for him, and the caterpillar needed a body. As I mentioned in Point #9 about building basic 3D creatures, the later preschool years are such a time of exploding creativity, problem solving, and fine motor skills, and play dough mats provide the perfect opportunity for preschoolers to utilize those skills in a fun and educational way! Many play dough mats encourage children to practice pre-academic skills such as counting and building shapes/letters/numbers. The play dough mats pictured below are free and can be accessed HERE from Picklebums.com.
Because play dough mats are such a great resource, I will be publishing a follow-up post later this week filled with links to all sorts of play dough mats for preschoolers! Some are available at a very small price, but most are free. I can’t wait to print them out and organize them for use in both my home and at work!
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!
If the play dough activities in this post seem like they might be too advanced for the kiddo you have in mind, then take a look at my post with 10 play dough activities for toddlers. They might be just the right fit for that little one’s current abilities and interests.
I hope this post has sparked some more ideas for you in how to use play dough as a developmental and educational tool for the kid(s) in your life!
Looking for more play dough activities for preschoolers?
Tracey of “OT Mom” shares some great information about the developmental benefits of play dough, plus several ideas for how to use play dough to promote development HERE.
Jamie of “hands on : as we grow” shares a round-up of 34 creative ways to use play dough HERE.
And a speech therapist from the Hanen Centre shares ideas for how to use play dough to promote speech and language development HERE.
And for even more developmental resources you can (legally) download to your computer or print for your own use, check out these helpful e-books from OT Mom, packed with practical, ready-to-use activity ideas:
Want access to all of OT Mom’s e-books? Check out her Mega Motor Bundle which includes all of her e-books at a discounted price!