In the ten years that I have taught children aged 3-5, I have always found playdough to be probably the number one versatile resource. You can teach skills across the whole curriculum by using it, but it also has many emotional benefits as well. But what exactly are these?
The emotional benefits of playdough include getting into a state of flow, and becoming absorbed in your learning. It can also be calming and a source of stress relief.
That’s the short answer, but there really is a lot more to it.
Read on to find out the best 11 emotional benefits of playing with playdough.
All photos in this article come from the fantastic Instagram page of Learning, Play and Wonder. Thanks again to Holly!
Many children are calmed down by playdough. I think there are many reasons behind this.
One is that it is a really physical experience. It involves using your hands and squeezing, rolling and fiddling.
Lots of children become anxious or restless in situations where they cannot touch or manipulate things. Some children listen much better when they are fiddling with something at the same time.
Playdough offers an opportunity to fiddle on a grand scale.
Another reason it is calming is the pleasant texture. It is soft, squidgy and pleasing to touch.
In a world of multiple distractions and interruptions (even for children), it is great for young people to sometimes get into that state of total absorption known as ‘flow’.
This is known by different terms. It is also sometimes called ‘getting in the zone’ particularly in a sporting context.
The idea is basically the same. It is that state when you are totally concentrated on what you are doing, and thinking only about that.
You will see a lot of this when children engage in good-quality playdough play. When they build models, or make characters, children are often just thinking about what they are doing. This is excellent for brain development, mental health, and a sense of purpose and achievement.
Of course there are lots of other ways children can achieve this sense of ‘flow’ other than using playdough. I also talk a lot about ‘flow’ in this article about the many benefits of heuristic play for young children.
Playdough is a great way for children to make sense of their lives, and also the stories they hear.
Stories are great for our mental wellbeing, because we get to learn about emotions.
You will often see children making things that have happened to them. For example, after a child in my class had found a worm outside, she made a worm in the playdough with her friend. They made food for the worm, a house, a bag for a holiday! All sorts of things.
This experience brought out all sorts of caring instincts, and you could tell she really wanted to protect the worm.
Children will also recreate characters and situations from stories, for example the smallest goat faced with the troll in the Three Billy Goats Gruff. It helps them understand and internalise emotions and feelings.
If you’re interested in the wonderful power of stories to inspire learning then why not check out The Definitive Guide To Using Story Stones.
Other great storytelling articles include:
Children are often learning at their peak when activities are multisensory, and playdough is brilliant for this.
You can smell it!
You can touch it!
You can really add to these sensory experiences in different ways. For example, to add excitement to the sense of sight you could:
- Put glitter in the playdough
- Put something like sequins or buttons in it
- Vary the colours
- Have multicoloured dough
To add to the physical touch experience:
- Use a range of tools to go with it
- Put objects into the dough, such as leaves, or petals
To make great smelling dough try some of these:
- Put in a simple herb like lavender or rosemary
- Put in lemon juice
- Try chocolate powder in the dough
These different smells, sights and touches are excellent for developing curiosity and a sense of excitement and interest.
Playdough learning is fantastic for developing bonds between children.
You will see them working on projects together, for example making a birthday cake for someone who’s birthday it is.
They share ideas and narratives and experiences.
They talk about the world, and make sense of it together.
They often find playdough play very funny, when someone has made something amusing.
All these experiences are great for teamwork, cooperation and social bonding.
To find out more ideas for developing cooperation and teamwork, why not check out 21 Circle Time Games For Children That Actually Work.
When children play with dough they will be experimenting and trying things out. Things will go wrong, and it will take a bit of persistence to make them right.
As an example of this, Billy is making a pirate ship out of dough and loose parts. The mast that he is making using a straw keeps falling over when he puts a sail on (a clothes peg). In the end he uses a smaller peg for the sail and it doesn’t fall over.
Multiple experiences like this will be often taking place when children play with dough. It develops that persistence to come through obstacles, and also to work hard towards whatever end goals they have set for themselves (e.g. make a model, or build a face etc)
Resilience is one of the key benefits of using playdough. If you want to find out 20 more benefits, then I have written an article all about this that you can read here.
7.Talking About Experiences
Playdough and talk go hand in hand.
Children will be chatting as they create, and learning to communicate with others in different ways.
In particular playdough helps with:
- Learning and exploring new vocabulary
- Asking and answering questions
- Inventing names for characters, or inventing words
- Following a group narrative
- Talking through their ideas
Playdough requires lots of thinking, and solving of problems.
For example, if you make a face you have to think how can you make the eyes? Can you use an object, or a tool, or build eyes in some other way? There are lots of decisions to be made.
Also things will go wrong, and mini-challenges will be overcome. All these experiences really help with:
- A sense of achievement when things are overcome
- A sense of resilience in the face of adversity
- A sense of purpose
- Confidence that you can face other problems in life wherever they arise.
All these skills have a definite link to emotional wellbeing.
9.Recreating The World
Children will make sense of their lives through playdough play. This really applies to:
Making sense of relationships – you will often see children make models of family members, or recreate scenes from their family life
Developing friendships – They may make models of those they are playing with, or making little presents for them. You will see many times, for example, that they love giving each other birthday cakes!
They will reproduce their surroundings – You will see them make the park, or a school, or a shop.
They act out stories – These could be made up, linked to their lives, or be recreated from the stories that they know.
There are many opportunities to relieve stress through playdough!
They really enjoy whacking and slapping dough when making models. It is also good fun to splat dough when you are learning how to count.
You can cut and chop and slice! All excellent stress relievers.
The amount of concentration it takes is good as well, as it focusses their minds and gets children living in the present moment.
Children can learn a lot about other cultures and ways of life through playdough. They really enjoy making animals for the Great Race at Chinese New Year for example.
Activities like this really help them develop emotionally as citizens of the world. Other ideas include:
- Making fruit for Handa’s Surprise
- Making mandalas for Diwali
- Making Australian animals on Australia Day
In a world where children’s wellbeing is coming more and more into focus, playdough is definitely a simple but effective way of supporting their emotional health in numerous ways.
Of course playdough improves skills acrosss the whole curriculum (Source). It develops the whole child, and also really helps them develop a sense of achievement, pride and enjoyment.
If you’ve found this article useful, then I’d recommend trying one of these:
Having tried hundreds of PE activities over more than 12 years working in education, some of the favorites that I return to again and again are parachute games! Having just a single parachute, and...
Parachute games work brilliantly for kids of middle school age. They provide a fantastic I’ve been a teacher for more than the last decade, and in that time I’ve tried hundreds of parachute...