Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Value of Play-Based Learning: Why Should I Make Playdough?

by Karen Kinsel Silcox, PhD

As I am in the middle of summer break with my 5- and 3-year old we are trekking through our list of places to explore, digging into our arts and crafts cabinet, hauling piles of books home from the library, cooling off in pools, sprinklers, and splash pads, catching up with friends and family, visiting some far off make believe places, creating new songs and music, enjoying hours of building with blocks and trains…and making homemade playdough.

9,040,000 results

To write this blog I searched the internet for “homemade playdough”. There were approximately 9,040,000 results. Literally. I quickly found many results for my old standby recipe of flour, salt, cream of tartar, water, and vegetable oil and thousands of other recipe variations. There was some information about how it is less expensive and more eco-friendly than the store bought varieties. What I didn’t find was developmental reasons why we should bother to make playdough with our kids or even really why our kids should play with playdough in the first place. Admittedly, I did not look at all 9 million results, but the vast number of reasons that making homemade playdough is a good idea weren’t readily available. So, as the debate about play-based learning ensues….here is some food for thought.

Developmental Domains

People like myself who work with and study young children (teachers, child developmentalists, etc.) often talk about activities in developmental domains: social, emotional, cognitive, and physical. It is not often that one simple activity, such as making and playing with playdough, can reach so many areas of children’s development.

Social Development

  • Children can work with you on every aspect of making playdough except the heating of the dough. You can also sit with them at the table and talk and ask questions with them as they play.
  • Making playdough can be a precursor to cooking in the kitchen with you and for years to come.
  • A pair or small group of children can sit together at a table as they play with playdough and practice sharing tools, make up themes, create something together, talk as they share and borrow different amounts.

Emotional Development

  • Children are often proud that they made something.
  • Playdough feels good. It feels good to squish and pull and smush and stretch. Try it. It is hard to resist. Activities like this are known as sensory activities and are very comforting, especially to young children.

Cognitive Domain

Language Arts

  • Making playdough can provide the opportunity to read a recipe.
  • Children can explain the process and you can rewrite their words for them.
  • I often pull out our letter shaped cookie cutters and let my kids explore with the letters at their own pace. With very young playdough users it may just be a developing familiarity with letters in a beneficial tactile way for older children then may try spelling words with the letters they create. I also will cut out letters and create a playdough puzzle where my kids match the letters back into the empty spots in the playdough…squish and start again.


  • Children can count how many stirs until it turns to the playdough into a solid. With more than one child you can divvy up the task by providing each child with the same number of stirs.
  • Making playdough provides practice at volume measurement. I often use the ½ cup even when I need 1 cup just so my kids will have a tangible example that 2 halves make a whole.
  • Making the recipe involves learning about fractions. Double the recipe and discuss twice of each ingredient.
  • Dividing up the playdough for different children to play with or to dye different parts various colors is a great early math skill.
  • Children will also practice mathematical concepts such as cutting shapes, dividing the playdough, making balls (spheres), counting how many of a certain shape.


  • Making playdough is a basic science experiment. Children can make predictions and construct a hypothesis about what might happen based on previous playdough experience, do an experiment to test their hypothesis, and draw and explain their conclusion.
  • As an excellent example of an irreversible chemical reaction, making playdough involves solids and liquids combining into a plasma-like solid when heated. Dialogue about states of matter is easy to introduce.
  • Making playdough obviously involves measurement, but providing a measuring spoon set and a set of measuring cups can also bridge helping children build a sense of volume.
  • Children can observe how heat can affect the states of matter and create a physical change.
  • You can make two different recipes…remember I found 9 million entries. Compare and contrast the ingredients, the consistency, the feel, the color, etc. of the different recipes.


  • Whether you use food coloring or natural dyes, you can separate amounts of the finished playdough and allow children to dye them one color. They can learn about intensity of color, saturation, shade, and hue. Then through mixing colors, they can change the colors themselves. Blue and red make purple, yellow and blue make green, yellow and red make orange.
  • Working with playdough is early practice in sculpture and pottery.

Physical Development

  • Working with playdough can help with both fine and gross motor development.
  • Stirring the ingredients is excellent practice in coordination and large arm muscles.
  • Using a rolling pin or even just a dowel to smooth and flatten playdough can build shoulder strength.
  • Add measuring cups or other small containers that children can use to fill up and dig out the playdough with their fingers. With children 3 and older you can provide jewels, coins, small stones, or other similar items for them to hide and find. This process provides a platform for children to practice small activities with their fingers, which helps with later handwriting development.
  • Provide age appropriate knives and forks for children when playing with playdough and voila they will often practice a life skill of cutting up their own food. I particularly like to use a bamboo utensil set that I have.

Making and playing with playdough is just one example of a way to incorporate learning in everyday play. One of greatest benefits of play-based learning is the vast room for expansion in children's ideas and learning opportunities. So, as some people continue to argue the merit of play-based learning, I offer some solid reasons why it can be beneficial. I have highlighted 25 ways that children can learn from a simple activity such as making and playing with playdough.

I would love to hear ways that you have seen children learning while using playdough or other tips for uses. If you've never made it, I would love to hear your success story.

What is your favorite recipe? What are your thoughts on play-based learning?

Playdough Recipe

1 cup flour
2 Tbsp cream of tartar
½ cup salt
1 to 2 Tbsp cooking oil
1 cup water
Mix dry ingredients
Mix in wet ingredients
Stir over medium heat until you have reached desired consistency
There are many, many more recipes that do not require cream of tartar, but I find that it has a longer shelf life when using this recipe.

And yes, there is even a website devoted entirely to playdough recipes:


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