I have a love/hate relationship with Playdoh

If you have never had to stick your fingers in a child’s mouth to retrieve wet/slobbery playdough, consider yourself lucky. It is the worst. Secondly, I also find it tedious to pick all the playdough out of under my nails and my rings that I forgot to take off. However, I love that playdough offers so many options for not only imaginary play but also to target academic skills and fine motor abilities. Here are 5 ways I love to use playdough with my students.

My Child/Student Eats Playdough:

It is a very common situation. It comes down to personal judgment if you want to explore other edible options or just nix the idea in general. The tricky thing is, it stinks to have one student left out when all the other students in the group are doing an activity. Student J might not care he is the only student not doing playdough at circle time, but there’s a possibility the other students in the circle might notice. I am all about inclusion with activities and adapting activities so all students have the opportunity. Your classroom, Your rules.

I remember growing up and my grandma would make homemade playdough in large pots. I loved when she plopped it on the table and it was still warm. It had so much salt in it that it would dry your hands out. Luckily for us, there are tons of edible options. I use the term ‘edible’ as if the child puts it in their mouth, we know they are going to be safe. I would probably still do a finger sweep to get it out of their mouth. Edible options are great for those teaching moments to work with students on what is safe and not safe to put in their mouth.

My Child/Student Doesn’t Like to Touch Playdough:

Tactile sensitivity, like anything, is hard to really understand if you have never experienced it. I find light touch extremely painful. It intensified after I had my daughter. It sends shivers up my back and sometimes my body physically pulls away when someone lightly touches me, even if I expect the touch. In the evenings, when I am rocking my daughter, she will sometimes lick/kiss my clavicle or lightly tickle me. I have almost had to train myself to tolerate the touch versus pulling away from her touch. Just thinking about the experience I am shivering in my chair. I also find physical touch, like hugs from not my immediate close circle, uncomfortable.

Tactile input is something I will never force on a child. I approach tactile sensitivity on what supports/modifications/accommodations can I provide to make daily activities available for students if they want to participate. Giving them the option to interact with tactile input but also giving another choice all together. I do not stand by the approach ‘first touch XYZ then preferred reward’. If a stimulus is painful or uncomfortable to a child what message are we sending by forcing it upon them for a reward? I don’t think that isn’t what ‘desensitization’ should be.

Ways to Work with Playdough:

offer different ‘tools’
big plastic chopsticks
plastic tweezers
toys and manipulatives  
cookie cutters
Check out this playdough tool bundle on Amazon here!

small amounts of playdough offered vs. the whole jar
leave the container on the table so the child can put the playdough away if it is causing discomfortsometimes the visual is calming as it almost offers a nearby exit

1. Functional Skills

My friend and fellow Occupational therapist reminded me that playdough is also a great way to slip in functional skills. Sometimes I think my school-based team (and husband) get tired of hearing me use the word functional. To me function is everything. I define functional as a skill that serves a purpose in your actual life. When our student is 21, will it help increase their participation, independence, and overall safety?

Using kitchen tools
Thick plastic silverware
Plastic pizza cutter
Garlic or potato press
Rolling pin
Cookie cutters

Making your playdough
Practice reading a recipe          Add visual components to recipes to increase a student’s participation and success

Practice pouring and scooping
Stirring: a great way to target UE strength and overall coordinationAlso works on bilateral coordination; guide your student’s hand to the bowl (don’t hold it there) but give prompts or reminders to stabilize the bowl

I like to make it silly “oh no hold the bowl before it slips away! We don’t want to lose our playdough!!’

Following directions
You can do this while making playdough or during play
Ask your SLP for some ideas!! 

2. Letter Formation

I like pushing letter formation any chance I get. If your child/student is still working on formation, you can utilize letter playdough mats or draw a big letter on a piece of paper and either laminate it or put it in a plastic cover. My students find the plastic cover protectors very distracting/highly interesting. I love laminating, in peace, at the end of the day when there is no line or competition for the laminator.

If your student is independent with letter formation, use the playdough as a way to build CVC words. When we use the playdough, it is adding another component of motor planning and forming another connection in the brain. By adding that layer of multi-sensory approach, it is said that it will help build the memory connection

Check out Alyssa’s blog here for more ideas and also some great SSE materials!!

3. Free Play

Sometimes I think we forget that a child’s main ‘occupation’ is playing. Sometimes an item intended for play is simply what we should use it for. Unstructured play is so beautiful and amazing. I love watching my daughter and how she interacts in her environment. How she manipulates and plays with different toys to bring her enjoyment. Just giving your student’s a container of playdough and seeing how they initiate the activity and what they do

4. Cutting

To be honest I don’t really like cutting. I sort of groan, every time I get a new student and they have a cutting goal. To me is cutting really a functional life skill? There are so many accommodations and tools out there to replace cutting and I think about my own life. I think I have used scissors a handful of times this past year. I used scissors maybe three weeks ago when I attempted a Pinterest Easter decoration utilizing paint chips. It was honestly a pain. Next time, I would buy a banner or something at Target.

Anyway, I do see the purpose of cutting and the skills involved. I would just personally like to focus on bilateral coordination skills as a big whole vs. individual scissors.

Playdough offers a fun way to practice! Have the student roll the playdough out and snip different sections. The thicker the playdough is, the more strength and coordination needed to decompress the scissors. The only downfall with cutting playdough is then you have all these small slices and pieces of playdough littering the floor, the table, the child’s clothes, etc.  

5. Hand Strength Warm Up’s

One of my favorite ways to use playdough is to use it as a warm-up before fine motor or writing activities. It is a fun and engaging way to work on hand strength and hand manipulation skills.

Even prior to COVID, I am a big advocate of each student having their own playdough; you never know where little hands have been.

Rolling playdough into a ball
Start to mold the playdough between both of your hands into a ball shape.
I have students check throughout the step to see if their playdough looks like a ‘golf ball’

PancakeMy students always love this one! What I will model is one hand on top of the other, with my arms straight, and flatten the little ball we made into a pancake or pizza.
It’s the easiest when students are standing

Finger pressI’ll model isolating my index finger and poking/pushing my finger into and around the circumference of the circle

NoodleRoll the edges of the pancake/pizza together using both hands
We want the movement to be coming from the fingers vs. the body and larger muscles of the arm.
I’ll then have the students continue to roll the noodle“Should we make a long spaghetti noddle or a macaroni noodle?”

PinchBefore pinching our noodle, I will model the motion of pinching (thumb and index finger) and have the students practice before pinching the length of their playdough noodle

A Few Other Ideas on How to Use Playdough:

Don’t forget to have your students try to open and close the lids themselves. Sometimes it is so easy to prep and clean up the activities, that we don’t include them in the process. If your student is having difficulty opening the lid independently, start the lid for them! At the end of the activity have them help clean it up and put it back in the little jar.

Playdough is a magic-colored lump. It is full of possibilities but for some of our students, that can seem a bit overwhelming. Have some pictures of things they could build or have a few manipulatives that they can use to stamp or manipulate the playdough.

What are your favorite ways to use playdough with your students? Do you integrate Playdoh within center activities or as a morning activity before class?

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