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Learning With Play Dough

By Tiffani Mugurussa on September 11, 2012
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2

What is soft and colorful and can squish through your fingers? The answer is play dough. The invention of play dough dates back to the 1930s. Originally it was invented to be wallpaper cleaner. However, after a classroom of children began using it as a modeling compound, it was reformulated and introduced to the Cincinnati schools in the mid-1950s as play dough. Today play dough can be found in almost every preschool and kindergarten classroom. Bringing play dough into a learning center offers a variety of educational opportunities. It is a great, inexpensive educational tool that can be used to foster creativity, literacy, and math skills.

And most importantly of all, kids love play dough. There is something magical about rolling, patting, and squishing the brightly colored dough with your fingers. Play dough isn’t just for playing with, however . . .

  • It can strengthen and improve fine and bilateral motor skills. The muscles we use to hold a pencil are the same muscles used when playing with play dough.
  • It can help release stress. Give a ball of play dough to a student who is angry or stressed and watch them squish and mash those feelings out of their system.
  • It is a great tool for igniting conversation and imagination in young minds. Have you ever listened to your students at the play dough center? Often you will hear them talking about their creations.
  • Play dough also makes a great learning center manipulative for teaching literacy and math concepts. This colorful ball of salt and flour has so many possibilities!

Before your students can begin to smash and roll this large ball of fun, you will need a fabulous recipe for play dough.  If you are fortunate enough to have the ability to cook in your classroom, making the play dough with your class can be a lesson in and of itself. Below you'll find a recipe I have used for almost 20 years.  As long as it is stored in an airtight container, it can last the entire school year. 


Play Dough Recipe

play dough ingredients


  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 2 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp. vegetable oil
  • Food coloring


1. Mix the flour, salt, and cream of tartar in a large pot.

2. Mix water, a few drops of food coloring, and oil together in a bowl, then add to the dry ingredients. 

3.  Cook the mixture for 3–5 minutes on low/medium heat while stirring constantly. Make sure you scrape the sides and bottom of the pot as you stir. Add more food coloring if needed.

cooking play dough

4.  The dough will start to pull away from the sides of the pot and form a ball.

 cooking play dough

5. Take it out of the pot when it begins to have a VERY faint brown skin. Place it on a counter or cutting board.  

play dough

6. Knead the dough until it becomes soft and smooth. 

7. When the dough is cool, store it in an airtight bag or container. I like to use frosting containers with color-coded labels.

Play Dough Rules

When I introduce play dough to my class,  I make sure they know my three simple Play Dough Rules:

Rule #1.  Keep play dough on the mats. We discuss why it needs to stay on the play dough mats.  When play dough is on the floor, it gets dirty and it can be tracked throughout the room. To make play dough mats, I laminate 12‛ x 18‛ sheets of colored construction paper, but you can use plastic place mats, too. I explain to the students that the mats help to keep our tables clean. 

Rule #2. Don’t mix the colors. We discuss why mixing colors isn’t a good idea. At the beginning of the year, I usually just offer one color choice. As the year progresses, I add additional colors. 

Rule #3. Only use play dough tools. I have a variety of tools that are only to be used for play dough. We discuss that classroom pencils, crayons, and scissors are not play dough tools.

rolling play dough

Beginning of the Year Play Dough Activities

The very first time I introduce play dough to my class, I let them just play with it on the mats. The first time they use play dough, there are no tools to be used. I want them to just use their imagination and play with it. 

The next time we use play dough, I add basic tools like rollers. Again, they are just experimenting and playing with it. I feel it is important for my students to have the opportunity to play with it before we begin to use it as a learning tool. For many of my students, this may be their first experience with play dough. I will often sit back and observe how they are using the dough, look at what they are creating, and listen to the conversations they are having. All of these observations can help me learn about and have a better understanding of my students. rolling play dough

After a few times of just playing with the play dough, I demonstrate three ways to roll the dough. I show the students how to roll the play dough between the palms of their hands into long, snakelike pieces. Next, I show them how to roll it out on the table using their hands. Finally, I show them how to roll the dough into small balls using the palms of their hands. All of these rolling activities are good for improving small motor and bilateral coordination skills.

rolling play doughplay dough snakes

After they’ve learned to roll their balls of dough into snakes, I introduce the instructional learning mats. We practice shaping the snakes into the shapes that are printed on our mats. These mats are basically large alphabet letters, numbers, or shapes that I have printed on my computer using a very large font size. The ones in the picture below were created using a font size of 500. I printed the letters and numbers onto colored cardstock then laminated them for durability. You can also use sheet protectors if you don’t have access to a laminator.  


7 Simple Learning Mats

These learning mats can easily be made using your computer and printer:

As time goes on, introduce other play dough tools, such as:

  • Alphabet and numeral cookie cutters
  • Play dough stampers
  • Play dough cutters or plastic knives
  • Play dough scissors

play dough matsplay dough stamps

All of these tools can be easily integrated into a learning center to build literacy and math skills. For example, the alphabet cutters and stampers can be used to spell out sight words, and the number cutters and stampers can be used to create math problems. 

Simply put, play dough is fun; it strengthens hands and fingers; and it builds imagination, communication skills, and cooperative play.  I’d love to know what is in your play dough center and what activities your students participate in. 

Comments (5)

I am a first grade inclusion teacher. Earlier this week my coteacher had her first observation by our new principal. We were both working with our little guys in small group reading activities. One of our centers for the other children is Word Work. They were manipulating play dough to build our current word list. Our new principal said she was "horrified" to see children "playing" with play dough for the whole 20 minute rotation. She has never taught elementary school. My coteacher and I want to present her with research that shows that this is a valuable use of their time. Please share- if anyone knows of any resources we could use to sight such evidence.

I use playdough before writing sessions with 7-8 year olds. We make shapes with it in our hands, use different fingers to press it flat and roll it between thumb and different fingers. I put on dance music and we have fun exercising our hand, wrist and finger muscles.

Terrific blog post with tips and practical ideas for using Play Dough in the classroom. Loved all the photos and the step-by-step directions! Thanks Tiffani!
~ Laura Candler
Corkboard Connections Blog

What wonderful ideas Tiffani! Great post!

This is great. It really looks like the kids are enjoying themselves while still learning.
-Katie Jones

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