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Play Dough The Trilogy: Why We Use it Everyday, Activities to Try and My Favorite Recipe (and Why I Don’t Use the “No Cook” Method)

Play Dough! It is one of our most beloved activities around here (as you can quickly tell when looking at our carpet). We play with it pretty much everyday. Here are a few of the reasons why:

Building Attention Span and Focus: It’s the single activity that holds X’s attention the longest. I try to find activities to help him build his attention span and play dough fits the bill. “Attention span? He’s 18 months!” you may say, but we are setting the foundation for his ability to focus the rest of his life. Believe it or not a child’s (and eventually adult) ability to focus is something that is established very young. Attention span is however similar to a muscle and can be repaired and built up later in life, but if you lay a great ground work early on you may be able to avoid a lot of behavioral and learning issues in the future. Now, when I’m talking about a toddler’s attention span I by no means hours spent on a single activity. There’s just too much going on in their busy little minds! X generally spends about 20 minutes using play dough in the morning and then revisits it for shorter spans through out the day. Other activities hold his attention for 10 minutes or less with the exception of larger arts and crafts projects. 

Building Muscle, Fine Motor Skills and Hand Eye Coordination: Using play dough works the muscles in the fingers, hands, wrists, arms and shoulders. Pushing, squishing, ripping… you name it! A lot of muscle toning is going on there! Using tools and some of the activities we do take great finger, hand and wrist control and really helps develop those fine motor skills as well as hand eye coordination. I try to create a variety of activities where X uses tools, but play dough is the easiest way to do that.

Inspiring Creativity and Imagination: Whether he’s creating patterns, burying and excavating farm animals or making sculptures those creative wheels are turning! It’s often hard to find creativity and imagination building activities for young toddlers. Their language skills and understanding of the world are somewhat limited so they’re not making up stories or playing house. Play dough is a great opportunity for them to express themselves and ideas.

Building Language: We talk about colors, shapes, textures and motions. “Squish the ball!” Mommy made a triangle” “This tool is blue” There are many opportunities with play dough to introduce words and explain concepts.

It’s Fun! Who doesn’t love play dough?

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Here are some simple activities that I incorporate into our play dough time:

  • Building shapes. I build different shapes (Cones, cubes, Spheres) and we talk about what they are
  • Building faces. I often make an oval and construct eyes, nose and mouth. X puts theme where they belong. He often helps me create and apply the hair. He loves naming and pointing to body parts, so this is a favorite of his.
  • Fine motor sorting. I flatten out a piece of dough and create small indentations with my pinky. Then I roll a bunch of small balls that will fit in the indentations. X places the balls in the holes. sometimes I do them in shapes or we count as he places them in the holes.
  • Big and small. This is a great way to introduce the concept of big and small.
  • Sculptures. X loves taking a mound of dough and making sculptures by sticking the tools in at different angles.
  • Textures. We use our tools to create different textures and patterns. I demonstrate how to make a texture and X copies. He’s also now starting to make his own textures and patterns.
  • Dough slicing. I flatten out long strips of dough and X uses our pizza cutter style tools to slice it. He has to focus at pushing the blade the full length of the dough. This also builds wrist strength and hand eye coordination.

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We use a variety of different tools. I bought a set of clay tools on Amazon, but most of the tools we use are things we’ve re-purposed. Sand toys, poker chips, sea shells, clothespin, farm animals (one of X’s favorites), old bubble wands, a guide to our set of hair clippers (the guide cuts much longer then we use and it makes some great textures and patterns!), straws, food pics, small wooden dowels, macaroni… The possibilities are endless. I’d also like to talk a little bit about our set up. The tools are kept on a tray on X’s art table. I used to keep them on his shelves but our shelves are super full right now and he often has trouble carrying a tray with so many items on it without spilling them. The dough I keep in plastic food container that is easy for X to open. The dough IS kept on his shelves. So when he wants to use his play dough, he carries the container to his art table, opens it, removes the dough and sets the container aside. Clean up consists of returning the dough to its container and the shelf and putting the tools back on the try. Generally I try to only give X two or three components or options so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed. But I’m really trying to foster his creative spirit, so I give him multiple tools unless I’m doing a theme (as seen above with the “sand dough” and shells). He always seems to know what he wants to do (which changes daily) and does not seemed overwhelmed by the plethora of tools. Here is what is currently in our tray:

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I have tried a variety of different recipes, but this is my go to. Sometimes I will try out others if I’m going for a different texture or theme, but this is the recipe I use most often. It lasts weeks, even when left out (Daddy tends to forget to help X put away the dough). Usually I get bored of whatever color we’re using before I actually need to make a new batch for any reason. This is a cooked play dough recipe. There are a lot of “no cook” recipes out there, but in the many I’ve tried I find them to be more time consuming and messy then my simple cooked version. The no cook recipes use boiling water (so you have to wait for the water to boil) then you mix the ingredients and have to wait for the dough to cool enough to be handled. Then you take the sticky mass and knead it until combined and smooth. It covers your hands and counters in sticky dough and takes just as many dishes as a cooked version. I just don’t understand the appeal. My cooked version takes 2 or 3 minutes tops with no mess. So without further ado:

Standard Homemade Play Dough:

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup All Purpose Flour
  • 1 cup Water
  • 2 teaspoons Cream of Tarter
  • 1/3 cup Salt
  • 1 Tablespoon Vegetable Oil
  • a few drops Food Coloring

Equipment:

  • Non-stick Pot
  • Wooden Spoon
  • Measuring cups and spoons

Technique :

  • Combine all ingredients in the non-stick pot.
  • Cook and stir over medium heat (my stove top runs hot, so it may work quicker at med-high for some of you).
  • The dough will get slightly darker and have a rubbery (or finished play dough) look to it once it’s cooked enough. It really doesn’t take long at all.
  • Let cool.
  • Knead a few times to make sure it is well combined.
  • PLAY!
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Toddler Sorting Activity for Early Math Skills

I think X is going through a “sensitive period” for order. Montessori speaks about children being more receptive to building different skills at certain times. She referred to these times as “sensitive periods”. If we as parents, teachers or care givers can observe when these periods are happening, we can provide tools and activities to maximize them. Forcing the Bloom made a great post here about observing our children. I have yet to take notes on my observations of X, but it’s a GREAT idea! I do however reflect on what I’ve noticed about his habits and play to better provide him with projects and Montessori inspired work.

This activity is one of those. X helps put away his toys and activities; if normal things in his environment are out of place he fixes them. I ask him to assist me in picking up, carrying in groceries and cleaning the house. He very obviously enjoys the meaningful work. Sorting items is not only supporting a need for order and fine motor development, but it is also early math work. Not only is it great for building skills, but it’s easy to set up and very inexpensive.

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I purchased this egg tray for a dollar. I pulled these wood pieces from a set of building blocks we have and VIOLA! 

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I encourage X to place the blocks in order as opposed to randomly. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. To further the math experience and add a language component, we count as we place each block in it’s spot. This could also be used as a great matching set up when he gets older. Colored dots, shapes or numbers could easily be applied to take this activity to the next level.

Stay tuned, I will be making a post later this week about the practical life activities we’ve been incorporating into our days!

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Quiet Time- Fine Motor, Sensory Bags

I think as parents we are always looking for a few extra minutes. A few minutes to start dinner, throw in a load of laundry, vacuum the floor…drink a cup of coffee. I love playing with and teaching X- but occasionally I need a few minutes.
Not only does this project buy you a few minutes (more like 20 minutes if they love it as much as X does) but it explores fine motor and sensory play, and doesn’t make a mess!! Too good to be true you say? Well here it is!

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I used:
-a plastic zip top bag (I would suggest the thick, heavy duty kind. If not, then no promises on the no mess part lol)
-vegetable oil
-tempera or craft paint (in the bag pictured I watered down the paint. In a second bag I used straight craft paint. Both work and provide different results)
-beads, foam pieces, glitter, cut up straws, etc (anything small you’ve got hanging around. This is a great opportunity to use up odds and ends from other projects).
-a thin piece of scrap cardboard (pizza box, the back piece of a notebook or sketchbook, etc)
-duct tape

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So, all you do is put in the oil, add paint and beads, etc. and zip it up.
I got as much air out as possible before zipping it closed. If there were additional air bubbles I laid the bag down flat, unzipped a small portion of the bag while holding the edge up (so it doesn’t spill) and worked the bubble towards the opening (it’s a lot easier then it sounds, I promise!). I was worried the trapped air would make it more likely to pop.
Then I tapped down all of the sides to the cardboard. The edges are the weak points in the bag, so by taping it down you’re reinforcing it. I used the cardboard because it gave it stability and makes it less likely to break. You could also tape it to your table top. Then I let X have a blast! And he did! It squishes, the paint moved away from the oil, the beads and such move as you poke it and are fun to try and grab…

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I hope your littles love this project as much as X did. And promise me, use a few of those minutes it buys you to relax! Me time is important too! This provides guilt free me time because your little one is still learning and having fun! This is also great to take to restaurants! Or the doctors office, anywhere that requires waiting quietly.