Squishy creativity -- hands-on fun with play dough

by Melissa Jaramillo

PlaydohLittle kids enjoy manipulating materials. Your child might think mud, play dough and even food should be poked, pinched, rolled or cut.

Kyla shares, "Jamie was sitting in the booster chair at the table. She shaped the mashed potatoes into a mound and poked the broccoli spears into it. 'Food is for eating; toys are for playing,' I told her. 'I'm not playing. I'm making a castle,' she replied."

Obviously, Jamie is ready for a batch of her own play dough! While she still may play with her food, she'll have another outlet for that creativity.

Somewhere around 18 months, kids get interesting in play with play dough, not just tasting it.

Squishy creativity

Most children find play dough great fun! Toddlers love squeezing the soft, squishy material in their hands, exploring the texture and consistency of the dough. Older kids play more imaginatively, making things with it.

Nature play

When your child first starts to play with dough, the small explorer will discover things like "what does play dough do?"

Then a child moves onto "what can I make with it?" Even a toddler can make this easy nature sculpture.

Go on a hike and encourage (ha!) your child to pick up twigs, seeds, and other treasures. Once you're home, pinch off a 2 1/2-inch ball of play dough for the base. Pound, roll or shape it and show your preschooler how to poke the treasures into a design.

Play dough plus twigs plus seeds plus a creative child equals a nature sculpture.

When doing art with preschoolers, sometimes you have to remember that for small kids, making is important rather than the result.

A creation and its playmates

Archeologists have found clay art dating back to the earliest human societies. Adults molded it into vessels and sculptures. Children probably copied their parent's example. Do you suppose they made dolls, animals and game pieces?

Today's toddlers and preschoolers come with the same motivation as a child in a tribal village. They're ready to create. Make a batch of play dough and put that imagination and energy to work...or play.

If your child can squeeze your finger, they can explore with play dough. Each change in the clay fascinates toddlers and preschoolers. Your child's brain takes shape right along with the play dough.

Don't expect those first efforts to be easy to recognize. If you can't tell what it is, you can usually get clues by saying, "This is a good job. Can you tell me more about it?"

If your child makes a baby, child, or animal, you can encourage further creations by asking if the baby would like someone to play with. Soon, you're apt to hear conversation between the characters and see an elaborate theater complete with props -- from a water dish to a truck.

Dramatic play

Earlier, I had set out a few props -- plastic knives, a rolling pin, the potato masher, craft sticks and plastic scissors -- and three containers of play dough. I listened in as my children played at the table with play dough.

"Your horsey needs hay. I'll make some." She squashed some dough and sliced it into straw with a plastic knife. "Here! Eat your food."

"Oh, no! The horse stepped in a hole," a sibling exclaimed, dropping the play dough shape off the table. "I think its neck broke."

"That's okay...I can fix it. I'm a doctor!"

"You fix it and I'll build a fence."

Materials like play dough offer kids a variety of learning opportunities. They practice cooperating with peers, communicating, expressing themselves through dramatic play and learning how they can change their environment.

Play dough may seem like just an entertaining play material. It's more. Harness its squishy creativity and provide a hand-on opportunity for your child to grow and learn.

What's the favorite play dough activity at your house?

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.