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Rebranding Play Dough

Age: 0 to 8 Time: Under 1 hour
Materials: home made play dough
Skills: Creativity, Curiosity, Behavioral Schema, Fine Motor, Sensory

Play dough undoubtedly makes the short list of wonder toys. Given the right context and the relaxation of rules, though, it can become even more wonderful. As parents, we'd never imagine we're guilty of "restricting" our child's play dough use. Most of us, however, manage where, how long and even how it’s played with. Have you found yourself encouraging your kid to "keep the colors separate?"

Take the dough outdoors, rebrand it “forest putty,” shroud it with a touch of mystery and invite kids to play freely with it. Suddenly, play dough can take on new textures, colors and scents. It becomes a tool for exploring, sculpting, attaching, building, collecting and pretending. Various nature treasures stick to it and get enveloped in it. And, depending on a child’s age and imagination, it morphs into virtually anything from the mortar that binds a fairy house to marshmallows to roast over a foliage fire.

The Guide

  1. Make play dough: If you haven’t done it, it’s really not that hard if you follow an easy recipe like ours. Plus, you want to feel okay about losing a crumble or two outdoors (most commercial brands have way too many “ingredients” for that). Add some herbs and spices to your mix to pump up the sensory stimulation.
  2. Hide the “forest putty”: Roll the dough into balls, making sure that each kid (and even adults, you included) have at least one ball to play with. Hide the balls in a reasonably discoverable spot near where you’ll be playing outdoors.
  3. Launch the search: Let kids know that you have a secret! "Today, we’re going on a special hunt for nature treasures...and I heard that the forest fairies left a special tool for us to use. Do you think we can find that special tool?” Hmm...Wonder, "What do you think the special tool could be?"
  4. Gather treasures and forest putty: Head off, pails or bindles in tow, on a hike of length befitting your group’s stamina and which includes the forest putty hiding spot. Stop to gather cool nature treasures (sticks, tree fruits, berries, leaves, etc) along the way.
  5. Discover the putty and start to play: Amaze and delight at the balls of play dough waiting for you. Hurrah! This must be the tool the forest fairies hid for us! Bring the putty and treasures back to your gathering spot and start to play, or just start playing where you found it.
  6. Let them play: Let them play with putty in any and all ways they choose. Grab some putty and play alongside. Wow at innovative techniques.
  7. Give it a context (optional): The first time (or more) you play with play dough outdoors, we advocate this way of introducing and leaving kids totally free to play their way. Once kids have been free to be with play dough outdoors, you can use it as a tool within a play context. Some of our favorites: making a Thanksgiving feast (all ages); building stick cabins (ages 4+); making mosaics (ages 4+).

Why is this activity great for kids?

Kids get the chance to re-discover play dough in a distinctly different context, taking all that is powerful about play dough up a notch. The hunt itself strengthens kids’ curiosity and lends a sense of wonder that inspires both experimentation and imagination. For most kids, playing with play dough outdoors and along with sticks, seed pods, pebbles, bark, and dirt is even more free, messy and creative than the indoor work they typically do with dough. This simple notion of whimsically mashing natural objects with the dough will feel wildly liberating to a kid (and, frankly, to mosts parents too). Who knew you could improve on play dough as they know it?!

Whenever kids do such tactile work, they develop their senses. Kids also develop fine motor control in their hands as they connect objects and squeeze, mold or shape the dough. And, even though tasks like mashing and molding the dough, blending pebbles and dirt into it, or sticking sticks into it appear very simple, they are great examples of universal behavior patterns that experts know develop the human body and brain. Intrigued? Read more about transforming and connecting schema. Finally, we hope you can enjoy knowing that, when that indoor play dough starts to look a little bleak, you can throw it in the backpack and take it outdoors to give it a super fun send-off!

Do This Activity In A Class

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Do It Yourself

We think all families should be learning outside. Try this activity with your child and begin to see the power in outdoor, play-based learning. Have fun!

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