Playing with Dough for Special Needs and Primary School Children

Table of Contents

    The Educational Benefits of Playing with Dough for SEN and Primary School Children

    Children love to play with dough. It’s soft, malleable nature invites them to shape, squish, roll, and cut it into countless creations. But beyond the sheer fun of it, playing with dough offers numerous educational benefits, especially for special needs and primary school children. Whether it’s commercially available Play-Doh, homemade salt dough, or any other variant, this simple material can become a powerful learning tool.

    Teachers can choose to introduce materials like playdough and allow children to play independently or with others. However, teacher involvement in play can enhance learning and encourage children to think differently. Teachers should observe and join in when appropriate to expand on children’s ideas and extend their learning.

    toddler playing with dough learning EYFS Play-doh

    Sensory Development

    Dough play provides a rich sensory experience that can enhance a child’s sensory development. The soft, pliable texture of dough makes it perfect for tactile exploration. As children knead and manipulate the dough, they’re also exploring concepts like hard, soft, wet, dry, sticky, and smooth. For children with sensory processing issues, dough play can have a calming effect and increase their comfort with different textures. You can implement dough play into interventions like finger gym and dough disco.

    Tips for Enhancing Sensory Development Through Playing With Dough:

    • Variety: Use different types of dough (like scented, textured, or coloured dough) to offer a range of sensory experiences.
    • Incorporate Other Elements: Add elements like sand, rice, or beads when playing with dough for added texture.
    • Temperature Play: Use warm or cold dough to introduce the sensation of temperature.

    Fine Motor Skills Development

    Manipulating dough helps children develop their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. The actions involved – such as rolling, squishing, cutting, and shaping – strengthen hand muscles and enhance dexterity. These are critical skills for tasks like writing, buttoning clothes, or using a computer.

    Practical Tips for Enhancing Fine Motor Skills:

    • Use Tools: Introduce tools like rolling pins, cutters, or tweezers to provide varied opportunities for motor development.
    • Model It: Show children how to roll the dough into balls or snakes, flatten it into pancakes, or create more complex shapes.
    • Extract Additional Elements: Similar to “Clever Fingers” fine motor tasks. Hide small toys or balls in the dough and the child has to manipulate it to get them out. Like a treasure hunt.

    Creativity and Imagination using Play Dough

    Playing with dough also spurs creativity and imagination. It’s an open-ended resource that children can transform into anything they imagine – from animals and people to landscapes and abstract shapes. This creative exploration can boost their self-confidence and self-expression. There is no reason not to provide prompts like a mat of easy to copy images or a background scene. So an A3 laminated picture of the Sea so they can create play doh ships or sea creatures.

    Children who engage with play dough demonstrate curiosity, creativity, and imaginative thinking as they discuss various topics and use their imaginations to act out different scenarios.

    Creativity playing with dough adding props for fine motor skill development
    You can extend the learning by adding other toys and tools

    Practical Tips for Enhancing Creativity:

    • Provide Props: Offer items like googly eyes, pipe cleaners, or popsicle sticks that children can incorporate into their creations.
    • Theme Play: Suggest a theme or story-line to inspire their creations.
    • Stop Motion Animation: If you have children that like tech create short films with their creations.
    Playing with Dough for Special Needs and Primary School Children

    Enhance Language and Communication Skills Through Playing with Dough

    Dough play can foster language and communication skills. As children create and play, they have opportunities to express their ideas, describe their actions, and respond to questions. For children with speech or language difficulties, dough play can be a non-threatening medium for communication.

    Practical Tips for Enhancing Language Skills:

    • Talk About It: Encourage children to describe what they’re doing or what they’ve made.
    • Use Descriptive Language: Model the use of varied vocabulary and descriptive language.

    Cognitive Development

    Playing with dough can enhance cognitive development in several ways:

    • Shapes and Sizes: Children can learn about different shapes and their properties. They can also explore concepts like big, small, long, and short.
    • Counting and Maths: Children can form a specific number of shapes, compare quantities, or divide dough into halves or quarters.
    • Problem Solving: Figuring out how to create a desired shape or structure involves problem-solving and critical thinking.

    Practical Tips for Enhancing Cognitive Development:

    • Ask Questions: Encourage children to think and make decisions by asking open-ended questions.
    • Integrate Learning Goals: Incorporate specific learning goals into dough play activities.

    Play Dough & Social-Emotional Development

    Lastly, dough play can support social-emotional development. It can be a calming, therapeutic activity that helps children manage stress. It can also be a social activity where children learn to share resources, collaborate, and respect others’ creations.

    Practical Tips for Enhancing Social-Emotional Development:

    • Group Play: Arrange for small groups of children to work on a shared dough project.
    • Respect Work: Teach children to respect and appreciate their own and others’ creations.

    Adapting Dough Play For SEN

    Here are some tips for adapting play dough activities for children with special educational needs (SEN), how you use these adaptations will depend on the individual. I would be especially mindful of using it with children with PICA. They may need a fully edible homemade dough:

    • Texture/temperature: Play with different textures of play dough like bumpy, silky smooth, sticky. Offer warm/cold play dough which can be soothing.
    • Finger/hand strength: Have play dough that is firm enough to provide resistance building finger muscles. Or use dough that is softer for those with low muscle tone.
    • Sensory input: Add textured items like glitter, beads, pom poms for children who seek tactile input.
    • Cause and effect: For those seeking sensory cause and effect, add tools that imprint or make marks like shape cutters or cookie cutters.
    • Gross motor skills: Provide a large play space and larger play dough tools/utensils for whole arm movements to work on skills.
    • Visual stimuli: Add bright food colours – Gel based food colouring is better, or shapes that contrast to stand out more visually.
    • Multi-sensory: Combine play dough with other items of different textures like feely bottles, textured balls for a multi-sensory experience.
    • Calming activity: Offer play dough as a calming activity for children who are overstimulated or as a transition between activities.

    What Does The Research Say About Playing With Dough and Development?

    Playing with dough, such as playdough or plasticine, has been found to have a positive impact on a child’s development. It can help improve motor skills, coordination between the eyes and fingers, and the ability to recognise geometric shapes. Finger painting games have also been shown to increase children’s creativity. Both playdough and finger painting games are considered beneficial for children’s development.

    Dough Recipes

    Here are 4 easy, low cost, play dough recipes suitable for primary school children. Involving the children allows them to develop literacy and numeracy skills as they read the recipe, measure ingredients and mix the dough:

    Basic Play Dough Ingredients:

    • 2 cups plain flour
    • 1 cup salt (reduce if your children are likely to eat it)
    • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
    • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
    • 1 cup water
    • Food colouring (optional)


    1. Combine the flour and salt in a saucepan.
    2. Add the oil, cream of tartar, water and food colouring (if using) and mix well.
    3. Cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly, until a dough forms.
    4. Remove from heat and allow to cool before using or storing in an airtight container.

    Rainbow Play Dough Ingredients:

    • Basic play dough recipe (see above)
    • Different food colourings


    1. Make the basic play dough recipe and divide into portions.
    2. Add a few drops of different food colouring to each portion and knead until fully combined.
    3. Store each colour in a separate airtight container or bag for playtime fun!

    Play Dough with Glitter Ingredients:

    • Basic play dough recipe
    • Glitter


    1. Make the basic play dough recipe.
    2. Knead a small amount of glitter into portions of the uncooked dough.
    3. Cook and serve with a sprinkling of glitter on top.

    Scented Play Dough

    • Basic play dough recipe
    • A few drops of essential oil such as lavender, lemon or peppermint
    • Ginger can be added for a fantastic Christmas recipe to go alongside our Christmas sensory activities.


    1. Make the basic play dough recipe.
    2. Knead in a few drops of essential oil for a sensory element. Ensure you check for allergies to essential oils first.
    3. Store in an airtight container.

    Playing With Dough Conclusion

    Playing with dough is more than just a fun activity; it’s a multi-faceted learning experience that supports the holistic development of children. As educators, we can harness the power of this versatile material to create engaging, hands-on learning experiences that cater to a wide range of abilities and learning styles. Whether it’s developing fine motor skills, sparking creativity, or enhancing cognitive abilities, the humble dough has a lot to offer in an educational setting.

    References Related to Playing With Dough and Children’s Development:

    Ardianti, T., Purwoko, B., & Izzati, U. A. (2023). The Effects of Playing Playdough on the Ability to Recognize Geometric Shapes in KindergartenStudies in Philosophy of Science and Education4(1), 17-21.

    Goldhaber, J. 1992. Sticky to dry; red to purple: Exploring transformation with playdough. Young Children 48 (1): 26–28

    Setiawati, E. (2022). The effect of playdough games on children’s creativity in early childhood education. Gagasan Pendidikan Indonesia, 3(1).

    Sutapa, Panggung & Prasetyo, Yudik & Arjuna, Fatkhurahman & Prihatanta, Hadwi. (2018). Differences of Influence of Playing Playdough and Puzzles on Fine Motor Skills and Logical-Mathematical Intelligence in Early Childhood. 10.2991/yishpess-cois-18.2018.44.

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