As entertaining as it is pliable, this jack-of-all-trades medium provides hours of fun while improving hand strength, dexterity, and motor skills. Recent research also shows that using your fingers and hands actually stimulates your brain and increases the number of neural connections it makes. So when your child digs into play dough, he's not only building little figures and shapes, he's building his brain! For some mind-molding fun, start by making your own homemade play dough. Then try the activities below.
Talk about it: While making the dough, have your child be a scientist by asking him questions like, "What will happen to the ingredients when they're mixed together? What will happen when you add the water? What will the dough look like when it's cooked?"
Sculpt and sniff: Add some nontoxic scents (such as vanilla, almond, peppermint, or orange) to your homemade play dough to create a new sensory experience. Encourage your child to describe the smells with words. Provide scented flowers and herbs, citrus peels, or cinnamon sticks for your child to add to his sculptures.
Bead It: Play-dough beads make excellent gifts. Give your child a few lumps to experiment with and see all the different sizes and shapes of beads he can create. Provide a plastic straw or pencil to make holes in the beads and lay them out to dry. Your child can string his beads with colorful shoelaces or yarn.
Make an impression: With a rolling pin, help your child roll out a handful of play dough. When the dough is smooth and flat, she can press small objects with different shapes and textures (fork, buttons, dried pasta, seashells) into the dough to make imprints and create an interesting pattern. Poke a hole in the dough near the edge, then allow it to dry and paint it. Tie a ribbon through the hole and hang it up.
Coil it: Show your child how to make a long dough "snake" by using the flat of his hand to roll a lump of play dough back and forth on a flat surface. When he's made a few, help him coil them into plates or bowls. When they're dry, paint them and give them as gifts!
Shape it: Roll out the dough to about a quarter-inch thick. Then have your child pick her favorite cookie cutters and show her how to lean on them with both hands to cut out her shapes. Next, help her use a spatula to lift the cut-outs onto a piece of cardboard or a tray to dry. When the cut-outs are fully hardened, glue blank magnets to the backs and decorate the refrigerator.
Snip and cut: Learning to use scissors can be a challenge for many kids because it's difficult for them to hold and cut floppy paper. Try cutting play dough! Roll out half-inch thick sheets, pass out the child-safe scissors, and watch your child become a super snipper. Play dough is a good learning material because its rigidity provides resistance so your child can feel what he's doing with the scissors.