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Using Playdough as a Therapy Tool

by Trish on January 13, 2010 · 4 comments

in Autism, Therapies

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Ahhh, playdough. Just saying the name brings to mind the fun of opening a brand new container and feeling the soft, squishy dough that held such mystery. What would I make out of it this time? Spaghetti hair for a person, little cups for a tea party . . . the possibilities were endless.

For children with special needs, however, this magical substance can be more than a playtime activity; it can be used as a tool to promote any number of skills.

Here are a variety of ideas for using playdough in therapy:

Fine Motor (increase hand strength, dexterity and coordination)

• Just opening and closing the containers can be an exercise in itself
• Squeezing it to make it softer or combine pieces into a larger lump
• Pinching bits of dough and rolling small balls with the thumb and first two fingers
• Forming it into a ball or sausage with two hands or with the flat of a hand on the table
• Flattening it with a palm or a rolling pin
• Cutting it with scissors or with a knife
• Using one of the presses, such as for the spaghetti hair (even I find this one difficult!)
• Finding small objects that have been hidden in the dough

Language and Communication

• Identifying colors by name or by pointing
• Requesting what they want (more dough, another color, a specific tool)
• Answering questions about what they are doing
• Matching, sorting or making patterns with cut-out shapes or balls of different colors
• Forming it into letters and spelling words
• Drawing on flattened dough
• Expressing emotions through sculpting what they are feeling

Social/Emotional and Imaginative Play

• Sharing the dough with an adult or another peer
• Taking turns using the different tools or deciding what to make
• Creating items for pretend play, such as food for a picnic
• Being responsible with the materials (no one wants to have to get it out of the carpet!)
• Helping to clean up when playtime is all done

One issue that may arise is the child being unwilling to touch the playdough due to sensory issues. A way to get around this is be to place some of the dough in a sealed plastic bag and allow them to manipulate it without actually coming in contact with it. Over time, they may become open to touching it and eventually playing with it directly.

If your child enjoys using playdough, you can use this activity to teach almost any skill that they need help with. If your child prefers doing other things, but you want to encourage this type of play, you could use their other interests to draw them in.

The latter was the case for my own son, who loved letters and numbers but lacked the hand strength or motor planning to work with the dough. We got him interested by making the letters of his name and eventually were able to show him how to manipulate the dough himself. And now he loves playing with it and coming up with new ideas of things to make!

Please note: Most playdough is not gluten free. If your child is sensitive to gluten, you may wish to consider an alternative product or make your own. A Google search will yield several different gluten-free recipes or options to purchase. One listing I found is Gluten Free 101: Gluten free play dough brands and recipes.

Note: This article appeared originally on Root & Sprout, a parenting ezine which is no longer available online.

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