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How Play-Dough Can Help Your Child Get Ready for Kindergarten

Ms. Meyers is a long-time preschool and kindergarten teacher who writes about issues in early childhood education and advocates for play.

Parents should never underestimate the power of play-dough to build fine motor skills, strengthen dexterity, and stimulate creativity.

Parents should never underestimate the power of play-dough to build fine motor skills, strengthen dexterity, and stimulate creativity.

Play-Dough Develops Fine Motor Skills

When young children become gripped by technology—playing games on cell phones and watching videos on iPads—their fine motor skills suffer. Teachers now lament the fact that youngsters enter kindergarten with weak hand muscles and poor dexterity. Because of this, they struggle to hold a pencil correctly, cut with scissors efficiently, and turn the pages of a book without ripping the pages. Sadly, this can cause them undue frustration and embarrassment.

Fortunately, parents can prevent these problems with an easy and familiar solution: play-dough! By rolling, twisting, pinching, pounding, and kneading it, youngsters build strong muscles in their fingers and hands. They develop the necessary dexterity to confidently handle all the fine motor challenges that kindergarten will present.

The Benefits of Play-Dough

In addition to strengthening finger and hand muscles, manipulating play-dough has many other benefits for young children:

  • It's therapeutic: soothing and comforting. Children who've suffered a trauma in their lives—their parents' divorce, the death of a relative, or a serious illness in the family—especially benefit from play-dough time. Occupational therapists often use it when working with autistic children who have sensory integration issues.
  • It stimulates creativity. Working with play-dough is an open-ended art activity—meaning children use their imaginations to make whatever they want. They're not copying a sample created by a teacher. Open-ended art is powerful for children because it promotes independence, problem-solving, and self-confidence.
  • It elicits conversation and builds vocabulary. If you've ever listened to a group of young children sitting around a table with play-dough, you know the amazing conversations that take place. They talk about concepts such as large/small, fat/skinny, thick/thin, more/less, and up/down. They learn to politely ask one another for materials and wait patiently for their turns. They talk about what they're creating and why. They make up stories about their creations.
  • It can teach letters and numbers. Play-dough time is best when parents step back and let kids explore freely with no adult interference. However, from time to time, grown-ups can use it as a tool for formal instruction: having the children form letters and numbers by rolling them in their hands, creating an erupting volcano by mixing baking soda and vinegar, and practicing scissor skills by cutting play-dough into pieces.

This video lists 10 benefits of using play-dough that include promoting fine motor development, eye-hand coordination, and creativity.

A Recipe for Play-Dough

This recipe makes a large batch and, when stored it in an airtight container, lasts for weeks. Keep the ingredients in your pantry and make it on a regular basis so you'll always have it on hand for your kids and their friends. When children sit around a table with play-dough, their creativity ignites and their conversation flows.

It's great to pull out for play dates and birthday parties, especially when you add kitchen tools such as cookie cutters, rolling pins, plastic knives, wooden dowels, and my kids' favorite: a garlic press.

My sons were thoroughly captivated by this device and used it to make hair on their play-dough people and fur on their play-dough animals. When I taught preschool, I purchased a few more because they were so popular and in demand. Plus, they're wonderful tools for strengthening fine motor skills and dexterity.


  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 cup salt
  • 4 tablespoons cream of tartar
  • 4 cups water
  • 4 tablespoons oil
  • food color (if using lots of color, use as part of the water measurement)

*Remember to add the food coloring before cooking. If you wait until after, it's difficult to get a uniform color. You may wind up with a marbled effect.


  1. Cook this gooey recipe over medium heat, stirring constantly (don't let the bottom burn). At first, it may not look like play-dough but don't worry; it will quickly change form.
  2. Continue cooking and stirring until VERY WELL cooked outside and inside.

The secret to this recipe:

Cook the play-dough very well, inside and out, to make it soft and malleable.

The Endless Possibilities

Making this play-dough never gets boring if you change it up:

  • Add a packet of Kool-Aid instead of food coloring to achieve an appealing color and smell.
  • Add nutmeg, spice, and ginger to make gingerbread play-dough.
  • Add peppermint at Christmas for peppermint play-dough.
  • Add pumpkin pie spices in October and November for pumpkin pie play-dough.
  • Mix in big glitter flakes and sequins to add some pizzazz.
  • Add lemon or almond extract for an added sensory experience.
  • Add salt or sawdust to create texture.
  • Mix the 3 primary colors to create new ones (red and yellow = orange, yellow and blue = green, red and blue = purple)

Add materials from your house and yard to bolster creativity. Let kids use them to make imprints, designs, and patterns in the play-dough.

  • bottle caps
  • combs
  • straws
  • toothpicks
  • dried pasta
  • wooden letters
  • toy vehicles
  • feathers
  • pebbles
  • twigs
  • leaves
  • shells
  • pine-cones

Baker's Clay

From time to time, kids want to make something permanent that they can keep forever or give to their parents or grandparents. Baker's Clay gives them the opportunity to do just that. It's ideal for creating birthday presents or holiday gifts.

My sons and I had a tradition of mixing up a big batch of Baker's Clay every December so they could make ornaments for our tree. They'd make a hole in each one before baking so they could later add ribbon for hanging it on a branch. Their creations would bake in the oven where they'd become puffy and hard. After they cooled, the boys would paint them with acrylics. When their ornaments were dry, they'd varnish them to add a shiny protective coating.

While parents may want their youngsters to make a bell, an elf, or a wreath, they should let them use their imaginations to create whatever they want. They should keep in mind the big picture—to help their kids become confident, enthusiastic, and independent artists. With young children, the process of creating art should always be esteemed more than the finished product.

This brief video shows how to make ornaments with Baker's Clay.

Baker's Clay Recipe


  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 1/2 cup water
  • acrylic paints
  • varnish


  1. Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl. If the mixture is dry, add 1/4 cup water at a time...not too much!
  2. Bake in a 250-degree oven for 30–40 minutes. Cool. Paint with acrylics. Let dry. Add varnish for shine and protection.


  • garlic press
  • wooden dowels
  • plastic utensils
  • rolling pins

Edible Play-Dough Recipes

Because kids love sensory experiences, they often ask if they can taste the play-dough. Unfortunately, because it’s touched by many hands and gets reused, that’s not a good idea. However, with these two edible play-dough recipes, they can finally get their wish and eat the creations that they make.

Peanut Butter and Syrup


  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup corn syrup
  • 1-1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1-1/2 powdered milk


  1. Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl with a big spoon.
  2. Add more powdered milk if needed to make a workable dough.
  3. Knead, shape, and eat.

Peanut Butter Frosting


  • 1 can frosting mix
  • 1-1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 cup peanut butter


  1. Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl until they form a workable dough.

Final Thoughts

At a time when young children's fine motor skills are lacking, play-dough is needed now more than ever. Sadly, it's disappeared from many preschools and playgroups and most kindergartens.

Have parents and teachers forgotten how valuable it is for promoting fine motor skills, social interaction, and imagination? Have they forgotten how fun it was when they were kids to sit for hours and create things with it?

Hopefully, moms and dads of preschoolers will re-discover play-dough and realize what a powerful tool it is when preparing kids for kindergarten.

What do you think?

For each question, choose the best answer for you.

  1. Do you think your child is prepared for the fine motor challenges that kindergarten will present?
    • Yes, without a doubt!
    • No, we need to work on it.


Use the scoring guide below to add up your total points based on your answers.

  1. Do you think your child is prepared for the fine motor challenges that kindergarten will present?
    • Yes, without a doubt!: +0 points
    • No, we need to work on it.: +0 points

Interpreting Your Score

A score of 0 means: ?

© 2016 McKenna Meyers