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Playdough Play Time!

As a pediatric occupational therapist, playdough has become the Swiss Army knife in my “toolbox” of occupational therapy equipment. I keep multiple containers of it in each of my therapy bags as well as my therapy spaces. When I see it on sale, I buy it in bulk so often that my husband has begun to impose a yearly playdough budget on me. It is such a great therapy medium and is usually readily available at home for carrying over goals.

Playdough is inherently a great sensory tool allowing children to explore tactilely with their hands (and, let’s be honest, sometimes their mouth). It also allows them opportunity to stretch their imaginations forming the dough into a rocket ship, a bowl of fruit, or even a pony named Jim with his racoon best friend, Tom. But playdough can be used in so many different ways to target a variety of skills!

Here are a few other ways that you can engage your child with that forgotten mess of playdough you have stashed in the toy closet to target some of their other therapy goals.

Bilateral Coordination

Bilateral coordination refers to the ability to use both sides of the body at the same time to complete a task. That task could require both sides to complete the same action on each side such as clapping, alternating actions such as running, or different actions such zipping up a jacket.

  • Have the child use both hands to roll a snake on the table (same action).
  • Encourage the child to roll various size balls between their hands (alternating actions).
  • Use scissors to make snips or cut various lines and shapes through playdough (different actions).

Fine Motor Strength

Everyday tasks such as managing clothing fasteners, picking up small objects, turning a key, writing with a pencil, and pushing buttons require varying amounts of fine motor strength to complete. Playdough can be used as medium for resistance to strengthen those muscles necessary to complete these tasks.

· After rolling a snake out, practice pinch patterns along the length of the snake.

  1. Pad to pad pinch
  2. Fine pincer
  3. Lateral pinch
  4. 3-jaw chuck

· After rolling out small balls, have child press their finger prints into each one to strengthen each finger individually.

· After rolling out a snake, turn that snake into a small circle by connecting the ends and have the child stretch the circle out from the inside by opening up their fingers.

Visual Perception

The brain’s ability to interpret what the eyes see is called visual perception. Visual perceptual skills are so important for children as they learn to identify colors, shapes, letters, and numbers. These skills help them find items when they are partially hidden or turn upside down. They are also important to learning spatial relationships such as “in front of” or “behind”.

  • Have the child form the dough into shapes and letters. Depending on the age of the child, you could provide visuals of shapes and letters on mats or paper so they can mold the shape/letter on top of it.
  • Discuss the various sizes (bigger/biggest, smaller/smallest, longer/longest, shorter/shortest) of balls/shapes/letters with your child.
  • Outside your child’s view, make a figure such as a snowman with the dough and challenge your child replicate it.


Occupational therapists refer to the act of self-feeding as the ability to manage food on a plate or in a bowl and get it to the mouth. Children use their fingers first, then utensils to get food from their plates to their mouths. It also refers to using a knife to spread, cut, and slice food before eating or when preparing a meal.

  • After rolling small balls or pinching the playdough into smaller pieces, encourage your child to scoop with a spoon or use a fork to stab pieces of playdough on a plate or flat surface and, rather than put them in their mouth, have them put the pieces in a cup that is elevated higher than the plate such as on a box or a large bowl turned over.
  • Have the child mold the dough into a food-like figure such as a banana or a sandwich, and practice cutting or slicing with a dull or plastic knife.

Playdough is all about being creative. With a little imagination and adult direction, playdough can be a great reinforcer and sometimes sneaky way to get your little one to practice some of those skills that are otherwise not so fun to work on. Happy playdough-ing!

-Sarah Taylor, MS, OTR/L