As a speech-language pathologist Play-Doh is one of my go-to items in therapy sessions.
Playing with Play-Doh is an engaging and infinite way to encourage creative play and help children develop their language, play, and fine motor and sensory skills. With just a few simple strategies, you can use your imagination to sculpt play-doh into a fun and effective language learning tool.
Here are some fun ways to play with Play-Doh:
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One of the best features of store-bought Play-Doh is that it comes in a container that’s tricky for most little ones to open. It has a built-in mechanism to create communication temptations. Your in control of the item they want.
When you know the child wants to play with the Play-Doh, you can simply hand it to them with it closed (you’ve purposely created a communication temptation). If they struggle to open it, silently watch for a minute, and then offer help. Before you help, place a language demand on the child. You can work on saying or signing “help”, or “open”, or saying mama/dada as a way to request “help”.
Once the Play-Doh is open, children can explore a wide range of activities that can help to stimulate language production in a fun and engaging way. If a child has limited verbal abilities, you can work on signing more, open, give me. If the child has more developed language skills you can work on expanding their repertoire of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and pronouns.
Here are 8 fun and easy ways to play with play-doh!
Let’s start from foundational language skills and move forward from there.
Not only will the bright colors of the play-doh be engaging for youngsters, it also serves as a resourceful way to get them use gestures, sign language, and words.
Pointing – Take the Play-Doh and roll it into a ball. Then hold the ball slightly out of reach next to your face. If they want the Play-Doh they’ll reach for it. As they reach, gently take their hand and help them point to request the ball. If they point independently, tap the ball on their pointer finger and immediately give them ball. They will make the connection that pointing, gets them what they want.
Signing “give me” to request – Once they’ve mastered pointing. Try rolling a small piece of the Play-Doh into a ball or fun shape. Hold the ball up and see if the child reaches for it or points. Once they point, help them sign “give me” to request the ball. (The sign for “give me” is two open palm pats on the chest.) Once you’ve helped them sign, immediately give them the ball. Repetition is key. See how many balls you can make, and repetitions of requesting you can create.
Naming objects (nouns) – Once they’ve mastered pointing/signing or if they are showing signs of verbal communication, you can work on saying, “ball”. Take a small piece, roll it into a ball, hold it out, wait for the child to reach, then move the ball next to your mouth and model, “ball!”. If the child makes ANY attempt at vocalization, give them the ball. We want to reinforce vocalizations for getting what they want. Even if they say “buh” or “ahh” give them the ball. Moving the item next to your mouth is one of the 5 biggest tips I teach parents to help early talker learn to watch and repeat. Use you imagination and see how many different people, places, or things you can make with the Play-Doh.
Once you have a child who is imitating and talking. Let’s practice expanding they’re verbal repertoire by adding verbs, adjectives, pronouns.
Action words – In a speech therapy session, verbs such as cutting, rolling, pushing, pulling and poking can all be included when using Play-Doh with kids. By showing them the verbs and having them try to imitate while using play-doh during these sessions, you can engage and give them an enjoyable way use the Play-Doh and talk about what they are doing.
One of my favorites is creating fake food (i.e. cookies, milk, pizza, hot dogs, apples) and asking the child to feed the food to a figurine. Here we can practice “eat”.
Adjectives – If you’re goal is to teach them adjectives (descriptive words) you can make a small ball, then a big ball, then a smooth ball, then bumpy. You can also talk about the different colors if you have multiple Play-Doh’s open. By using different colors of Play-Doh in the same activity, it can be used to represent a variety of adjectives. For example, I might tell a child to get the big green Play-Doh and the little blue one. We can use adjectives like smooth and bumpy with different shapes of Play-Doh as well. Using circles and squares create, or any shape you can create is an interactive experience that is both stimulating and exciting for the child.
Concepts on/off – This is particularly a fan favorite while making fake jewelry. I’ll use Play-Doh to make a watch, ring, necklace. If the child is into this, I’ll make the item and encourage them to say “on”, or “put on” as I put the jewelry on them. When they take it off I’ll model “off”, “take off” in a sing-song tone and see if they will imitate.
You can add to this activity by working on body parts. Show me your hand! Show me your finger! Show me your wrist! Show me your neck! Or you can just label as you put the jewelry on the child.
Turn taking – Once the child is engaged, really at any level of development, you can practice taking turns with the Play-Doh. You can give them the Play-Doh and say “your turn”. Then take it back and kindly model “my turn”. Try for very short periods at first, as turn taking is never easy to start. See what pronouns you can use while playing, my, your, his, her, our, their etc.
Cleaning up – Lastly you can work on clean up. When the child loses interest and wants to move on to the next activity. You can work on, “First we clean up, then it’s time for puzzles”. This may not be the most exciting part of the activity for most kids, however; it is a crucial step in play that helps the child learn they should clean-up before moving on to the next activity. Make sure you have the right expectations and help your child as much as needed. As long as they are participating in clean up, as little as it may be, it is still a great learning opportunity. Also, you are helping the child expand their attention to tasks a little longer by having them stay and clean up for an extra minute. Once the mess is cleaned you can model, “all done” and move on to the next activity.
Your number one job as the parent is to be creative and have fun. Sprinkle these strategies in as much as the child can handle. If they become frustrated, drop any expectations and just play. Follow your child’s lead and see where they take you!
Here are some of the Play Doh kits I use at home and in therapy sessions.
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About the Author
DRAKE HASTINGS M.S., CCC-SLP
Drake Hastings is a speech-language pathologist who specializes in speech, oral motor, and feeding therapy for kids. Drake has a passion for working with children and families while helping children achieve goals using a fun and motivating approach to learning.
Drake’s main areas of focus within the practice are feeding therapy, and speech (sound production) therapy. Drake has experience working with children who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Apraxia of Speech, Dysarthria, Down Syndrome, and rare genetic disorders. Drake has experience working and collaborating with a wide variety of families and therapeutic team members while treating children of all ages.