Whether you make it yourself or buy it, few homes will be without some sort of play dough during the toddler and preschool years. So why does it have such enduring popularity?
There's something about the sensation of shaping, pulling and rolling a soft play dough that is enjoyable at any age. The tactile nature of the substance encourages adults and children alike to experiment with it, allowing their imaginations to dictate the end result.
It's not just tactile satisfaction that this kind of play provides. Dr Suzy Green, coaching and clinical psychologist and founder of The Positivity Institute, describes how clay play contributes to physical development. "Using materials that can be rolled, squished and manipulated helps our little ones build strength in the muscles in their fingers and hands. These same muscles are used for the development of skills such as cutting, holding a pencil with a pincer grasp and writing. Finally, children are also learning hand-eye coordination as they use their hands to shape and manipulate these types of materials," she explains.
According to Dr Ginni Mansberg, GP, author and resident doctor on Channel 7's Sunrise program, it's the free-form play that is part of using play dough that has incredible value for children."While there is no evidence to put play with play dough over other types of activities, child-oriented play where they make the rules allows their imaginations to thrive," she says.
"Using play dough with your child is a great way to sit and interact with them, especially when you let them direct the play," she adds. "We don't want parents getting in there and making the rules and directing the play, and sometimes it's hard to let kids be in charge. For that reason it can be easier if they do this type of play with other kids, but parents can really enjoy it if they let go of control."
Dr Suzy agrees. "Parents play a really important role in play, particularly home play and before a toddler starts school. Not only is your child learning crucial skills for life and schooling, the engagement that occurs between parents and children is crucial to building a longstanding relationship. Parent-child play also helps your child learn crucial social skills and confidence to deal with challenges that will undoubtedly occur once they make their way into the world," she says.
Play dough and cognitive skills
In order to be able to learn and develop our children need to develop executive function and self-regulation skills. The three areas that contribute to executive function are working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility. The first allows us to hold information in our minds. The second is the skill we need to prevent ourselves from acting on every impulse we have, giving us the ability to resist temptation and pause before acting. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adjust plans as a situation unfolds.
While there are many games and activities that help our little ones develop these skills, clay play can be part of the mix. Allowing children to set a goal (for example, making a flower from play dough), working out what they'll need to do it (different coloured dough), and adjusting their plan as the process unfolds (adding extra petals) all contribute to aspects of executive function.
"Using play dough, clay and shaping materials really support a toddler's capacity to be creative – not necessarily artistic! Creativity is a very important life skill that helps children develop strategies to successfully overcome novel problems and find solutions," Dr Suzy says. "Clay and play dough use also stimulate a child's curiosity," she adds. "This is another important life skill and character strength."
Playing with play dough also helps brain development. "New neurons and synapses in the brain are generated when a child is engaged in the tactile and visual experience provided by clay," Dr Suzy adds.
The link to immunity
Of course you don't actually need play dough to enjoy the fun of shaping clay. Mixing water with soil in the backyard and making mud pies together has a number of surprising benefitS, with research showing that playing in the dirt can help build stronger immune systems, thanks to friendly bacteria found there.
In particular, a bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae has been shown to activate neurons and stimulate the immune system.
Everything in moderation
Despite it's many benefits there are some down sides to clay play, as Dr Ginni explains.
"Someone has to clean it up!" she says. "That's generally mum and it's not fun if it gets in the carpet or the dog. Also, if you're making your own you have to be aware that it might not be colourfast, which can lead to an even bigger mess."
"It's also quite a sedentary activity," she adds. "For that reason, keep it to a short session or a rainy-day activity rather than something you're doing all day, every day."
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