Playdough – with tools or without?

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I made a new batch of playdough (without all the bells and whistles) last week for the toddler art group. I was aiming for lavender, but didn't get it right. I need to fine tune my playdough coloring technique…


Each kiddo got a big blob of playdough to poke, pound, and prod. They mostly did this with a variety of kitchen tools (potato masher, wire whisk, rolling pin, cookie cutters) and playdough tools (textured rollers and "pokers"). They had fun! But in retrospect, I think the tools got in the way of the experience. That I should have just put the playdough out there on its own for what was for most of them a first playdough encounter.


Instead of really exploring the playdough, they were enchanted by and distracted by the tools.


And the tools added an extra layer of distance between them and the playdough. I'd rather see them squishing it in their hands, poking their fingers into it, picking it up, tasting it, etc.


And they did do some of that! But not as much as I would have liked. I think next time I bring out the playdough with this group, I'll present it on its own and see what happens.

That's not to say I don't like playdough tools. I obviously do. But I think I should have let the toddlers become familiar with playdough on its own first a few times before introducing the concept of manipulating it with tools. What do you think?


I left the playdough and tools out and they were used by Daphne, Maia, and her friends many times over the next few days.


Mostly becoming part of their elaborate pretend play. It's such fun to see how the age difference (4 years) between my daughters plays out as they each interact with art materials in their own ways!


Now that I think about it, though, Maia usually interacts with playdough without tools. She uses her hands to roll and shape it into airplanes (above), people, and cakes. While she used to use tools a lot with playdough, she doesn't nearly as much anymore.

I'm wondering if tools help provide a layer of perceived safety between the toddler and the new material? (Some of the kids were decidely tentative about approaching the playdough) And that they aren't used as much once familiarity is reached? Or not used as much once the child has the dexterity and skill to shape realistic items from the playdough? I'm just thinking aloud here… The familiarity thing can't be true because kids use tools with playdough long after they are familiar with it. I guess tools are just plain fun to use! And provide novel ways to manipulate and interact with the playdough (garlic press! nature prints!).

What are your thoughts on all this? Do your kids prefer to play with playdough alone or with tools?

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  1. says

    Hi Jean,
    Longtime follower of your blog. Loving the playdough recipes. It’s so pretty here :)
    I’m a Montessori Mom and teacher, so I always say hand before tool. Those tools are beautiful, I see the value as well. I think your gut feeling for their first encounter was correct.
    Here are some lovely quotes from Montessori about the hand. I always try to remember these when I’m tempted to add tools right away, it’s so very tempting!
    “The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.” “The human hand allows the minds to reveal itself.”

  2. says

    Playdough is one of my all time favorite things — I usually give them a bag with a few toys to go with it. The bag has several cookie cutters, a small rolling pin, a couple of plastic animals (which usually get “dressed up” with hair and clothes), a small, dull butter knife and a couple of those plastic eggs from Easter time. My kids are older than your sweet toddler group but they play both ways, sometimes making things with just their hands, sometimes using the tools. I can’t remember now if they started with or without tools though!

  3. Barbara Zaborowski says

    With my class, my partner and I don’t do a lot of playdough because we have real clay in our outdoor classroom. Doing either one, we always hold off on the tools for a month or two. Those who have already had a good deal of experience don’t mind and those without have a chance to get familiar with the materials. Then we introduce the tools and finally we start putting out decorations (shells, beads, small electrical parts and hardware from deconstructed appliances.) Today I had beer bottle tops out and they were popular, too. (Actually, we spent a long time just looking at the tops; they were all different and not one had the word “beer” on it.)

  4. says

    Ditto all of the above. One thing to add…I can’t take credit for this great idea, but I have seen it work: if you have a toddler whose sensory issues make touching the playdough too threatening at first, try putting it in a ziploc bag and letting him squish and squeeze it in the bag. Eventually, he will be ready to touch it directly, but this gives the experience of manipulating the material without the discomfort of the direct touch.

  5. says

    I have heard that you can mix nice purple playdough using purple watercolors. I think you can mix some concentrated purple with a brush and then add that in while you make the playdough. I have heard that this is one of the only sure ways of getting a true purple.
    I have often had this same debate in my mind. I think playdough is often best played without tools for many of the same reasons you describe. Without the tools, kids will make balls and snakes and pancakes and then combine these shapes into new shapes. The tools do some of the work for you and can be a distraction. My one exception is toothpicks. Obviously these are not appropriate for very young children, but by four years old, toothpicks are great fun with playdough.

  6. penny says

    no tools….(and I always felt guilty about it when we go to someone else’s house and they have a zillion tools to play with play dough.)Thanks for posting a timely reminder that kids do have fun tools or no tools. Love your blog :)

  7. Lynne says

    From the kindergarten teacher perspective (non Montessori, unfortunately I did not learn about Montessori till I had my own kids) I am wondering if possibly using playdough with hand uses a lot of finger muscles. The older children have developed those muscles further so possibly it is easier for them to use their hands. Where as with the toddlers their muscles are still developing so it is harder to manipulate the dough with their fingers so they use the tools, because it is easier to hold on to them. This thought came out of when we had a child who had difficulty writing letters we would ask the parent if the child had played with playdough 9 times out of 10 they said no then we asked them to have their child play with it with their hands everyday to work on finger dexterity. One boy that was really struggling with writing played with the playdough at school would tell me that playing with the playdough really worked his fingers hard. So I am guessing it is physically hard for beginner playdoughers to use their hands.
    This being said I think intro without the tools is best so that those little finger muscles are put to work right from the start.
    Playdough play is so important!

  8. says

    my girls have never had the fancy tools but love using candles, sticks, you name it and make the dough into all different kinds of animals and such.
    We usually always make our dough but are getting ready to review and have a giveaway of Mary’s Soft Dough! I’m so excited for them to try out this dough :) I think I will be playing with it right along with them :)

  9. Adrienne says

    When I first introduced playdough to my son I didn’t provide tools. Since then he mostly prefers to use the tools (he’s almost 3). One of our favorite tools to use are rubber stamps. It allows him to make pictures in the dough after he has squashed it with his hands.

  10. Sarah says

    This is too funny! I made some playdough last week from your recipe. I was aiming for lavender too and my color turned out just like yours!

  11. says

    Funny, I just wrote a post about playing with Play Doh today. Anyway; my little one never really “got” it until today. She would poke it with her fingers and then just sit there staring at it with a “what do I do with this” sort of look. She’ll be 21 months old at the end of the week…
    Today, she used the tools on it and enjoyed poking it (and as we are trying to learn speech, I say “poke! poke! poke!” with each motion, and “Squeeeeeeze!” with each squeeze, and “puuuuuuuush!” when she sticks something into it. It’s great for that. My opinion on the tools is that when they are this young it is hard to manipulate the dough to make shapes…just as they are just learning to scribble and make lines/dots with a crayon, they are also learning to manipulate the dough. I feel like poking it with tools and seeing what happens is a lot like scribbling. It’s paving the way for playing with it and actually MAKING things in the future. Without the tools I feel there is a sense of “what am I supposed to do with this?” for the really little ones and the tools help them engage and see what the dough is all about.

  12. says

    I think the typical play dough tools turn it into more of a 2D experience than 3D. Rolling it out, using cookie cutters–it encourages the dough to be flat. I notice that without the typical tools, the play becomes more sculptural. Last time I made play dough with my two younger kids (ages 6 and 2), I gave them wooden clothespins, corks, random things that I found in our art bins. And their play was extremely sculptural!

  13. Katie says

    I can understand the benefit of using just hands, but my 2 year old just isn’t there yet. We did play dough alone for several months, and he didn’t really get into it–he would just play with the lump as a lump (and sometimes get upset if the lump got dented or stretched). Part is personality, part is that he doesn’t seem to have the skills yet to break & squish much on his own (which is a good reason to keep practicing–but no use in pushing something that he isn’t interested in). Add in a butter knife or a chopstick and he engages with it more. Add in several tools and they become part of the sculpture, sticking out in different directions. I figure this is what he likes now–I’ll keep presenting it different ways, but bring out the tools when he asks for them.

  14. says

    oh I agree totally – I think the less tools and stuff in general the better the creativity – we haven’t really done playdough – for a few reasons but are probably going to try it at home soon for my older son. We have done it else where and the tools always seemed to become the main event. Which as you say is good – but is only one aspect. You can always add in but it is sometimes hard to take away once you have something there.

  15. says

    I have a 7.5, 5.5 and 2.5 yr old. We use tools and play without them. They know we have cutters and texture blocks as well as cookie cutters. Typically the play vacillates between just hands and molding to tool use.

  16. Padma Kondapeta says

    Hi Jean … When I introduced it to my daughter for the first time when she was two, she had tools. However, she left the tools and happily played with just the dough and tried to make it into a bouncy ball. She did get into the tools when she was about 3. I don’t think it matters really.

  17. says

    We love homemade playdough and I try sometimes to bring it out without the tools but that doesn’t last long because they like some of the tools to turn the playdough into many things. I do like that they experience it with their hands but I love the pretend play that goes along with it.

  18. says

    We don’t have many tools in our playdoh box but there is a selection of marbles, feathers, matchsticks and fabric swatches, oh and google eyes and the girls really love using these to created things out of the playdoh.

  19. says

    Hello Jean,
    First of all, you have been very inspiring to me. Thank you for writing such a great blog.
    Today only I taught clay in my daughter Maya’s class. This is a Reggio Inspired class room. We just added water, and then squished, rolled, slammed the clay. This was more of a body experience. I am sure we can at least do part of it with play dough.
    We have discussed this before with the teachers, that how important it is to just to know your medium, with your fingers. One analogy I could give you is that, first we let the kids do finger painting and then we give them the brushes.
    I just wrote a link about it and suggested a great book in my blog. Hope you check it out

  20. says

    Hi Jean,
    Your post really got me thinking. My 22 month old son has had play dough for quite a while now and has always enjoyed it. I always give him tools though and he usually does the same sort of things – cut, roll, cut out shapes, that sort of thing. Today, after reading your post, when he got the play dough out I didn’t give him any tools. He worked with the play dough on a much more sensory level than usual. He just seemed to enjoy the feeling of the medium. It seems obvious to me now – I mean its the same as any other sensory experience, isn’t it? – but I hadn’t thought of it earlier.
    Thanks for the little light-bulb moment

  21. Julie says

    That’s very interesting. I help with a toddler group and we always have play dough out and loads of tools. I always thought that if the children didn’t want to play with the tools they would ignore them but perhaps they get in the way. The children are aged 0-4 years and I am sure some of the older ones like the tools. The play dough table is always one of the most popular things. I think it is partly because it gives the parents the opportunity to sit down with the children and do something together (although sometimes the children wander off leaving the parents playing with the play dough!)

  22. says

    Neat post! Thinking back to when mine were tots, they seemed to do better with either one tool at a time or without tools, as if there were too many tools out, they would be distracted by their choices and would not focus on actually playing with the play dough.
    Like when you talked about trying to achieve the right shade of lavender…have had trouble with getting certain colors, here too. Read the one comment made about using purple watercolor to mix in, so will give that a try next time we want to make shades of purple.
    love your blog.

  23. says

    My daughter is 21 months and is currently in a non-tool phase. When we first started with play dough, she had a set of 3 metal cookie cutters and a small rolling pin. Once she got the hang of not eating the dough (we introduced it to her when she was ~15 months) she liked to make shapes and name what the shapes were – star, heart, and man. I think she liked the tactile experience of the dough but it related to the shapes she knew so it was “safe” for her.
    However, now I think she is in more of a creative stage where she wants to build play food with us and then feed it to her stuffed toys.
    I’m not trained in any school of thought, so I could be off base from a developmental standpoint, but this is just what I’ve observed!

  24. says

    I like that tip about mixing water colour paints in too. I’ve been flummoxed before as well.
    I CAN tell you it’s a really bad idea to decide to make a rainbow of play dough in one go. I knew it would be short-lived because it would soon get mashed together and turn a dull purple colour (incidentally!) but I decided to make a BIG batch of uncoloured play dough anyway; I split it into 5 balls and added different food colouring to each ball. The “kneading-in” process was extremely long, difficult and tiring. The joy of seeing + presenting the rainbow did not, in any way, exceed (or even equal) the pain of making and seeing the rapidity of the mash-up of it all…. just in case you ever thought it’d would be a good idea!

  25. says

    My daughter’s name is Violet, so I have made many attempts at lavender (or Violet, rather) colored dough. I find that to get it pretty, you really need to use purple food coloring or liquid watercolor (Wilton sells it). Mixing it out of the usual r-g-b-y usually doesn’t work!

  26. Sherman Unkefer says

    This post is very inspiring. Play dough is a very educational material which is suited to kids.

  27. Kate says

    to make a nice shade of purple, instead of food coloring use a packet of kool aid, add to the water then to the dough! as for tools, my 1 year old prefers hands, my 3 year old uses either. when i taught toddlers, we used blobs of dough when introducing scissors, its a steady form and not as tricky as trying to hold paper in one hand and scissors in the other!

  28. Nicole says

    I love the way you have really thought about this. I would offer playdough without tools first and see what happens. Each experience gives an opportunity for reflection and you might change how you offer the dough each time you get it out again. I introduced dough to our toddlers outside under the trees and after checking out the dough with their hands, they found their own tools – sticks!

  29. megwrites says

    Our last batch of playdough ended up looking kind of like raw meat (gross!). I guess I shouldn’t have let my kids be in charge of the food coloring…
    We got a big container of hand me down playdough tools when some friends moved and my kids have really enjoyed using them.

  30. Kelley says

    I think both experiences are important for different reasons. It depends on WHY you want the children to use playdough. As an educator, I have noticed in recent years that children do not know how to SQUEEZE the play dough. They break it into bits, and do things to it with the tools, but they don’t know how to squeeze and shape it with their hands. They don’t know how to put all the pieces back together into one lump. With toddlers, this is expected. When I have four, five, and six year olds who don’t know how to do it, I am always surprised.

  31. lubee32065 says

    My group of kindergarten children starting out the year asking for tools to use with the playdough and now (January) they are into using their hands and actually rolling balls and snakes etc…. One child make a playdough pizza slice with toppings! It looked incredible and now everyone is into making pizza. Sooo funny how it happens.

  32. says

    What a great idea! I’m going to color playdough with watercolors next time! Makes me want to make another batch right now!
    Maia loves using toothpicks with playdough, too! Both to poke holes for decoration and also to stick in and leave in (like candles or for a porcupine).

  33. says

    Now that you mention it, I think Jennifer Hallissy (author of The Right Start) said something similar about playdough being good for finger dexterity and handwriting ability.

  34. says

    We’ve never tried rubber stamps with playdough, but what a great idea! I know Maia will love that! We have a drawer full of them — I’ll have to get them out for her soon…

  35. says

    No. I’ll have to try that soon. Also someone just e-mailed me about something called GAK that I think must be similar to silly putty. Do you have a recipe?

  36. says

    I have that book! Cathy Weisman Topal is great. We still haven’t done nearly as much with clay as we have with playdough, though. I seem to have a mental block about it for some reason.

  37. Chana says

    My 2.5 year old can play for a full hour with playdoh (his big sister still can’t do that :) ). One of his favorite things is to get a little toy dinosaur and hide it in the playdoh, take it back out, hide it in again… he either does this by himself or with another little friend of his to whom he gives a dinosaur. At first, I didn’t want to let the kids take “regular” toys and put them in the playdoh, but I found that relaxing about it made a fun activity for them.

  38. says

    we got it today it is amazing!!! there is a giveaway too. I have 2 months of giveaways starting next friday and every friday till I’m doing all great stuff like soy crayons, marys soft dough. etc…

  39. says

    I am a HUGE fan of Spangler’s science projects. I haven’t tried this one specifically, but most of his work really well. I use to teach hands on science and use him as a major resource.

  40. says

    I had not even thought of not using tools! Yesterday Daddy was home sick from work and he inspired us to do much more sculpting. My 4 yr old really got into it. My 19 mo old watched more, played less, than usual.
    Just an idea from working with my 19 mo old is he LOVES to “destroy” things. So when I sculpt something and then playfully encourage him to tear it down his hands gleefully dig into the dough. (Although it’s not so happy times when he does this to his sister’s creations.) He is a mildly tactile sensitive guy, so this is good.

  41. MaryAnn F. Kohl, art book author says

    The usual process is:
    1. playdough with hands only
    2. add simple tools
    3. add complicated tools
    4. add other supplies for “decorating”
    5. go back to hands only
    6. proceed to combinations or any
    7. and use real dough to make cookies,
    bread, pie, etc.

  42. MaryAnn F. Kohl, art book author says

    A fun little playdough activity I love is “Surprise Color Dough”. It’s even good for birthday parties while they’re waiting for the cake.
    Make white or plain playdough. Form a ball for each child, but inside the ball, place a drop of food coloring or liquid watercolor paint.
    Hand a plain ball of dough to each child.
    Suggest they squeeze and squish it.
    The color begins to mix, and in a bit, the dough has changed color completely.
    * Also try this with several drops of different colors hidden. You get a rainbow swirl effect first, and then the dough eventually turns “whatever”. Try for colors that mix well, like yellow and blue, or red and yellow. If you have liquid watercolors, you can really go crazy with more than two colors and all the possibilities.
    The offshoot of this is that the kids will want to choose colors to mix with their dough.
    All of this works especially well by hand, and for those of you who said your kids’ hands aren’t too strong yet, this will definitely encourage them to squeeze and squish!
    Which reminds me!! (okay, I’m really blabbing now): Make playdough snakes or rolls, and let the kids “snip” them with scissors. Great beginning scissors work.

  43. says

    We LOVE making scented play dough at ArtBeast! This week it’s vanilla but in the past we’ve done lavender scented, peppermint for Christmas time, gingerbread spice, lemon dough (my favorite) and on and on. I know it encourages tastings, but all the ingredients are safe to ingest and we mostly just have a lot of playdough stuck on noses :)
    Sometimes it’s fun doing a new mix in. We put oatmeal in it once for a different textural experience. Playdough is basically the coolest thing ever – so many possibilities!

  44. says

    I like your website, especially with the use of the photographs.
    The question of using tools or not is not really as much a question of preference. There is a different purpose involved. When children use their fingers and hands to create, they are involved in a more tactile, sensory experience.
    When children use tools, the tools should be used to create an effect that may not be achievable with hands and fingers.
    Certainly the choice should be the child’s, but introducing tools for different purposes such as creating fine strands or marking fine detail increases your child’s ability to become more creative and innovative. Ingrid

  45. Karen says

    My kids love homemade playdough. The pictures look like they are having so much fun. I usually give them cookie cutters and such for them to use which keeps them busy for the better half of the day. And, hey using playdough is being creative!

  46. Karen says

    We used neon food coloring too with a recipe and it made them really bright and fun. Try it out if anyone gets a chance.