One thing I always carry in my therapy bag is Play-Doh. It is so versatile and easy to use. The bright colors help engage children of all ages. There are so many ways you can utilize Play-Doh. You can use it to desensitize a tactile defensive child, or you can use it to strengthen the hands of a child with low muscle tone. Here are 10 simple and fun activities to help you incorporate Play-Doh into your therapy session.
The ability to turn and rotate your thumb and have it touch the tip of each of your fingers (touch your thumb to your index finger, thumb to middle finger, thumb to ring finger, and thumb to pinky). This skill is needed so we can grasp objects. To help achieve this during therapy sessions, I have the child roll out the Play-Doh into a snake. Then, demonstrate pinching the snake, first with your thumb towards your index finger, next middle finger, then thumb to your ring finger, and lastly thumb to your pinky. If your child is having difficulty with this skill, I start with the thumb to index finger and I cue them with the following words “My thumb wants to give a kiss to each finger” As I push my thumb into my index finger, I make a kiss sound (mmmmwwwaahh). Then I repeat this pattern with each finger. Once the child has mastered this skill, then we can try it with Play-Doh.
Play-doh is a great way to improve a child’s hand strength. You can roll out the Play-Doh with a rolling pin, then push cookie cutters to make shapes. I also love the Play-Doh spaghetti maker because that requires the child to push and squeeze their hands.
It is a great precursor for scissors skills. I have the children roll up little Play-Doh balls. I then have them use the tongs to “feed” a doll. I also have parents draw a face and cut a slit for the mouth (big enough to be able to fit the Play-Doh balls). Kids love this activity. I have made Dinosaurs, cats, and dogs and have the child be my “helper” to feed the animals. We have to use the tongs so we don’t get bit. I make it silly by making the animal sounds and saying “Yummy, but I’m still hungry” to encourage them to feed the animal more Play-Doh food.
Teaching a child to use scissors can be scary. This is why I love working with the Play-Doh set that comes with the simple safe plastic scissors. Scissors are very difficult for children to learn to coordinate. Consecutive snips in a row are achieved at roughly around 3 years of age. To help develop this skill, you want to set the child up for success. Roll the Play-Doh into a thin snake, have your child “OPEN” the scissors (make sure they have the correct position “thumbs up”), place the Play-Doh in between the blades of the scissors. Cue your child to “SHUT” the scissors. They will be delighted when they realize they cut the piece of Play-Doh. I sing “OPEN, SHUT THEM, OPEN SHUT THEM, GIVE A LITTLE CUT, CUT, CUT” The singing helps guide you and develop the motor planning to retain and repeat this skill.
Bilateral (or Bimanual) Coordination
This refers to using both hands working (coordinating) together to complete a task. These skills are crucial for so many things we do during our everyday lives. For example, opening a jar, getting dressed, writing, and tying your shoes are all skills that require you to use both your hands. Our dominant hand will manipulate the object, while our non-dominant hand will work on stabilization. To use this skill during Play-Doh, you can roll the Play-Doh into a ball. Once your child has mastered that skill, you can have them make a snowman. Ask the child to roll out 3 balls, then stack them. Next, decorate our snowman.
Finding Hidden Objects
I place beads or pennies inside Play-Doh. To work on fine motor skills/hand strength, your child has to locate all the items hidden inside the Play-Doh. I tell children they have to look for buried treasure to help encourage them.
Visual Perceptual Skills
You can draw a simple figure and have the child roll out the Play-Doh to trace the figure (for example, if you drew a circle for the sun, and lines for the rays, have the child make a snake big enough to go ALL the way around the circle). They can then make little lines to place on top of the rays. You can utilize this concept to trace letters and numbers as well.
For children who have food aversions, making pretend food such as cupcakes, fruits, vegetables, etc. out of Play-Doh is a good way to get them used to food. You can make some fruits and then encourage them to eat those foods. I have made a variety of foods from cupcakes to carrots. After I made the Play-Doh food, I encourage the child to eat the same “real” food (not the Play-Doh!). So if I make a strawberry out of Play-Doh, I would then encourage the child to eat a strawberry.
Preparation for Hair Cut
Many sensory children are afraid of haircuts. The sounds of buzzers, hairdryers, and even the snipping of scissors make a lot of children nervous. To help your child get ready for their haircut, have your child roll a ball to represent the “head” then make the hair by using the spaghetti maker. Gently push the spaghetti onto the “head”. Tell your child that they will be the hairstylist. They can cut the hair any way they want. This is a good way to incorporate your scissors.
I love this skill because it prepares the child for cooking. Prior to giving your child a “real” knife (even the child-friendly ones), it is great to use a Play-Doh knife to help them develop their skills. Your child can start with a snake and push down to make slices. As their skills improve, you can have them slice shapes or even roll out the Play-Doh and make a curvy path that they have to slice out (a wavy path to encourage visual skills). When your child has shown progress, you can move onto a banana and strawberries to have them help make you a fruit salad!
There are so many ways to use Play-Doh. It is a great therapy tool and I hope these activities can help you!
Sarah Appleman MS, OTR/L is the author of “Play With Your Food” and is a specialist in her field.