How to Have Fun with Playdough and Preschoolers 'The Hanen Way'

By Lauren Lowry
Hanen Certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Hanen Staff Member

When preschoolers (2½ - 5 years of age) play with playdough it stimulates their senses, while offering an opportunity to use their imaginations. Furthermore, the possibilities for conversation and interaction are endless!

The goals of a playdough activity

The goals are simply to:

  1. Encourage free exploration of the materials, which encourages creativity
  2. Expand their ability to pretend and imagine
  3. Help them learn some interesting new words that label their interests and actions
  4. Have fun!

Recipe for playdough

The fun starts by making your own playdough:
  • 1 cup of flour
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1/2 cup of salt
  • 1 tbsp of oil (any oil will do)
  • 1 tbls of cream of tartar
  • 1/8 to 1/4 tsp of food colouring paste

Recipe from: 

Additional materials required

In addition to having plenty of playdough, it is important to provide your preschooler with a variety of other materials to stimulate her interest, imagination and creativity:  

  • Stir sticks, large stones, buttons, straws, pipe cleaners, strips of cardboard (i.e. anything that can be combined with the playdough to create whatever a preschooler can imagine).
  • Try to avoid materials that don’t lend themselves to conversation and creativity (eg. cookie cutters that make specific shapes).

How to play with playdough

Let your child help you make the playdough and then...

  1. Put the playdough in a ball in front of your child on a table along with a supply of stir sticks, stones or other materials in case she wants to use them.
  2. Take a ball of playdough and a separate supply of materials for your own use.
  3. Observe, wait and listen to your child.

Observe, wait and listen means...

Observe – your child and see what she does.  Observe silently, really watching to see what she is doing with the playdough. Often, children don’t begin with an idea of what to do with the playdough. They manipulate it and when it starts to look like something they recognize, they may then start to turn it into something specific. To give your child time to come up with her own ideas, just observe without speaking, suggesting or instructing her.

Wait – sit quietly and avoid showing your child things she could do with the playdough. Just squeeze or roll your own playdough slowly. Your goal is to give your child an opportunity to do what SHE wants to do FIRST.

Listen – to what she says, without interrupting. If she says something, respond and show interest, but avoid telling her what to do or try not to ask questions that test, such as “What are you doing?”, or “What are you making?” She probably doesn’t know yet - she’s still experimenting!

Once your child has started to show some direction as to what she wants to do with the playdough, then Join in and Play, which means:

  • Use your own materials (rather than taking or trying to share your child’s)
  • Observe your child and look interested, without speaking
  • Once she says or does something, then follow her lead - build on what she has said or done by commenting on it and adding something to her actions and ideas, without taking over the play and telling her what to do.

For example, if your child puts a ball of playdough on the end of a stick and says, “I have a lollipop”, you can say, “That looks delicious. I think I’m going to make an ice cream” and then make an ice cream from your playdough and wait for her to respond again.

Play like a kid – play how your child is playing. Preschoolers usually use playdough to create pretend events, so pretend along with her, as described below.

Encourage pretending

Your preschooler will probably start to pretend with the playdough. We want to encourage pretending as it builds more complex language skills. She may turn the playdough into a person, animal, food, vehicle, etc. This shows that she is able to use one thing as a symbol for another – e.g. a long roll of playdough becomes a snake.  Pretending by using one thing to represent another is an important part of language and cognitive development.  After all, a word is a symbol that represents something else.

If your child:

  • Rolls playdough into a long snake-like shape, do the same and add an idea. For example, make a snake noise “ssss” and talk as if you are a snake (“I am Sammy the snake and I am coming to see what’s for lunch”).
  • Rolls her playdough into a ball and sticks it on her nose, saying “I am a clown”. You can do the same thing and then observe, wait and listen to see what you child thinks of that. Or you can add another idea related to clowns, such as making some playdough balls and juggling with them, saying, “Clowns like to juggle. Let me try juggling the balls”.
  • Pushes the stir sticks into a round ball of playdough and says, “This is an elephant”. You can add a new, but related idea. For example, you can make something related to the theme of elephants, such as using a book to create a mountain for the elephant to walk up, or making a playdough tree with branches for the elephant to eat.

When you Join in and Play and Follow your Child’s Lead, you are building on what your child has started and adding a fun idea. You have not changed the topic or the activity. Then you STOP, observe, wait and listen to see whether this interests her. Your child will enjoy your playfulness and the fact that you are playing with her, contributing to what she has started to create.

If you follow the guidelines for this activity, you will probably notice that your child:

  • played for a long time (maybe longer than usual)
  • became quite creative both with the playdough and the pretend theme
  • communicated with you frequently


This approach to playing with playdough with your child comes from It Takes Two to Talk® (Pepper and Weitzman, 2004), a practical guidebook for parents who are concerned about their child's language development.

Click on the links below to find out more about how Hanen can help you help children communicate: