Making playdough is science

Making a dough for classroom play is also a time to teach vocabulary and math skills, and social skills such as cleaning up after oneself. Write the recipe on a page or easel paper to refer to even if your students are not yet reading. Illustrate with drawings or take photographs to use as illustrations the next time you make the play dough. Playdough is a soft, moldable flour dough that holds its shape.

What science skills will children learn while making playdough? How can making a material for play support developing math skills and language and literacy development? Here’s a beginning list; please add to it by posting a comment.

Activity Skills used or learned
Reading a recipe chart with both words and pictures Teaches that print has a purpose.
Is a time to use language.
Teaches that symbols represent real things, such as the color blue is a symbol for water, and two pictures of a measuring spoon represents using two spoons of an ingredient.
Teaches units of measurement.
Handling and talking about the properties of the materials (dry, wet, liquid, powdery, oily) Teaches vocabulary.
Experience with materials.
Following the steps of a procedure Scientists follow procedures for safety, and to reproduce the results of a first try.
The order in which materials are mixed may affect the product.
Measuring exactly takes practice.
Children can practice self control.
Mixing materials together Mixing materials together can make a change—a material may get wet, clump together, or dissolve.
Heating the playdough mixture Heat can transform materials into a material with new properties
Playing with the playdough During play children use their imagination, practice social skills, develop language skills, continue to explore the properties of the new material, and express themselves artistically.

Playdough is easy to make with children because there is some “wiggle room” in the amounts—a little more water will make a softer dough, a little less oil will make it a bit sticky. Recipes for playdoughs (a valuable classroom tool) are widely available online and in activity books. Here it is again!

Safety notes to read and post:

If your very young children are unable to resist putting ingredients into their mouths, please wait 6 months or a few years before doing science recipes with them. Just as we protect children from eating raw eggs because they may have Salmonella bacteria in them, we protect children from ingesting (or putting in their eyes, ears, or nose) ingredients which are not safe to do so. Make it clear to the children that when making a mixture in a science activity, there is no tasting. (Mixing in the kitchen is different but there are still precautions to be followed—raw eggs, spicy hot sauce, hot oven.)

Children should wear safety goggles while making these play materials for several reasons:

  1. To have fun using real science equipment.
  2. To signal that the mixtures they make are not for eating.
  3. To protect their eyes from table salt. Children often rub their eyes with their hands and may get scratchy-stinging grains of salt in their eyes, which could cause corneal scratches. Ouch!

Playdough

Ingredients and materials:

  • Safety goggles
  • Drawings of playdough ingredients1 cup white flour
  • ½ cup table salt
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tarter (found in the spice section)
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • Measuring cup
  • Teaspoon measure
  • Bowl
  • Wide, shallow pan

one-half cup salt one cup flour teaspoon of cream of tarter second teaspoon of cream of tarter one cup of water one-quarter cup of vegetable oil

  1. Put on safety goggles.
  2. Have the children feel each ingredient while discussing it: is it wet? Is it dry? Is it a liquid? Is it a solid?
  3. Have the children help read the recipe to see what comes next and to measure out all the ingredients.
  4. Measure out and put all the dry ingredients together in a bowl.
    Measuring the ingredient.
  5. Mix them together by stirring.
  6. Measure out and add the water. Stir to mix.
  7. Measure out and add the oil. Stir to mix.
  8. Pour into a wide, shallow pan. (Avoid pans with non-stick coatings—salt may damage it.)
  9. Stir continuously while cooking over medium-high heat until a dough forms, about 5 minutes. Stir and turn over the dough until doesn’t look wet anymore.
    Cooked playdough
  10. Remove from heat, and cool. Knead a few minutes until smooth.
  11. Add color, scent, or glitter if desired.
    Playing iwth playdough
  12. Store in a closed container or send some home in plastic bags.

Mixing to make a change is fun, especially when you get to play with the resulting mixture. Your class might want to take their recipe to another class and teach them how to make playdough!

Peggy

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15 Comments

  1. Deanna
    Posted December 14, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I think that exploring play dough is one of the most important, and undervalued activities in early years classrooms. Through active engagement with the materials children experiment with the materials, create authentic pieces of artwork, practice fine motor skills, socialize with each other, and dramatize using their creations.

  2. Paula
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I have wanted to make playdouogh with my class for a long time. We don’t have access to a stove, however. Is there another way? A different recipe, perhaps, that anyone out there has tried? We use store-bought Play-Dough all the time but I’d like to make it with them.

  3. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted January 7, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Interesting question Paula. Your students will enjoy learning about the materials (ingredients), measuring, and making a playdough, even if you can’t cook in your class. I haven’t made a “no cook” dough but there are many recipes online. Search for “playdough recipes for kids no cook” and browse the sites listed. Some call for heating the water to boiling in a microwave before adding to the dry ingredients so the children would have to just watch you do that part from a distance. Write again and tell us what recipe you try.

  4. Ellen
    Posted January 30, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    We make playdough in an electric frying pan. Could you bring one of those into your space?

  5. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted January 30, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    That’s a good idea Ellen, hopefully Paula will see your comment. I’m going to ask my director about doing that. My favorite “playdough pan” is an old non-stick skillet that has slightly rounded sides so less of the mixture spills. The non-stick surface has long since worn away (yikes!) but I only use it for making playdough. I’ll look for an old electric frying pan at a thrift store.

  6. Posted February 1, 2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Patricia Caskey has written a book,Make Your Own Playdough, Paint, and Other Craft Materials, that contains more than 100 recipes for making dough, clay, paint, and much more.

  7. Theresa
    Posted February 2, 2010 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Here is a playdough recipe that does not have to be cooked.
    No Fuss Playdough
    1 cup cold water
    1 cup salt
    2 teaspoons vegetable oil
    2 cups flour
    2 tablespoons cornstarch
    Food coloring

    In a large bowl, mix together water, salt, oil and a few drops of food coloring. Mix the flour and cornstarch and add 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly ( you may need a little more or a little less than 2 cups of flour so make sure you stir until it’s the right consistency). Kneed for a few minutes with floured hands.

  8. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted February 4, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Theresa, I just tried your recipe and it worked well. I had to add some extra flour, something children will be happy to do! I wonder if it will “age” differently than the cooked playdough I usually use.
    You and JoAnne are encouraging me to try new recipes, thank you.

  9. Betty
    Posted March 9, 2011 at 3:40 am | Permalink

    These are great playdough recipes! Thanks Theresa for a no cook playdough. I’m actually looking for something like this for an activity with my kid.

  10. tricia
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Paula
    I have made my own recipie for play dough, i work with threeyear olds and they can make it themselfs. I even miniturized the recipie that give each child their own personal piece that is perfect size for them.
    4 tablespoons of flour
    1 table spoon of salt
    2 table spoons of water
    1/3 packet of koolaid- it goes far.. can use the whole packet.
    and just a little bit of oil.

    i pre mix the dry in a sandwich bag, they can add a eye dropper full of oil and some water them selves and have them mix it inside the bag first til it starts to form, then take it out to finish..
    or if you dont mind getting messy, let them put the salt and flour on a table top, the oil and water on top and mix it there, no spoon or bowl required.. ( i wouldnt put the koolaid on the table, unless you have a protective sheet on it first )

  11. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted June 30, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the idea to individualize the playdough mixing process, Tricia! What a great idea to get the children to use the eye dropper, a science tool. The children could use the bag to take the playdough home.

  12. Adrienne
    Posted October 8, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Is making play dough an inquiry based science activity and why? If not, how can you make it so that it is?

  13. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted October 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Hi Adrienne,
    Two of my favorite resources about science inquiry are Worms, Shadows and Whirlpools by Karen Worth and Sharon Grollman, and Nurturing Inquiry: Real Science for the Elementary Classroom by Charles R. Pearce.
    Making playdough a single time would not be science inquiry but it is still a fun, useful, and developmentally appropriate activity for early childhood classrooms. Doing science activities around a question, such as “What happens when dry and wet materials mix together?” can develop into a science inquiry about the properties of matter. Making playdough could be part of such a scientific inquiry. Classes might make several different recipes and test and compare the properties of the resulting dough. They might mix dry sand and water, cornstarch and water, sugar and water, or follow a procedure to make pancakes. Children can document the results of these explorations with writing/dictating or drawing, and test various materials to see if the results are the same or different–sand and water compared with sugar and water, for example. Discussion and conversation about what happens is a necessary part of inquiry. Children can understand that sand does not behave the same way sugar does in water, although the molecular basis for dissolving is beyond them.
    What kinds of science inquiries are best for your class?

  14. Rosella
    Posted September 3, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Hi Peggy Ashbrook, I just want to ask, what is the difference of cooked play dough to the uncooked ? But this really sounds very interesting to the eye mostly children. I would love to make this one and would be glad to post it

  15. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted September 3, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I highly recommend making many different recipes of playdough to discover the differences in texture, smell, and longevity. Find the one that works for you or find new recipes to help children develop their understanding of the properties of materials, measuring, and making a change through processes such as mixing and heat.

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  • [...] it for an hour so children can observe it and record their observations by drawing, modeling with playdough, clay, or pipe cleaners (aka “fuzzy sticks”). Children like to make models of their family pets. [...]

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