Therapeutic Activity for Kids Using Play Dough

by Erica Loop

    Play therapists, preschool teachers and other child development pros may use the squishy, pliable and poundable nature of play dough to help kids with anger issues, behavior disorders or other problems to relieve stress, problem solve and act out anger. Whether you are wondering why your child's therapist or teacher is asking her to pound or mold clay, or you are thinking about using this strategy at home, using play dough is a creative therapeutic technique that is fairly simple to employ.

    Basic Uses and Aggression

    One of the most basic therapeutic uses for play dough is pounding the play dough to release aggression. This simple activity can help an out of control or angry child to self-regulate and release powerful feelings. This is particularly helpful in the early childhood education environment, where toddlers and preschool-aged kids don't always have the emotional abilities to identify and appropriately express feelings such as anger, frustration or sadness. In these cases, the teacher may give the child a mound of play clay and have him pound or mash it until he feels less emotional.

    Problem Solving

    Adults can't solve every problem that their child -- or the child who they are working with -- has. If your child can't seem to find solutions to her own dilemmas, whether they are everyday issues or are more serious problems, you can help her to build the critical thinking skills that she needs to solve problems through therapeutic play dough activities. You can teach your child that problem solving often takes several steps and needs some degree of creativity by asking her to build something specific out of the dough. For example, you can ask your grade-schooler to build an animal such as a cat or dog out of the clay. If she insists that she doesn't know how to, give her a few verbal prompts to prod her problem-solving skills along. Ask her what shapes she thinks the animal's body parts look like or how she thinks that she can connect the clay pieces together.

    Redirection and Distraction

    Play dough can also help to redirect or distract a child who is exhibiting troublesome behavior or is having difficulty dealing with a specific situation. For example, if your toddler won't stop throwing his toys out of the toy box during a temper tantrum, giving him a mound of clay dough to play with can redirect this destructive energy. Squeezing, kneading or manipulating play dough is also a technique that some pros may use to help redirect more serious issues. According to the pediatric experts at the KidsHealth website, the therapeutic use of clay is an alternate -- and safe -- behavior that can release tension in teens who cut. While a serious, and dangerous, problem such as cutting necessitates a professional intervention, the use of play clay in this type of therapy is a simple and viable option.

    Adapting Activities for Age

    While simply tossing a ball of clay onto the table may help to alleviate your toddler's tantrum, this same tactic may not work with your angry teen. Adapting the activities based on your child's specific age can help to make them more effective and contribute to a therapeutic effect. For example, a grade-schooler may not get the same stress-relief benefits from squishing clay that a younger child would get, and may need to try more complex play-dough activities such as rolling, twisting or pulling apart the substance. Likewise, a preschooler may not have the ability to use clay for problem solving in the same ways as an older child. You can ask, and expect, your fifth-grader to build an elephant out of the clay, but your 3-year-old won't have the skills to try this more sophisticated task.

    About the Author

    Erica Loop is an arts educator and freelance writer. She has been freelancing since 2010 and writes mostly child development and kids' activity articles for websites such as education.com. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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