When Did This Become A Rule?

I find that play dough is a minefield of childhood triggers for many of us adults. The number one play dough rule I hear is, “Don’t mix the colors!” Yesterday, I almost told my kids to keep the playdough colors separate, but before I could say anything the word “why” popped into my head. Why are the colors supposed to remain separate? As a child, mixing playdough colors was totally fine at home, but when I went to friends’ houses I remember hearing that the playdough will stay nicer longer if the colors aren’t mixed. I’ve heard that the playdough is more fun to use if the colors aren’t mixed. But here’s the thing: even as a child, I thought that it’s actually more fun and interesting to mix the playdough colors. So why do I still feel compelled to enforce a rule I didn’t even buy into when I was little?

mix the play dough

Playdough: Tool or Toy?

Some people view playdough as a toy, and some people view playdough as a tool. My opinion? Like all of the best things for children, it’s both tool and toy. We can all agree that playdough is meant to be used! When children— and also adults— use things, those things don’t look new anymore. Mixed up playdough often indicates that serious learning is happening. Playing with dough teaches many different concepts and develops many skills. Here are just some of the ways that mixing playdough facilitates valuable learning.

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What Does Mixing Playdough Teach?

  • Color theory is the art and science of how we see color, how different colors evoke different feelings, and how colors interact, mix, and change. Many people are delighted when children mix red and yellow paint to create orange. Discovering that we can mix all the colors to get brown is just as important.
  • In art and real life, colors rub against one another. Some blend into a new color. Some contrast each other. Mixing playdough colors allows children to experiment with the significance of the color interactions around us every day.
  • As children mix colors, they observe the mathematics and scientific concepts of volume and mass changing. Children see and experience two colors fusing together to create one larger mass of dough. The separate colors distinctly show how two masses came together to create something bigger. The idea that parts can come together to create a whole is the foundation of many more complex concepts including writing, reading, algebra, geometry, and engineering.
  • Children can experiment with pattern making by mixing different colors of playdough. They can create simple ABAB patterns like red-blue-red-blue. They can also observe the multidimensional patterns that occur when the dough is twisted together, shaped, or cut. Colors mix and create beautiful marbled patterns as children play with the playdough, which helps them to understand the states and properties of matter.
why kids should mix the play dough

As long as everyone is safe and kind, we should encourage children to use play materials in creative ways— especially in a world where jobs continue to spring from innovations in entrepreneurship, art, engineering, research, technology, and development.

Setting Playdough Limits

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Many adults worry about playdough creating chaos. Fair concern. I do set playdough limits. The kids can only play with a certain amount of dough at a time. I don’t replace colors as soon as they are mixed— if you mix up the blue and yellow, I celebrate the green you create, but I’m not buying or making a new can of blue right away. Playdough has to stay on the table and in a pan. Even still, it requires a more extensive cleanup than many other activities, so we work together to put the playdough away. Everyone has to help. Right now, both of my children are at an age when both mix the playdough and enjoy the marbled colors, but if one child expresses frustration that the play dough is “an icky color,” you can consider each getting each child their own set of colors so that one can mix colors while the other one keeps the colors separate. However, it’s rare that young children become as upset as adults do about the playdough looking pretty.

mix the play dough
Pause and look at how the colors interact as your child mixes the play dough colors. Often, it looks like Impressionist paintings.

Mix it Up

Bev Bos, a hero of mine, once said, “Our flexibility and willingness to follow a child’s lead will allow remarkable things to happen- if we let them.” Sometimes I’m in awe of the swirling colors my kids make as they mix different doughs before creating long spaghetti strings or flat rolls ready for cookie cutters. Sometimes, I feel genuine tension and worry if I’m allowing them to “just make a mess” or to be careless with materials. But then I take a deep breath and remember Bev Bos’s words. There is no way to measure how much children learn from their play. The knowledge, thinking, and memories of play ripple through everything that child learns forever. Play is how children learn best, especially when adults don’t interfere. With play dough, in particular, I want to stay out of their way so that they may mine the experience as deeply as they can. Knead it, roll it, model it, and sure, mix it up.

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