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Does Using Play Dough Enhance Infant Development?

By Julie Vickers ; Updated June 13, 2017

Infants learn about the world through sensory exploration using actions such as grasping and patting, and they also explore objects by putting them into their mouths. Therefore, it's important that your infant plays with nontoxic toys and materials. Play dough is a malleable material older infants can use for sensory play activities, and homemade play dough is ideal for infants because you can make it using safe, store-cupboard ingredients, such as flour, salt and cooking oil. Fun play dough activities can help support your infant's communication skills and social, emotional, physical and cognitive development.

Physical Development

Introduce play dough activities to your infant once she has reached the age of between 9 and 12 months and has mastered physical skills of sitting up without support and picking up objects using the thumb and forefinger of one hand. Sit next to your infant so you can demonstrate activities and discourage her from excessive finger-licking or eating the dough. For example, demonstrate pressing colored circles of card into the dough using the forefinger to support development of hand-eye coordination skills. You can use play dough to encourage your infant to use a range of hand and finger movements, such as squeezing, rolling and pinching, to enhance muscular strength and fine motor skills.

Social and Emotional Development

Smiling at your infant and engaging him in fun activities, such as play with dough, helps boost his self-esteem and confidence and motivates his learning. Between the ages of 9 and 12 months, infants also enjoy activities that involve imitation. The soft malleability of play dough makes it ideal for use with simple pretend play activities where your infant can create representations of people or objects. For example, you can help your infant use a cookie cutter to create "cookies" for a "teddy bear picnic." Delight him further by making each teddy speak in a humorous voice as you offer each one a play dough "treat."

Cognitive Development

Play dough activities lend themselves to the introduction of the concepts of color and shape. For example, you can make play dough in a range of different colors by adding food coloring to the mixture during the preparation process and using the colored dough to create shapes, such as long yellow "bananas" and round red "strawberries." Play dough activities can also help your infant begin to learn about math concepts, such as size, volume and quantity. For example, your infant can experience how a large lump of dough is divided into a set of smaller lumps, and she can explore using small dough balls to fill and empty a set of different-size containers.

Communication Skills

Interactions with your infant through sensory play dough activities can enhance his understanding of new vocabulary and prompt his efforts to pronounce new words. For example, describing ways in which your infant chooses to manipulate his pieces of dough and the texture of the dough lets you introduce words such as "pat," "squash," "smooth" and "cold" in immediate context. You can also encourage your infant's responses by providing dough that contains a safe and fragrant additive, such as a drop of vanilla extract. Simple questions about his immediate experiences -- such as "Do you like that smell?" -- help prompt his efforts to communicate through meaningful gestures, such as a nod of the head or vocally, through speech sounds and first words.

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