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Secret Recipe: Soothing Play-dough

After all the years I've spent in classrooms and child care homes (including my own classrooms and my own home!) one salient truth informs my current practices above all others: our young children are stressed in their care environments. There are multiple factors at the root of this stress: long days in large groups, inappropriate developmental expectations, a lack of access to the outdoors, and stressed adults.

During this pandemic, parents who are home with their children are experiencing stress on an epic scale. This stress directly impacts our young children as they go through the day with us. In our quest to protect our community's health by following the guidance of public health experts, we must also seek ways to protect the mental health of our youngest family members by addressing their psychological safety in a time of great stress.

I recommend simple practices to combat trickle-down stress:

  • Keeping consistent but flexible routines

  • Balancing directives with choices whenever possible

  • Balancing expectations of productivity (do less!)

  • Being outside as much as possible

  • Limiting over-stimulation of the nervous system by limiting screen use and noise pollution in the home

  • Providing physical touch and sensory experiences that calm the nervous system

I have a secret recipe to pass along to you that will assist you in achieving the last item, and I promise it will give you and your child a moment of comfort amidst the chaos.

Secret Recipe: Soothing Play-dough

Gather these items and invite your child to join you in the kitchen:

  • 3/4 Cup White Flour

  • 2 tsp Cream of Tartar

  • 1/4 Cup Salt

  • 1/4 Cup Baby Powder

  • 1 Tbsp Baby Oil

  • 3/4 Cup Water

  • A medium pot

  • A spoon

With all of the tools and ingredients assembled, gently guide your child to measure and combine the dry ingredients in the pot. Some flour may be spilled, but that's okay. A warm wash rag will wipe it away. Take care with baby powder and try to contain the amount of airborne dust while you work.

Add the oil and water and stir stir stir over low heat. You'll watch as the mixture thickens and then begins to collect up into a lump.

Continue to stir until it is no longer sticky- adding a little water if it is too dry, or a little flour if it is too gooey. When we use this recipe, we rarely have to add either; it works out just fine.

Sprinkle some flour on the clean counter and turn out your dough from the pot. It will be hot! As it cools, you can begin to knead it by pushing the heel of your hand into the warm dough and then folding and rolling.

Once the dough is no longer hot to the touch, invite your child to help you knead, and this is where the soothing fun begins. The warm dough is so very soft; you'll feel yourself want to melt into it. And the scent is heavenly- like a clean, warm bundle of baby goodness that you just can't stop smelling!

When the dough is smooth, hand it over to your child and provide them with a few other supplies for play: a rolling pin, some cookie cutters, or some nature items that they can create with. We often include smooth stones and sticks, or glass beads and ribbon, or other loose parts appropriate for the age of the children in our group. For young children, provide direct supervision while they play. When finished, store cool dough in an air-tight container where it will keep for weeks until it becomes dirty or dry through play.

The soft texture, the quiet solitude of individual play, and the soothing scent of the dough is a peaceful sensory experience. If you've observed a pattern to the signs of stress in your child (crankiness, behavioral outbursts, withdrawal, etc), plan to offer this activity just before these times. For easily overstimulated children, turn off all noise-making devices and provide silence while they play.

Be sure to wash the pot and spoon right away so that you don't find a dried mess later and negate all the stress relief you achieved for yourself in making this dough!




When not working with children and their caregivers, "Lady" Lisa and her family enjoy exploring the woods, lakes, and beaches that surround their northern Michigan home. She holds a masters degree in early childhood studies, a graduate certificate in teaching adults in the early childhood field, and accreditation in wilderness safety and the forest school ethos.


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