Infants learn and grow by playing. Among the many valuable activities for your baby (specifically infants 8 to 18 months old), playing with play dough is one that offers more than you might first imagine. Besides its inherent fun factor, play dough provides opportunities to significantly enhance infant’s development—on practically every level.
Babies touch things to understand them, which is why play dough works so well. "They learn about the texture and what they can make things do," explains Karen White, an infant-toddler specialist for the state of Maine. Of course, a baby’s urge to feel everything often means everything ends up in her mouth. So, expect her to taste-test the play dough. You should make your own, so you know what’s in it (see Resources for a recipe).
Those little fingers can do all kinds of things with play dough. "Their fine motor skills are strengthened because of their ability to manipulate it," White says. Sit with your baby and show him examples of what he can do: for example, roll it, squish it, pat it between your hands or on the table, and press cookie cutters into it.
Play dough is a no-rules kind of game that helps develop your infant’s imagination and creativity. Playing with that squishy ball of colored clay boosts baby’s curiosity, her problem-solving and her realization that she has some control over the world—which, in turn, all builds self-esteem.
"Squishy," "roll," "ball," "circle." These are just some of the descriptive words that come up when you’re playing with play dough. Say them to your baby even if you don’t think he understands—he does. Or when you shape a lump of play dough into something like a cat, dinosaur or star, name it for him. "It makes things real for them," White says.
Whether your infant is playing with another child or you, it offers the opportunity for close interaction. Babies are usually totally self-centered, but this kind of activity shows them that playing together is also fun.