In order to keep my license as a therapist, I attend continuing education trainings a few times a year. A few years ago, I attended one that turned out to be all about Play-Doh. Eight hours of using Play-Doh in therapy. It was awesome!
What I learned from that training is
a) Play-Doh is such a sensory experience. The feeling of pulling the lid off. The smell of the Play-Doh. Manipulating it with your hands. The colors. Every part of it takes me back to my childhood.
These sensory experiences are therapeutic in and of themselves. I have colleagues who keep Play-Doh in their offices just for their anxious adult clients to have something to do with their hands while they talk.
b) Play-Doh is a scaffolding experience. Scaffolding, a term coined by child development theorist Lev Vygotsky, refers to activities that help children learn to do things on their own by first interacting with adults. Vygotsky asserted that children can learn more complicated principles much faster with the help of adults than they can on their own.
In this training, I learned how to make a variety of animals, vehicles, flowers, lips, a runny nose, and several other things. Then I learned how to teach kids to make the same things. This gives kids the opportunity to learn and master new and challenging things with confidence.
c) Play-Doh is a relationship experience. By teaching children to make things, or by making things alongside them, we teach them that we are there for them. They can have confidence in themselves because we have confidence in them. It can be playful and spontaneous and memorable.
d) Play-Doh is a creative experience. Don't be afraid to try some things out. Often, children need an outlet to play out their ideas, their dreams, their fears, even real-life scenarios. Nothing matches the experience of creating something beautiful and intricate, but one experience that comes close is that of destroying something beautiful and intricate. For kids, this can simulate an important principle that happens regularly in their lives: disappointment, destruction, and loss. But in this case, it occurs in a way they have control over.
By teaching children to make things, or by making things alongside them, we teach them that we are there for them. They can have confidence in themselves because we have confidence in them. It can be playful and spontaneous and memorable.
I also learned a few really interesting things about Play-Doh, the branded product. It is water-based, so you can bring back dried Play-Doh with a few drops of water. You can dye it with water-based tempura paint when someone in your family mixes is up until you get that generic, flecked beige color. You can also get it out of carpet by letting it dry out, smashing it with a hammer, and then vacuuming it up. It's also pretty natural (and non-toxic, which I learned from the Simpsons) except for the colors. I love Play-Doh.
So, again, you do not need to make your own Play-Doh to get the therapeutic benefits. However, homemade Play-Doh is great 1) if you don't have any in the house or 2) if you have someone in your house who goes through it quickly, or 3) if you just like to make these things yourself. I used this homemade Play-Doh recipe from Our Best Bites. It yields a wonderfully soft dough that I dyed with food coloring.
Here are some vides of the process (I did not have makeup on when I recorded this):
You are basically making be beginnings of a béchamel with flour, water, and cream of tartar.
Be forewarned that as it cooks, it gets lumpy for awhile before it starts to form a dough.
I separated into bowls and then kneaded food coloring into each individually.
I'm pretty happy with how it turned out:
I will freely admit that it does not smell like the Play-Doh of my childhood, but I think you could add vanilla or almond extract to make the smell more appealing.
Take some time and mess around with it. If I ever get back to my office, I'll add pictures of things I learned in my class.