Play dough is a staple in my toddler class. Even with the younger toddlers now part of the group, we still use play dough almost every day. Usually we make it ourselves, which lets us customize the color and/or smell. We have always offered a basket of play dough tools along side the play dough. I have always thought that by offering these tools, the learning and creativity would be enhanced. It stands to reason that having abundant materials or tools will encourage them to use the play dough in a variety of ways, or so we thought!
As the children work with the play dough and tools, we make a point to talk with them about what they are doing or what we are observing. We point out how the dough looks like a circle when they smash it or how they now have two pieces after cutting their dough with a pizza cutter. We ask them what they are making and follow along as they make up stories about their product. We let them use the play dough in other areas of the room as well. It is not unusual to see them cooking with the play dough or loading their dump trucks or diggers with play dough rocks. One of the best experiences came when we had plain dough, no color or scent, that they were using in the dramatic play area to cook. One child, who happened to be Chinese, looked at the rectangular prism a teacher had been forming and promptly labeled it tofu. For the next couple weeks, the children spent much of their time cooking tofu or frying fish as they used the play dough. That evolved into a whole new level of creative representation as they realized the dough could be anything they chose.
Until last week, I thought we were maximizing the learning potential of the play dough. Until I started reading some blogs and collecting new ideas for its use. Jamie at hands on: as we grow had so many great ideas that I pinned most of them to my art board on Pinterest. Not to mention Jenny at let the children play and several others. So with new inspiration, I cooked up red apple dough and cinnamon dough and placed them on the table with some sticks we had collected on our nature walk. No tools, knives, rollers, or cookie cutters. I thought the children would love having something new for the dough. Instead, I got lots of calls for, "tools, tools." They asked repeatedly for scissors, rollers and the familiar tools, even after I showed them how the sticks can be used to cut the dough, poke it or just stand up in the dough. Two of the children who had come to the table tried it for a minute or two before moving on. They simply didn't know what to do with the play dough in the absence of tools.
I opened up the sensory table full of the nature materials we had collected the week before and told the remaining child she could use those with the play dough, too. I then stepped back and left her to her own devices. I checked in with her occasionally but mostly just sat back and observed. By the time she had finished, it looked something like the picture below. She had a whole story to go with her creation. Some of it was for mom, some for dad and some for her pet dog. She explained each part of her creation to me as she worked. By giving her an idea and stepping back, she had the freedom to create something new, in her own way.
Over the next week, the other children started to adjust to the idea of not having tools and began exploring with the nature materials. I, along with the other teachers, learned a very valuable lesson: When working with toddlers, more often than not, less really can be more, both in materials and interactions.