The Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum emphasises exploration and experiential learning, or ‘Active learning’ as it often referred. ‘Active learning’ is one of the characteristics of learning and is crucial to ensuring that children fully engage in learning experiences. This means that at pre-school, importance is given to the learning processes involved in an activity rather than end results. It also reflects research which shows that 50% of children are kinaesthetic (hands-on) as opposed to visual or auditory learners. Priority is also given to the child’s creativity, which should be allowed to develop naturally, therefore reflecting the age and stage of development of the child.

Exploration is essential for learning to take place. This is particularly evident with open-ended sensory materials such as play-dough. A child who spends a morning playing with play-dough has not wasted his or her time – off course there is no end product – nothing to show for their efforts – but there is potential for that child to learn aspects from all seven areas of learning depending on the tools, resources and support provided during the activity.

The following are just some of the learning possibilities across the seven areas of learning when an open-ended material such as play-dough is explored using a variety of tools and equipment:


Personal, social and emotional development.

  • A therapeutic experience which gives a child great pleasure from simply moulding and manipulating the material;
  • There is no end product expected –therefore the child always feels successful at the end of play;
  • There is no end product expected – therefore the child is under no pressure to perform and there is nothing to be judged;
  • Taking turns and sharing the tools and equipment provided;
  • An opportunity to observe and copy each other and engage in parallel play, without interaction, if they choose;
  • An opportunity to engage in co-operative play and interact with each other, if they choose;
  • Sharing ideas;
  • Expressing their feelings such as anger or frustration by using their hands or tools to pound the dough;
  • Choosing to remain for a short or a long period of time at the activity – since there is no end product to complete and no time limits.


Physical development.

  • Improving their gross motor skills, strengthening their arm and finger muscles, by pounding, squeezing, patting, rolling and poking the play-dough;
  • Learning how to use one and two-handed tools such as cutters, stampers, presses, rolling pins, scissors and moulds, appropriately;
  • Learning how to use their hands to manipulate play-dough to achieve a desired effect, such as rolling into sausage shapes with the palm of their hand;
  • Improving their hand-eye co-ordination by using tools such as cutters or moulds.


Expressive Art and Design development.

  • Freely using their senses of sight, smell and touch to explore the dough – for this reason play-dough is often scented, textured and coloured;
  • Expressing themselves by creating sculptures and talking about what they are trying to do;
  • Exploring what happens when they mix different colours by moulding different coloured pieces of play-dough together;
  • Experimenting to create different textures by adding substances such as rice or sand;
  • Engaging in imaginative play by using play-dough to simulate other items such as food, animals, monsters etc;
  • Working in parallel or co-operatively with other children to role play a scenario, such as making a cake.


Understanding of the world development.

  • Exploring a new material;
  • Examining a variety of tools and how they work to transform the dough;
  • Noticing how some tools can be used to create patterns and using natural resources, such as leaves, to make natural patterns and prints;
  • Using tools in the appropriate way to create a desired effect;
  • Using tools, such as scissors, safely.


Communication and Language development AND Literacy development.

  • Encouraging conversation between children who are engaged in the same activity;
  • Increasing children’s vocabulary by introducing new words such as malleable, squeeze, mould, poke, pat, stamp, press etc;
  • Encouraging children to think about and discuss what they are doing;
  • Encouraging children to initiate conversation and listen to each other;
  • Adding letter cutters or stampers will encourage children to explore phonics and letter recognition;
  • A variety of tools will allow children to make marks in the play-dough ( a precursor to writing);
  • Allowing children to ascribe meaning to their marks (a precursor to writing);
  • Developing control in their use of tools and equipment;
  • Using describing words such as cold, sticky, long, fat, flat etc.


Mathematics development.

  • Adding number cutters or stampers will encourage children to explore number recognition;
  • Counting pieces of dough will improve their counting skills;
  • Collections of pieces of dough will allow children to explore groups and perform simple calculations;
  • Adding shape cutters or stampers will encourage children to explore shape, space and patterns;
  • Supporting the activity by modelling the correct use of mathematical terminology will encourage children to use appropriate language related to length, height, weight, shape or position.


So you see it is not what the child makes, but what he/she learns while they are making it, that is most important and even a simple material such as play-dough has a wealth of potential and so many learning opportunities.  I hope this will alleviate the fears of any parent/carer whose child does not regularly produce an item to take home at the end of the session, that they really do learn a lot during the session – even if they don’t have an end product to show for it!

The following poem was passed to me by a colleague and I think it more or less sums up what I’ve been trying to say!

‘What did you do at Pre-school today?’

“Well, I sat at the dough table and rolled the dough in my hands. Lucy said her’s was a snake but mine was a worm. The lady talked about long ones, short ones and medium sized ones, and Sarah rolled her dough so long it went right over the edge of the table, (and nobody said, “What are you going to make – a cake would be nice.”).

Yes – but what did you do?”

“I played on the climbing frame and do you know I can jump off the very top step?”

“Yes – but what did you do today?”

“Sarah and me went to the paint table. It was lovely, all gooey and slippery on our hands. We made lots of patterns with our fingers and elbows. Sarah had yellow paint and I had red and mummy do you know what? – if you mix red and yellow paint together it goes ORANGE!, (and nobody said, “What a mess you’ve made!”)

“Yes – but what else have you done?”

“At milk time a big boy pushed me over and I bumped my head. The lady picked me up and loved me better.”

“And then did you do anything?”

“The lady sang a new song and I remember it, it was about our fingers, thumbs and toes.”

“But did you do anything today?”

“I made a lovely traily pattern in the sand and then Sarah and me had a race to see who could put the sand in the sand wheel the quickest.”

“So what did you do at Pre-school today?”

“We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Nicholas and then the lady read us a story.”

“But did you do anything today?”

“Yes, when the lady said, ‘It’s time to tidy up’, I quickly painted a picture, ‘cos I knew you’d say…”

“What did you do at Pre-school today?”