One of the most recent times my little guy played with playdough, I ended up having a pity party. He gagged so hard, he made himself vomit. I cried about yet another activity my child cannot do without struggle and distress. And, this, after testing out different playdough options.
Lately, I’m finding a multitude of playdough recipes on Pinterest. From a therapeutic perspective, I know playdough is wonderful for the development of the nervous system and for tactile stimulation. From a parental perspective of a child who cannot tolerate the texture of playdough, I can’t help but feel defeated with its use in our homeschool activities. While I don’t have definitive solutions for my son just yet, this post offers suggestions for using playdough with your child with special needs based on what I’ve already tested out.
Why playing with playdough may be a challenge for children with special needs
- Children with tactile sensory aversions may not be able to tolerate the texture of playdough.
- Some playdough brands come in a variety of scents – which may cause sensory defensiveness in some children.
- Playdough is a choking hazard for a child who still mouths objects.
- Children with fine motor delays may find manipulating playdough a challenge.
Suggestions for adaptations/ modifications for playdough play
- Test out a variety of different playdough brands. In the desperate attempt to find playdough my son can tolerate, I tried them all. I made my own playdough, I bought the traditional brand, a scented brand, and beeswax modeling clay. The homemade version made my son gag from day one. It was too soft. The traditional brand is slightly harder, but it crumbles easily and I worry about the bits going into his mouth. The scented brand is so, so soft, but harder than the homemade version. I really thought he would love that one. The first thing he did was put a piece in his mouth. Then, when I removed it in a panic (how did he get that in there with me watching?), I insisted on placing his hands over the ball and pushing down. That’s when I got the very harsh reaction. I felt so guilty about having done that to him – despite knowing that exposure is the best way to go. The only dough he doesn’t mind touching is the beeswax. It’s harder than the rest, but that also makes it really impossible for him to manipulate. So, he only touches it with his fingers and palms of his hand. Also, beeswax hardens quickly, which frightens me in terms of mouthing – even if I’m supervising like an eagle. I ensure that the pieces we work with are large.
- Use tools. My son is better able to tolerate the playdough experience when he doesn’t have to touch it. However, he has a good memory. He will gag just by looking at the dough that had him react in the first place. So, I have to allow some time to lapse before introducing it again – with the tools alone.
- Cover up the dough. By placing the playdough in sealed plastic bag, my son is able to tolerate the mashing of the dough (hand-over-hand). The gag reflex does not kick in – so I know I can continue using this trick. Another tip is to place it under fabric, so that he doesn’t see it at all, but only feels it through another texture that he doesn’t mind touching.
- Avoid the scented playdoughs. Especially for a first-time exposure to playdough, avoid the scented varieties. Touch and scent together makes it difficult to figure out what your child doesn’t like about the dough. Is the scent? Or, is it the texture?
- Play around with the homemade recipe. In playing around with the homemade recipe, I can make it harder by adding more flour. It’s also odorless. My son still doesn’t accept touching it without the bag over it. The homemade recipes allow you to eventually add scents that your child is already familiar with, so as not to overpower the experience. Only add pure essential oils or herbs once you know your child can handle it.
- Slow exposure. The biggest mistake I made was expecting my son to play with playdough the first time – just like all other kids. Mind you, how was I to know that he’d have such an adverse reaction to it? Yet, I insisted on having him play with it almost daily for a while. That’s when just the sight of it caused him to react. I know better now that slow and steady wins the race. I might expose him to it one week, then skip two weeks, try again the third week and so on. Also, I test out one thing each time – never expecting him to fully touch it.
- Incorporate language. If your child has no problem touching playdough, then you have tons of things you can do with him! Talk about the colors, name the shapes he creates, have him sculpt the animals he knows the names of.
- Incorporate fine motor practice. In playing with the beeswax modeling clay myself one night, I realized how much of a workout the hands get. For a child who needs to build his hand strength, have your child squeeze the ball of dough, then roll it, flatten it, pinch it, pull it, pound it and model it into story characters or family members.
If you find that your child just can’t handle playdough, no matter how much gentle exposure you have used, then just ditch the activity. I feel I still have a few more shots at this, but if my son continues to have physical reactions to it, I’m not going to insist. I’ll find other ways for him to build dexterity and coordination in his hands. And, I’m going to be ok with that. I have enough stressors in my life – and so does he. I don’t need to keep inducing one I know I can avoid.
Does your child play with playdough? What additional tips can you offer for making this easier for a child who just can’t handle the texture? What challenges does your child have when playing with playdough?
Are you enjoying the ideas in this 31 days series? We can get more in-depth with your child’s needs in a one-on-one consultation. I’d love to be of service.