Day 11: Playdough Tips

by | Adapt & Modify Activities

31 days medal 400 by 400 red

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 disabled child based on what I’ve already tested out.


Playdough screenshot

Oh, how I love the different options for playdough play found on Pinterest. If only …

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.

Play dough tips

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.
Playdough tips

I’ve tried almost everything on the market. I have yet to try regular clay, however.  That keeps me hopeful that there is still a texture my little guy might accept.

  • 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.
Tips for using playdough with the disabled child

Tools for playdough play include cutters, rollers and shape cut-outs.

  • 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.
Pre-playdough play - children with special needs

From when my son was really young, I exposed him to different textures. This is a bag filled with water and some of his familiar toys. As he grasped for them, he experienced the squishy water in the bag. This also exposed him to the plastic texture of the bag which allowed the next step to be a little easier to handle over time.

Playdough in plastic bag for disabled child

Playdough in a sealed plastic bag makes it easier for some children to touch the playdough, even if the play is limited. The goal right now is to increase tolerance of the texture.

  • 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?
playdough tools

This is lime scented playdough. While I love the scent, I can’t be sure if this also adds to the gag reflex for my son.

  • 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.
homemade playdough - children with special needs

Homemade playdough. You can find recipes pinned on Pinterest easily.

  • 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.
Playdough ideas

This is a popular brand that reminds me of … playdough. I don’t know how else to describe the strong scent this gives off. It is much harder than the one pictured above.

  • 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.
Beeswax modeling clay

This is beeswax modeling clay. It’s pliable, but much more difficult to manipulate. A child needs to have pretty good hand strength to use this one. The colors are really rich and the natural beeswax scent is soothing.  It’s glossy when molded, and it retains warmth while it’s in your hand. It’s quite the experience to handle.

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.



  1. Chantal Halle

    Good luck with the playdough!
    Did you have any better luck with actual dough when making a pizza or pie in the context of a kitchen activity?

    • Gabriella Volpe

      Unfortunately, no. The homemade dough irritates him just as much as the playdough. *sigh*

More Resources

Continue reading my essays, activities, and case studies for supporting the education of disabled/chronically ill and neurodivergent children.