Play Doughing With Temperature

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One recent evening, I realized 49-year-old Jeff has no memory of ever experiencing frozen play dough, that it would have blown three-year-old Jeff.s mind, and that it was time to remedy the situation. Before going to bed, I tucked a hunk of DIY play dough into a plastic bag, sealed it, and popped it into the freezer.

The next morning, I eagerly pulled the bag from the freezer and was overjoyed with the result. It was cold to it’s core, but not frozen solid. It was still smooshable and shapeable, but the smooshing and shaping took a tad more effort than room temperature dough. Three-year-old Jeff would have loved messing with frozen play dough. It would have surprised his brain.

I worked the cold dough and it warmed slightly in my hands. Which got me thinking about how working a batch of DIY play dough fresh from the stove top feels–warm, pliable, comforting. I immediately needed to have frozen play dough in one hand and warm play dough in the other hand.

The original ball of dough went back in the freezer. Then I turned on the tea kettle and grabbed another hunk of dough. This hunk dough went in a plastic bag, the bag went in a bowl, and it was soon joined by steaming water from the kettle.

After impatiently letting the hot water and freezer do their work for about 5 minutes, I pulled the dough balls from their bags.  The sensory experience was delightful. Three-year-old Jeff would have loved this too.

Based on my experimentation, I think playing with temperature during play dough play–and other sensory play–is something actual three-year-olds would enjoy too. Here are some thoughts and tips if you decide to give it a whirl:


  • Another warming method I tried was the slow-cooker-water-bath method. I filled a small slow cooker 3/4 full of water, put some play dough in a freezer bag, set it in the water, added the cover, set it to medium heat, and walked away for an hour. I came back to thoroughly warm dough. This method made warmer dough than the tea kettle method and it seemed to stay warm longer. You could also rotate hunks of dough with this method. While kids were playing with one batch, a second and third batch could be warming in the cooker. When the first batch cooled, it could be popped back in the cooker and the kids could have a fresh hunk of warm dough.

  • I warmed the play dough with two hot water bath methods we decided to go microwave-free in 2018. Knowing a microwave would be a much quicker and efficient heat source, I reached out to my Child Care Bar And Grill co-host, Lisa Murphy to see if she could do some experimentation. That was a no-go–she’s microwave-free too. Luckily, Kristen from the Q&A With T&K podcast jumped in and did a quick experiment. Check the video for her results:

  • Microwaving is quick, but I’m not sure it’s the most learning-rich method. Putting the room temperature play dough into a bath of warm water provides a more hands-on opportunity for kids to be part of the warm dough making process. It’s a chance to experience heat transfer–first the stove makes the water hot, then the water makes the play dough warm, then the warm dough warms your fingers. The microwave is ideal if you want to surprise kids with warm play dough, the water bath method opens opportunities for more child involvement, STEM learning, and experiential learning.
  • When it comes to freezing, if you live someplace that gets cold, placing the dough outside to freeze would be a learning-rich and hands-on alternative to popping it in a freezer.
  • Brains love novelty which means kids love discovering things for themselves. When first introducing warm and cold play dough, don’t make a big speech, just plop it in front of them like it’s a regular day with regular room temperature dough and let them discover the difference. Be prepared for inquisitive looks and questions. If there’s interest, you can go into experimentation mode and let the kids get hands-on with warming and chilling dough.
  • You never know were play will head, be prepared to let the children’s curiosity lead the way. Martha may NEED, to touch the warm play dough with her toes. Ben may have a nearly uncontrollable desire to mix warm and cold. Gene may not be interested in it at all and want to play with the blocks.

If you do give this a try, I’d love to see your experiences in the comments so I can update this post as necessary and other can learn from your experimentation.


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I'm an early learning speaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ and Explorations Early Learning.

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