A Facebook post shared by a friend recently opened my eyes to how many parents and caregivers are viscerally shaken at the idea of children mixing play dough colors. Some comments mentioned the stress and anxiety color mixing caused. Some called it wrong. Some tried to prevent it. Others bit their lip, felt their skin crawl, and let it happen.
Others, of course, were happy to let it happen and even took steps to support and encourage the mixing.
I’m not here to judge anyone. We all have different temperaments, different tolerances, and different things that get under our skin to scratch our nerve endings. For example, I start to twitch when I see someone put ketchup on a steak. I’m also very comfortable speaking in front of large crowds but get real uncomfortable and self conscious chatting one-on-one with the cashier at the grocery store. We are who we are.
What I am here to do is defend dough mixing’s developmental benefits.
No matter where you fall on the Play-Dough-Color-Mixing Spectrum, there are reasons to at least think about supporting the activity. Let’s take a quick look at four of them.
Maybe not for you, but for the kids who enjoy it, squishing and squashing a solid ball of Blue and A solid ball of Yellow into a bigger ball of Green is a blast. I’ve seen the eyeballs of small children grow wide with amazement as the two colors swirl into one.
There’s a lot to be said for the value of a bit of simple fun in our rushed world. It reduces stress, it refreshes the mind, and it creates calm. Plus, kids who are having fun stay engaged longer. Kids who stick with an activity longer learn more from it. They also build their ability to focus. An additional benefit for any nearby adults is that while kids who are happily engaged in an activity they enjoy you can relish the calm and relative peace and quiet.
It Helps Prepare Little Hands For Writing
All the repetitive squishing and squashing required to mix colors builds muscle strength and control. There are a lot of muscles at work in such mixing: 34 muscles controlling the fingers and thumb, 17 in the palm of the hand, and another 18 in the forearm. 1 For a young child to be able to hold a pencil and write their name, they first have to gain control of those 69 muscles. Knowing how tightly to grip the pencil, how much pressure to apply when bringing the pencil into contact with the paper, and making the pencil tip dance across the page to create the squiggles that spell C A T, P U R P L E, and all the other words they could potentially write is not possible without lots of opportunities to build the required physical skills.
It Helps Prepare Little Eyes For Reading and Writing
Dough mixing is also a great way to build visual skills necessary for reading and writing. Making colors transform helps kids develop visual tracking skills and hand-eye coordination. It also helps them differentiate between positive and negative space. To read or write, a child needs to be able to tell the difference between the page’s background and the writing. They need to be able to track from one word to the next. They need to process all the information their eyes take in. It takes a lot of practice to build those skills and dough mixing helps.
It Hones Investigative Skills
One of the questions young children are consistently trying to answer for themselves is “What’s going on here?” They are always hard at work trying to figure out how the world works. Dough mixing is a chance to investigate, a chance to figure something out, a chance to investigate. As an adult, you know that mixing all the vibrant colors results in some shade of dull brown. Kids only learn this important bit of information about the world from experimentation and repetition. Their investigative skills don’t exactly follow the scientific method, but they do amazingly well at figuring things out and making discoveries when given a chance. Dough mixing is a STEM activity, it’s a chance for kids to ask “What if…” and then follow up with an experiment.
Wait, There’s More
Depending on the situation, dough mixing may be a conduit to other learning as well. For example, if a group of children are dough mixing together, they will be practicing social skills and language skills. If they are allowed to take off their shoes and mix the dough with their toes they’ll be building strength and control of a different set of muscles. If they’re allowed to add a squirt or two of paint to their dough, it becomes a whole new experiment, a whole new “What’s going on here” to investigate.
Banning color mixing is one way to go if you as the adult in the room can’t stand it. Kids are incredibly resilient, they will probably grow into fully functioning adults if they never get to mix the colors. On the other hand, there’s a lot for kids to learn while mixing play dough colors, so setting aside your discomfort and letting it happen has plenty of upside.
As always, your thoughts and ideas are welcome in the comments.