Shape and mould – Using playdoh in therapy with children.

Playdoh is one of my favourite mediums to use with children in therapy. It can be shaped to be anything you want it to be, which makes it endlessly useful and adaptive. Playdoh is obviously terrific for free play, however it can be used to work with children on areas such as perfectionism and flexibility and provides a sensory calming experience that can be particularly useful in therapy. What follows are some ideas about how to use playdoh in your work with children.

While playdoh is easily shaped into various forms, it’s often hard to mould shapes that are extremely professional looking. As such, it’s great for challenging perfectionistic children; they can see that what you’ve made isn’t perfect and it gives them the opportunity to experience making something that often doesn’t end up looking exactly how they envisaged. Noticing and naming feelings as you work through this is valuable and you can extend on this by engaging children in an activity specifically focussing on this. For example, sometimes I will set children a challenge to make something with their eyes closed or using their non-dominant hand. We’ll both have a go at this and reflect on the both the process and the end product. It’s a lot of fun and allows for some really useful reflection and conversation. Making playdoh without a recipe is often a great experience for these children too, encouraging children to have a go and adjust quantities and ingredients as they work towards the sort of dough they want to create.

Similarly, playdoh is a great medium to use if you are working on flexibility. You can talk about how playdoh can be shaped and reflect on situations in which the child has been able to be flexible. Allowing the child to take some playdoh home in a bag, writing something about flexibility on the front, is a good reminder of this. Creating an activity in which you and the child both get cards so that you can direct each other to choose different playdoh tools, alter what you are making, and even start making something new, as you play is another good way to allow children to practice some flexibility.

There are many ways to integrate playdoh into ACT or traditional cognitive behavioural play therapy too. For example, children can make thought bubbles out of playdoh and then reshape these as you talk about how thoughts move and change and come and go. Alternatively, children can roll balls to indicate their different worries, scaling these to fit with the size of their various worries. Having a toy hammer or a cutting tool and naming a calming strategy or a helpful thought as you squish or cut through the worries can also be helpful. As with all of the activities suggested helping a child to notice their thoughts and feelings as they work through an activity is crucial.

Perhaps one of the most useful qualities of playdoh is that it is a wonderful sensory experience. Playing with it is often calming and regulating for children, allowing them to feel more comfortable in therapy. Noticing that a child’s shoulders seem to have lowered as they are playing or reflecting that you can see how tight their arms are squeezing in an effort to push the playdoh flat is a good way of beginning to tune children into their bodies. Sometimes this sort of discussion can provide a basis for talking about how their bodies feel when they are worried or angry.

So pull out your playdoh and start exploring how you can use it in your work with children and families.

Dr Fiona Zandt
Clinical Psychologist

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