Play Dough: A Perfect First Day Gift for Students

Play dough is my favorite activity to start the year with on the first day of school! I love the message it communicates to students right from the beginning. I want my learners to know that our classroom is a safe place for creativity and collaboration. I want them to be confident in their abilities to jump right in and get to work. I want them to know that there isn't always one right answer. And play dough does just that! Once I started using play dough, I knew I would never go back to another worksheet.

Play dough is the perfect activity for the first day back to school. It sets the tone and communicates that our classroom values hands-on learning, collaboration, creativity, and divergent thinking!

My first year teaching, I started the first day of school with what I thought would be a fun academic review sheet. I believed it would immediately put the focus on learning and would them busy while I got everyone settled. I also thought it would help my kids feel more confident because, after all, it was just a review. Except I learned very quickly that my kids couldn't ALL do it. Sometimes it was a situational issue. Students hadn't brought the necessary supplies, so they either didn't have a pencil or their pencils weren't already sharpened.

But for some kids, they really couldn't do it because it wasn't academically appropriate.  I hadn't provided the scaffolding necessary for them to be successful because I didn't know them yet, and I didn't know who needed it.  I provided something I thought was one-size-fits-all, except it wasn't. And I inadvertently communicated the wrong message to my students. Instead of feeling capable right away, they were faced with something that wasn't appropriate for their needs. I imagine some of them heard that little whisper in their minds, Look how everyone else can do it, but you can't. You are dumb.

Communication isn't just the words we say or the actions we take, but how other people perceive those words and actions. 

I would never intentionally communicate to a student that he or she was incapable, but somehow that was still the message I sent. And I was mortified. I wanted my students to feel safe and confident from the very first minutes in my classroom, so I knew I needed to change my approach.  I asked one of my colleagues, an amazing veteran special education teacher that had a special knack for making students feel loved and welcome. She told me all about using play dough.

Play dough? Was the answer really that simple? Yes! I tried it the next year, and have been hooked ever since. I make homemade play dough, separate into individual zipped bags, and each student gets their own ball of play dough on the first day with this special message. The kids LOVE it, and it communicates exactly what I want them to know and believe about our classroom right in the first 15 minutes of the school day.


We are going to have a lot of fun in our classroom this year! 

Believe me, when you tell your students that their first task of the year is to create something with play dough, their eyes light up. You can choose to provide them with prompts of what to create, but I like to leave it open-ended in the first 15-minutes of the day.  Playing with play dough is also very calming and therapeutic, so it's the perfect solution for kids that are feeling nervous. It gives their hands and minds something to focus on in order to release some of that nervous energy. Before long, they are all relaxed and having fun.

We start working right away when we come into the classroom. 

Kids love play dough and are happy to jump right in and get started. I want my students to feel confident in their ability to work independently or in small groups. On the first day, there are often stragglers. Sometimes parents come to the classroom and want to drop off their student or get a picture with the teacher. As a teacher, I am often pulled in many directions and can't provide much 1:1 support with students in those first 15 minutes. Play dough is a perfect solution because students are able to work right away and it doesn't require my help!

Creativity is valued in this classroom. 

Play dough really gets kids to start thinking creatively! This is one of the reasons why I like to start the first 15-minutes by letting them create whatever they want. I learn a lot about their personal interests based on what they decide to create. Some students will create monsters or aliens. Others will create their favorite foods. Others will create little people. This sends the message to them that I value their creative thinking.

Learning looks different for different people. 

Play dough gives students the opportunity to talk with one another as they work, but it also provides the flexibility to for introverts to work quietly if they desire. This helps students see that I respect their learning styles and preferences. I am not forcing them to instantly interact with others through an uncomfortable ice breaker, but rather, am providing a situation where kids may naturally start to interact by sharing colors or asking questions about what they are making. This is especially important for helping your introverted students to feel more comfortable.

Learning can be messy, and that is ok! 

Play dough can get a little messy, but that is completely ok. It provides a natural opportunity to talk about how to take care of our things and use them appropriately. Learning is much the same way. There are times throughout the year where we have to feel confident to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty.

Collaboration deepens and extends our learning. 

I often start my students in desk groupings or pods. I will give each student at the desks a different color of play dough. This works out really well because it naturally promotes collaboration. It is interesting to watch how they interact with one another. It even gives them the opportunity to collaborate and share, especially if you give different colors to each person at the table. Some students will just trade colors with another person who has a color they want more. My favorite is when the students realize if they share all their colors with one another, they can all make much more detailed creations.  I have even had students decide to pool all their resources and create one large creation together. Before you know it, students will be problem-solving and planning more elaborate things with their play dough. This leads into a great conversation with students about how we all have unique qualities to offer our classroom and that we often reach deeper learning when we share our gifts with each other.

Divergent thinking is valued in this classroom.

My favorite thing about using play dough is that it promotes divergent thinking. There isn't "one way" to create something. I want my students to know that there isn't always one correct answer or one way of doing things. This communicates to them that I value them thinking outside of the box and that knowing how you got there is more important than getting the right answer.

This classroom is filled with hope and possibility! 

The possibilities are endless with play dough. Kids can create nearly anything they can imagine. This empowers them, makes them feel hopeful, and like anything is possible. That is EXACTLY the message I want to send my students their first few moments in my classroom!

Play dough is the perfect activity for the first day back to school. It sets the tone and communicates that our classroom values hands-on learning, collaboration, creativity, and divergent thinking!

Have you used play dough in your classroom on the first day of school? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments below! Be sure to grab the Play Dough Tags free download if you would like to spread this positive message to your students on the first day of school. 

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