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Play Dough as a Coping Skill to Process Emotions

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

Children process emotions in many ways, but usually best through play.  It takes time to develop an emotional vocabulary and to mature to the point to use it.  In the meantime, play can help facilitate processing emotions and communicating with caregivers.  Before children can adequately communicate feelings, they need to calm down strong emotions.  Play dough is a great tool for this! Let’s explore some options:

Squeezing. I encourage children to squeeze the play dough so that it oozes out of their fingers. They typically enjoy this activity because it if fun, but it also is a sudden release of energy. Anger builds up as energy that needs to be released to help calm down. There are many options for letting out emotional energy, such as exercise, squeezing a pillow, stress ball, etc.; however, play dough is fun! I also like the tactile aspect of using play dough. Multi sensory play incorporates using grounding techniques in calming down.

Smashing.  Similar to squeezing, it is another way to let out strong emotions.  They can either create things and then smash them or just smash balls of play dough. 

Feelings Faces. Kids who lack an emotional vocabulary can use play dough to communicate feelings. They can use pieces of play dough to form feelings faces, they can squish a ball of play dough and carve out facial expressions, or they can use cookie cutters to stamp out feelings faces. A friend of mine was selling some super cute emoji cookie cutters from Pampered Chef that I couldn’t pass up. They are a hit with the kids! They also stack up and click together to make storage easy.

Cutting with Scissors. Have you every cut play dough with scissors? If not, you are missing out! There is something strangely gratifying about it. I have found the children who have a history of trauma are especially intrigued by it. I’m not sure why, but they seem to love it.

Characters. Sometimes I will form little people out of play dough and encourage kids to act out situations with them. It can be helpful to process frustrations about a situation, fears, or anything that is causing strong emotions. Consider this example: A child comes in and says, “Tommy made me so mad that I want to punch him!” I could give him a couple of play dough figures (or he could create them) and ask him to act out what happened. He could then role play with the figures to demonstrate the situation. It would also give me the opportunity to help them process not only what happened, but to ask what he thinks would solve the situation, discuss what he did say or do, what he could have said or done, etc. It opens the door for dialogue.

Creative Play. Most children enjoy being creative, building and designing things. As they play I look for themes in what they are doing. I usually will watch for a while and then ask questions and I pick up on themes. Sometimes you will see a child venting anger through play. Or sometimes you may hear a cry for help. They will often act out issues that are heavy on their hearts, such as feeling rejected and desiring friends, or fear of being hurt. Many times they will act as a superhero overcoming difficult situations. There is usually something to be learned by quietly watching a child play.

I hope these tips are helpful.  I am a strong believer in helping children learn many ways to cope.  Play dough has been good to me.  It is one tool that can be used in many ways.  This is not a comprehensive list, but a few ideas that I have used in my counseling room.  

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