activities, cooking

The best play dough recipe ever

A confession: I am one of those people who doesn’t mind store-bought Play Doh.

(Is someone calling the crunchy parent police right now?)

It has a particular smell, you know? Yes, it is probably made of chemicals and toxins. But I like that smell. It reminds me of being little and being at church. It reminds me of having apple juice in paper cups and those little flower cookies I could wear on my finger like a ring. It reminds me of Jamie, the boy in my Sunday School class for forever and ever (from birth until we graduated from high school, I think!) who always ate the Play Doh and mixed the colors together, even when the teachers sternly told us not to. I remember wondering why anyone would want to eat Play Doh. Jamie always did.

Jamie also bit me on the knee in Sunday School when we were three, causing my dad to label him a “turkey.” I never forgot this.

Now I’m the one with a three year old boy, and he always eats the Play Doh. I’m glad to be able to make a play dough at home that is non-toxic and probably won’t hurt him if he eats it. (I still don’t know why anyone would want to eat this stuff, but at least it doesn’t have anything on the ingredient list that I can’t pronounce easily.)

We recently tried a new play dough recipe, and it has become my very favorite. I know I must have made 23 batches of play dough in the last ten years. This is the best recipe I have ever used by far. It’s not too sticky, the colors are lovely, it smells great, it doesn’t stain your hands, and it doesn’t leave your skin with a weird, salty coating that’s hard to wash off.

I found the recipe here on Modern Parents, Messy Kids and adapted it slightly. We didn’t have any Jell-O, but we had Kool Aid from another craft project, so we substituted that for the color. It worked perfectly. Here is our version of the recipe:

  • white flour – 1 cup
  • warm water – 1 cup
  • salt – 2 tbsp
  • cream of tartar – 2 tbsp
  • cooking oil – 2 tbsp
  • Kool Aid drink mix – 1 envelope (we used cherry, berry blast, lemonade, and grape)

The lemonade didn’t make as vibrant a color as the other flavors, and The Boy really wanted a bright yellow – it is his very favorite color, after all! – so we made it stronger by adding some baker’s food coloring gel to the mix while we were cooking it.

See below for the details.

1. Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan.

2. Stir everything together (we used a whisk) until well combined. Get rid of as many lumps as you can. Be sure to go around the edge of the saucepan to find any dry flour that’s hiding and mix it in. It might be a good idea for a grownup to finish the stirring to make sure it’s mixed.

Smelling…an essential part of stirring.

It will look kind of soupy at this point.

3. Cook over medium heat, stirring continuously, until the mixture forms a ball.
Be sure to go around the edges and keep it moving. It will gradually start clumping together, then get thicker and thicker as it cooks. You’ll know it is done when it forms a mass in the bottom of the pan. This took about 5 – 6 minutes to happen for us. The end of this part felt a little tense to me…you have to keep it moving so it doesn’t scorch, and the thickness makes it harder and harder to stir. This part should definitely be done by an adult.

4. Turn the ball out onto a floured surface to cool. 
We used a cutting board. It takes about 20 minutes to cool off completely, which is important so you don’t burn your hands when you go to knead it.


5. Knead the dough, adding flour as needed to get the texture you want. We added about 1/2 cup of flour each time we did this step…just enough so that it didn’t feel sticky.


6. Play with it a little to test it. (The Boy insists this step be included, especially if you are making the play dough as a gift to give away. Maybe he has a future in quality control.)

Optional step 7: Let the babies play with it to see what they do.
They, like their brother (and Jamie of long ago), ate it. It wasn’t a lot, and I got it out of their mouths before they swallowed it, but you wouldn’t want to give this to a baby without supervising closely for safety reasons. 

Ick – this is not good.
Horrors! What did you feed me?

And now, the Busy Parent’s breakdown:

Messiness factor: 6
There is a good bit of mess potential, here, especially if you let your child measure and stir. (Please, please let your child measure and stir if you can cope with it- it gives them such a great opportunity to develop confidence and new skills!)

Prep time: 5
The ingredients are very basic, except possibly cream of tartar and Kool Aid, depending on your household. It takes no time at all to mix them up, but before you can play with the play dough, you have to cook it, allow it to cool, and knead in more flour. The process is longer depending on how much of it your child does. Not exactly a quick activity, especially if you want to make more than one color.

Cleanup time: 6
We had dishes to wash, counters to wipe, and a floor to sweep.

Learning factor (a.k.a, “what can I work in if I’m feeling motivated to help my kid make connections?”):

  • Math- counting, measuring, time (setting the timer and watching it)
  • Fine motor- scooping, opening small jars (cream of tartar), pouring, stirring; poking, kneading and rolling the dough
  • Reading and pre-reading using the recipe and ingredient labels
  • Color identification and color mixing (if you are brave enough to combine more than one Kool Aid packet and see what you get- although he initially suggested mixing them, The Boy decided to wait until next time for that experiment, because he was afraid it would smell funny if we mixed flavors).

Ages appropriate: 2 and up
I know some people with younger children let their kids play with play dough and are just fine with it. In our house, we just have to watch carefully for things being put into mouths. You know your child best. (And if you aren’t sure whether your child is ready for an activity, just try it together…then you’ll know!)

How long did it last?
The cooking and prep time for the first batch of dough took us nearly an hour, including the cooling time. We made several batches over the course of an afternoon.

The dough will keep for a long time in a sealed container in the refrigerator – probably several months.

Would I do this again (was it worth it)?
Definitely. We like making play dough, even though it’s messy and takes a while. It’s rewarding to play with something you’ve made yourself. I like the flexibility to make new colors. Also, The Boy is more hesitant to mix all the colors at once if he has made the play dough himself, but it still happens eventually. I bite my tongue about it (which is hard for me!), because he is learning from everything he does, and mixing colors is not actually hurting anything. It’s one thing our “old school” Sunday School teachers should have relaxed about, probably.

The Boy’s Review:
“Everyone should make their own play dough because it smells better this way. My favorite part was testing it out and kneading it. Next time, I’m going to make different colors like orange and lime so I can see if they taste different. That is on my list for next time we make play dough.”

Sigh. Go figure. He is actually planning ahead to eat more play dough.
Will he outgrow this before he goes to college?
Jamie, wherever you are…I feel for your mother.

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