The new high-tech toys introduced at Toy Fair 2016 will surely dazzle kids. (Yes, we’re looking at you, Barbie hoverboard drone).
But what might be the year’s hottest toy—especially when you add up staying power, brainpower, AND sales—is a bit older.
Okay, 60 years older.
And it still belongs on every child’s play short-list—but probably not for the reasons you might think.
Play-Doh—that malleable fun stuff in the iconic yellow can—was a whole new kind of toy when it became the first “plastic modeling clay” back in 1956. Kids don’t care that it’s the #1 seller in the arts & crafts category. Parents don’t either, though many of us helped its sales grow by 32 percent last year alone.
We have better reasons for liking play clay:
It’s the type of toy that child development experts love.
Modeling dough is what’s known as an “open-ended toy.” That’s the kind kids need most, because it fires up their imagination without boring them. Open-ended toys (like blocks, puppets, and art supplies) stimulate creativity and experimentation.A lump of play clay can become anything: a zoo animal, a monster, a fortress, a sculpture, a plate of spaghetti.
That’s also the magic of its staying power. The novelty doesn’t wear off a few hours out of the box because open-ended toys endlessly re-invent themselves depending on a child’s mood, playmates, storyline, and age. Kids tend to interact a lot during this kind of play, so their social skills get a workout too.
Knead it. Pound it. Roll it. Cut out heart shapes and give them to your mom. Roll cannonballs to knock down little green army men. Make something cool and feel good about your accomplishment.
Kids need healthy outlets for their feelings. Toys are an important way they express and work through emotions. Preschool teachers know this, which is just one of the reasons why play clay is a big feature in preschool classrooms.
It’s good for both motor and mental development.
Talk about the ultimate hands-on play. Manipulating playdough helps kids develop hand-eye coordination, muscle strength, and dexterity—skills directly related to reading and writing, notes the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
Kids can pick up everything from math to language skills as they compare, create, count, play with the stuff. NAEYC suggests providing props like candles, sticks, cookie cutters, bottle caps, twigs, pebbles, straws, and such to encourage even more exploratory play.
It appeals to a wide age span.
Playdough play can safely begin once kids are old enough to reliably not swallow the stuff (the upper 2’s, or earlier if you keep a really watchful eye). At first, it’s a colorful, tactile delight, along the lines of finger paint, water play, and sand tables.
During the preschool years, kids begin to make the dough represent things, creating props for their imaginative play. (Spaghetti and meatballs, anyone?)
Then comes color-mixing and shape-molding. (Or, as you remember it, extruding noodles and star-shaped tubes from your Fun Factory.) Newer Play-Doh products, like the DohVinci line, which is a different kind of dough compound that lets kids make more-lasting creations, are aimed at 6- to 12-year-olds.
Even the newest versions of Play-Doh that tap into play-set and figurine play—hairdressers, road crews, painters, palaces, cake party—have skipped rigid boy-girl marketing. It’s just for…kids.
It’s not really that hard to clean up.
Play-Doh in the carpet? The secret is to let it dry out. Grit your tidy teeth and be patient; it can take a few hours. Then brush it up with a stiff carpet brush, and vacuum up all the dry bits. (Whatever you do, avoid using soap and water to clean up playdough. It’s made from flour and water, among other things, so water just turns it into a gloppier mess.)
Show your kid how to pick up the clay off the table by pressing a larger ball against the smaller bits left behind on the surface.
You don’t even have to buy it.
Play-Doh (the brand) is still cheap enough not to break a play budget. (It’s also cheap enough to make a brilliant party favor, by the way.) But crafty or snowed-in types can easily make the stuff at home. And making it together can become part of the play.
We like this basic recipe from PBS Parents for its optional fun twist of adding glitter.
Not least: We like the smell (and the memories it evokes) too.
Most of us played with play clay ourselves—one reason it’s been in the Toy Hall of Fame since 1998. It’s like a soft version of Legos. A shape-shifting version of wooden blocks as if colorized by Katy Perry. It’s what Lady Gaga and David Bowie would be, if they were toys. And it doesn’t break! Or kill the balls of your feet in the middle of the night when you step on it!
What’s not to like?