Magic Play Dough – Start the Year Memorably!

Tomorrow is my first day of school with students.  True to form, I am completely nervous, and I probably won’t sleep well tonight, all in anticipation of what will undoubtedly be a wonderful year.  I have something on my side though…

A few years ago I started a tradition of using magic play dough to kick off the year.  It has been a wonderful success, so I wanted to share it here.  The idea is simple.  I prepare enough balls of “magic” play dough beforehand.  Here are the simple steps:

First, make the play dough, with no food coloring added.  My favorite recipe is: 4 cups flour, 4 cups water, 1 cup salt, and 1/2 cup of cream of tartar.  Mix everything together, and heat over the stove.  Stir continuously until it resembles play dough.  Pull it out of the pot, kneed it a little, and voila!  This play dough is cheap, easy, and lasts a really long time when kept in a Ziploc bag!  I have to make four batches for a class of twenty-five students.

After the play dough is made and cooled, form individual balls.  I always make enough for every student, as well as a few extra.  In addition, be sure to reserve some extra dough to use later – about enough for two balls.

Next, use your thumb to make a small well in each ball.  It should not be too deep – about half way in to the center of the ball.

Then add several drops of food coloring to each ball, being careful to put the drops into the center of the well.  I recommend seven to ten drops.  Bright colors are best.  Avoid yellow and orange.

Finally, use a small bit of the extra dough to “plug” each ball up.  Your goal is to make them look like they are plain play dough balls – nothing more.

I package all of the play dough balls up with a little note.  It says something very simple, like:

“Dear Students, Here is some magic play dough to help you begin your year.  Play with the play dough, and observe.  If something special happens, that is a sign that you will have a wonderful year!  Enjoy!  ~ A Friend”

I have someone deliver the mysterious package to the classroom, so they can tell it is not from me!  (Get ready and put your game face on.  🙂

Pass out the play dough, and watch the magic happen.  As the kids play with the play dough, they will mix the food coloring in to the dough, and each ball will turn colors. The kids get SO excited, and you have an incredibly exciting, and positive, start to the year!

24 Responses to Magic Play Dough – Start the Year Memorably!

  1. Leanne September 4, 2012 at 4:04 am #

    Thanks so much for sharing this idea! I love it! Hope you have a fabulous year 🙂

  2. admin September 4, 2012 at 6:46 am #

    No problem. Enjoy! Best of luck to you this year as well.

  3. Emily Allman September 6, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    What an adorable idea! I can just imagine their surprised faces when the dough changes colors in their hands. I’d love to see this happen.

    • Teaching Ace September 6, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

      It is great! They are so excited. 🙂

  4. Lisa January 6, 2013 at 9:15 am #

    What an amazing idea…. does it stain their hands??? I really want to try this!

    • Teaching Ace January 6, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

      It is so fun! No, it does not stain their hands. I was worried about that the first time I did it, but it was fine!

      • Jen October 6, 2014 at 9:57 am #

        What type/brand of food coloring did you use cause the food coloring I used definitely was all over my & my kids hands.

        • Karen Langdon October 6, 2014 at 8:07 pm #

          Hmm… I have used a variety of brands. We have never had too much trouble. If the kids happen to squeeze really hard it sometimes squirts out, but usually there is no issue. Sorry this happened to you!

  5. Kim @ The Educators' Spin On It April 21, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    This is an adorable idea, so glad you shared. Can’t wait to do this with my daughters and their friends. Pinned onto our Art Board too.

    • Karen Langdon April 21, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

      Enjoy! My kindergartners absolutely LOVE this!

  6. Veleka June 29, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

    I plan to try this with my first graders. Sounds exciting! How many playdough balls will your ingredients make?

    • Karen Langdon June 29, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

      I usually make four batches of play dough for my class of 25. You can, of course, make the balls smaller if you want to. I just want them to have enough to work with for a little while. It is truly a joy to watch – enjoy it with your kiddos!

  7. ana August 11, 2013 at 9:21 am #

    Hi I really want to try this idea. I want to make it ahead if time. How far in advanced can I make it? Is two weeks to much?

    • Karen Langdon August 11, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

      Hi Ana! I am not one hundred percent sure, simply because I have always made it just a day or two in advance. I do know that the play dough will last for months if you keep it sealed in a sturdy ziploc bag. (You won’t want to keep it that long if kiddos are playing with it, just because of germs, but it will stay soft and nice.) However, I have no idea of there would be any issue with the food dye resting in the balls for a couple of weeks. I tend to think it would be ok, but can’t promise. Good luck!

      • Megan October 16, 2016 at 6:03 am #

        I had a few extra balls with dye inside and a month later they looked normal–whitish. 🙂
        Also, I have seen cream of tartar in bulk where you buy canning supplies.

  8. Michelle September 5, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

    Hi! I am really excited to make this for my first graders. I was writing down what I needed to buy and saw the large quantity of cream of tartar (2 cups!). I have only ever bought it in the small little containers. Do I really need to buy like 10 containers of this??

    • Karen Langdon September 5, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

      I know. Cream of tartar is pricey, and it is a lot. You need 1/2 per batch. One of the regular size spice containers (not the half size) is a half cup. So I buy four of them for the full class. I did find cream of tartar on sale this week at Meijer, but it was still about $4 per bottle. I have seen other recipes, as well as cream of tartar alternatives. I am sure a google search will give you some ideas. However, I truly believe the cream of tartar is the key. I had a parent try one of the alternatives, and the play dough ended up being very sticky. If you try another recipe that works, please let me know! Until then, cream of tartar it is…

    • Rebecca August 8, 2016 at 3:57 am #

      I found a different post with recipe that only calls for 2tsp.of cream of tarter. I made it last year & it turned out great. I would keep looking if I were you.

  9. Karen August 24, 2015 at 8:17 am #

    Just finished making this for my daughter’s new Firsties. She moved to 1st grade and I make this each year. She always has them leave the dough in the Baggie until the color starts to blend out. That helps avoid color messes. This year I added a bit of peppermint scent for fun. Making one batch at a time is the smart way. I heat the water to boiling and the add the premixed dry ingredients. It seems to work better for me that way. Be sure to lightly flour your surface before kneading the dough. It will be really sticky until the gluten releases. Not too much though – or it won’t hold together. I learned from experience that last sentence! LOL

    • Karen August 24, 2015 at 8:19 am #

      Btw: the peppermint scent is peppermint flavoring. I’m always careful to use non-toxic ingredients.

  10. Amanda July 26, 2016 at 9:14 am #

    Great idea! I am trying to prepare ahead of time for the beginning of the school year. Do you think I can make the magic dough 2 weeks ahead of time?

  11. Marcy July 28, 2016 at 2:19 am #

    Would this not be a safe dough for children with gluten intolerance? I don’t know my kids health concerns yet, and I don’t know much about gluten intolerance. Is gluten okay for them to touch, but they just can’t eat it?

    • Jennifer July 28, 2016 at 2:28 am #

      My son has a gluten intolerance, I used gluten free flour for it and it worked great!


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