Back to School Playdough Activity: Building Teams and Collaboration

Wow….I’ve had requests numerous times for directions on how I run this activity and I can’t believe I’ve never blogged it.  I also can’t believe I can’t find pictures of it!  Ok, well here are the instructions and I promise to post pictures after I do it on the first day of school.

I always open with this activity somewhere in the first week of school because it helps me to illustrate how important collaboration is.

Step One:  Buy mini-playdough’s.  I get them from Costco in late August and for a pack of 80 it’s about $12 I think.  80 is all you’ll need.  I hope.

Step Two:  Distribute two play dough containers to each child.  There isn’t much in them and that’s the point.  Give them about 5 minutes to build something on their own with their materials.  You’ll get some lame little snow men or dog like creatures or some other simplistic creation.  Afterall, what are they going to do with such a small amount of playdough?  Don’t let them trade once you’ve given them the colours.  You’ll see why in the debrief sections.  Take pictures of their creations.  They’ll be eager to show off.

Step Three:  Have them now partner up with someone and they get to use all of their combined playdough to make a creation.  Sometimes they will build off of what they have already started and other times they will start all over again.  This takes more time, around 7 minutes.  Again, I take pictures as I go along.  The creations start to get more impressive.

Step Four:  Have this partner set (or possibly a trio if you had an odd number of kids) get together with another partner set.  They now have 8 containers of playdough to work with and the creations start to get pretty elaborate.  10 minutes this time or more if you think they’re on a roll.  Again…..take pictures…….

Step Five:  If you feel confident enough you can repeat this one more time to get groups of 8 but I usually find that 4-5 in a group is lots.  So here’s where I show them the pictures, starting with the first ones I took.


I end by asking the kids a series of questions:

1. What did you notice from the beginning to the end of the pictures?  (This kids will usually respond by saying that the creations got better and more elaborate.)

2.  How did you feel when you only had your own playdough to work with? (Some will say they had a hard time getting started.  Others will say they wanted more playdough or different colours to work with.  Some will say it was easier because they didn’t have to worry about what others were doing.)

3.  How did it feel to get a partner to share with? (Some will say they liked having another person to bounce ideas off of, or maybe they had better colours they were hoping for, or that the other person had a better idea so they used theirs and kept on going.)

4.  What about when there were lots of you in the group?  (Here you can really dig deep about working with group dynamics.  You can talk about the strengths as well as the frustrations and how people dealt with them.  Lots of materials but also lots of voices now.  Leaders emerge and some kids don’t handle that well, especially if there’s more than one leader.)

5.  Which stage of the activity did you prefer? (This will help you identify your “loner” worker kids to those who are ok in small groups and those who love lots of interaction.  Very revealing.)

6.  What do you think I’m trying to show you through this activity?  (Now this one is always cool because if they’ve been paying attention they will see that I’ve been trying to show them that when we work on our own we have limited ideas and limited resources.  When we work with others we have more ideas between us and more materials to work with.  And finally, what we can create together as a team is often far more powerful that what we would be able to accomplish on our own.”

So here it is!  The “Back to School Playdough” Activity!  I’ve done this with classes as low as Grade 3 and as high as Grade 10 but I suspect this is one of those things you could do K-12, depending on your students and how you think they will react.  Good luck and happy start of school!

About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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