Literature with Play Doh

Play Doh is an easy tool available in middle school classes to show creativity and understanding of higher level concepts.

Play Doh is an easy tool available in middle school classes to show creativity and understanding of higher level concepts.

Playing in a sand box as a young child if often described as some of the best moments for young children. It is an opportunity to imagine and create with the greatest tool available, the human mind. Anything can be created.

The simplicity of playing is one component I always try to keep in mind when developing lessons for my middle school students. Sometimes we get laser focused on standards and quantitative data and forget they are still children with splurging creativity.

Therefore, I stepped back and thought about the cognitive domain of students’ learning styles. I was doing literature talks with a focus on characterization. Often my students say character traits to describe a literature character, but it is only getting them to think at the surface level.

I wanted more for my students. I wanted them to think deeper. I wanted them to think like a scholar.

But…they needed a task to challenge their thinking. Something, authentic. Something, which forces them to go beyond a phrase or a word.

Something, like Play Doh.

Instead of the traditional path of identifying a character trait to support the way a character acts or speaks in a text, I allowed for something different. Modeling with the children’s story Three Little Pigs, I went through and created a symbol to display a trait about the two lazy little pigs who built their house out of straw and sticks.

I created a broken heart. I explained to students when you see a broken heart, most people do not think lazy. Hence, I needed to explain how my creation meant what I was thinking. I indicated my Play Doh broken heart was in two pieces — similar to the two pigs. In a marriage, love takes a lot of hard work between the two people married. Anyone wanting to make a marriage work, must work hard to make sure lasts forever. Comparing it to the two pigs, their house was broken in pieces because they were not willing to work hard to build a strong house like some are not willing to work hard to make a strong marriage. Like their broken house, sometimes it only takes one action (or wolf’s gust of wind) to blow it apart. I concluded, maybe the two pigs were lazy because they were unwilling to put in the effort to make it work; similar, to some people who are married and it (or the pig’s house) falls apart.


My final creation was a Play Doh brick. I explained a brick is physically hard and sturdy, like the house the two little pigs wanted. In addition, it stood for durable and hardworking. Building anything out of brick is timely and shows an individual is willing to show resilience to finish a project.

At the end of the story, I thought the brick best described the two pigs because they learned from their mistake and knew what they now wanted to be like, the brick. Therefore, the went from being lazy (broken heart) to understanding purpose of handwork (brick).

Students’ Turn

Reading “Stray” by Cynthia Rylant — #PocomokeScholars were tracking how Mr. Lacey, the father in the story, changed from the exposition to the resolution. We identified actions and quotes throughout the story and students had a good idea of his change. However, I didn’t give the traditional writing assignment.

Instead, I asked for them to create a symbol or creation which displayed Mr. Lacey’s character in the beginning of the story. Many images were of frowns with spike eyebrows, indicating anger, while other more complex. After giving students three-minutes with the Play Doh, we shared and explained our creations to the class as shown below.


As we reviewed our answers, students started to get the idea. We repeated the process, but this time looking at Mr. Lacey at the end of the story, the resolution. To display loving or affection, students created a Hershey Kiss, an individual with open arms, and hearts. Each anecdotal explanation allowed students to go deeper with their understanding of character traits, which hopefully will transfer into their writing prompts.


My kinesthetic and artistic learners, who are not my best academic students, shined today. They genuinely smiled, loved the high fives I kept passing around the room, and felt a greater sense of worth as other ooed and awed around their creative masterpieces. I have now made a special bond with those students by altering my typical instruction to let them shine.

Plus, it gives me a talking point for a positive phone call home too.

Brian Cook, Ed.D.


About briancookeducator

Husband, Daddy, teacher, #Mountaineer, coach, and aspiring school leader | Thoughts are my own.
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