There is something relaxing and satisfying with kneading a ball of clay. You can pound, squish, roll, poke holes, and pinch it–and when you are done disfiguring it, you can flatten it again and make something beautiful with it. It is a forgiving material.
Clay (or in this case, dough) interests kids because it is a non-threatening material that does not require special tools to appreciate. A child can knead and manipulate it for as long as he likes. It can take whatever form and shape he likes.
Playing with clay is known to improve hand-eye coordination, and strengthen hand and finger muscles–all important building blocks for writing.
Keep in mind though that for a child to be successful, the focus should be on the process, and not the finished product.
Here is the recipe that I use. I like it because it cooks in the microwave.
Play Dough Recipe
2 cups flour
2 cups water
1 cup salt
4 tablespoons oil
4 tablespoons cream of tartar
Put all ingredients in a microwavable bowl. Mix. Cook on high in a microwave for 1:30 minutes. Stir. Keep on cooking for 30 seconds until you like the consistency–no more than 4 minutes. If too sticky, sprinkle additional flour. The oil makes the mixture smooth and malleable.
Do not overcook the dough.
I break the whole ball into several small pieces for the children to use.
You want the dough to be soft and pliable. I use it straight from the microwave when it is still nice and warm.