Play-Doh: An Exercise in Mooshy Creativity

For most of us, Play-Doh is a product probably best left in our childhoods, due to the messes we made (remember that mixture of blue and orange Play-Doh that would never get un-mixed, or the bright green blotch in the beige carpet?). Not to mention the unintentional hair extensions we might have made with purple Play-Doh (I was 3 1/2 and thought it was pretty…the adults around me weren’t quite so enthusiastic, as I recall). 😀

But I loved playing with the stuff, because it was just so delightfully MOOSHY in my hands (“mooshy” being a word our family came up with to describe the unique texture of Play-Doh and other similar products). I loved squeezing the slightly-cool mass through my fingers, the smell of it lingering long after the little yellow tubs were put away for the day. And most of all, I liked making strange little shapes, even if they were just really long, skinny snakes that particular day.

I’m sure you have your own childhood memories, positive or not, which involve Play-Doh or another type of soft molding clay. Trouble is, they’re just memories. As adults, we don’t often let ourselves have the time to just mess with something fun. Fun has to be educational or possibly work-related, fun has to be multi-tasking or going towards an eventual goal, because we’re adults and we’re too old to play.

…Or are we?

I would venture to say that if given the chance, we should all play a little more. Not just play with a computer or a video game controller, but really play with our hands, interacting directly with our environment. In fact, there’s a few things Play-Doh can teach us about living in and reacting to our world, lessons we might need to relearn.

Things Play-Doh Can Teach Us

#1: You Can Make ANYTHING With Your Imagination

We tell our children this all the time, but do we really believe it?

With Play-Doh or something else that is infinitely moldable (even Legos), we can form anything that we wish to. Even though my Lego-building expertise sort of stopped with building skinny skyscraper-looking “buildings,” I still had fun doing it, because that’s what I imagined. Even though I couldn’t sculpt a David or a Venus de Milo out of Play-Doh, I still had fun making fake hair and funny face shapes.

But as adults, we tend to lock ourselves into a traditional mode of doing things. We might do something the same way every time because it’s easier–it involves no thinking, perhaps, or it’s just comfortable. We might also do something the same way every time because we were taught that way, and we aren’t sure how to innovate.

Play-Doh teaches that you don’t have to do anything any particular way, because it begins as just a nearly-formless mass. Feeling and instinct, therefore, guides us, where intellect and reason would only keep us away from possible new ways of doing things. We can look at that little blue or red ball and just start squeezing and mooshing at it rather than planning every step.

#2: If It Ain’t Right, Moosh It Up and Try Again

Ever seen a kid playing with Play-Doh? They might spend a lot of time sculpting something, only to look at it, shake their heads, and merrily mash it all into a vaguely potato-shaped mass again. When the Play-Doh doesn’t match what they were thinking of, they think nothing of just mooshing it all back together, and more importantly, trying again.

Here again, as adults, we forget that lesson. We get so attached to our creations, knowing the effort and knowledge that it took to make it, that we can’t fathom just erasing it all and starting again, even when we’ve reached an impasse. But when what we have created doesn’t match our vision and is not successful, we must either tweak what we’ve got, or mentally moosh it all up and start again.

Play-Doh represents the flexibility of our brains to visualize, tweak, re-vision, and if necessary, totally reshape. If we can let go of our pride long enough to moosh up our failed ideas and mix them all up again, maybe with some fresh thinking added to the mix, we just might come up with the solution.

#3: There Are Endless Ways to Tweak

Once we have an idea we like, we tend to be obstinate about changing things. Somebody else thinks your work project ought to be done this way? “Not on my watch; I worked hard on this design and I don’t think it needs to be changed.” Young children often think in similar ways–“it’s MY Play-Doh and it’s MY shape, and you don’t touch it!” We are very protective of our ideas and don’t usually like to hear criticism or suggestions of change.

But Play-Doh teaches us that there are endless ways to pinch, curl, flatten, and roll your ideas without changing the basic essence of what you have created. That smiley face made of purple and green Play-Doh is great, but what if it had a blue nose instead of a pink one? And what if its nose wasn’t a long, skinny shape, but a squat flat one? No matter what the nose looks like, you’ve still got a smiley face, haven’t you? When we are open to tweaking (open to compromise), we allow others to be part of the creative process, and in so doing, experience a bonding that usually doesn’t escape the kindergarten classroom.

#4: Just Because It’s Dried Up Doesn’t Mean It’s Trash

We’ve all had it happen–one of the little yellow canisters gets left open overnight, and we’re greeted with the sight of crumbly, dry Play-Doh the next morning. Usually, such sad lumps get tossed in the trash, because there’s no way to revive it, right?

As adults, we can feel the same way about our old, tired ideas. We’ve run them around so much in our minds that we’re sick of them; we’ve tried to make them work so many times that we’ve lost count. The idea feels dry, crumbled, lifeless in our mental hands. Sometimes, we end up just throwing them away, tossing them aside as failed projects that will never, ever work.

But even Play-Doh can be brought back from the brink of crumbling death. I remember one morning, when I was about six or seven, trying to figure out how to get my beloved blue Play-Doh to be springy and full of life again–I’d left it open two nights before and it resembled blue scrambled eggs that morning, falling apart in my hands.

I tried working at it and working at it with no success, and finally I went to the sink and washed my hands because they were coated in little bitty blue crumbs. I didn’t dry my hands very well (I was too impatient for that), so I returned to work on the Play-Doh with slightly damp hands. Imagine my surprise when the dried pieces began to feel just a bit softer, and began to stick together again!

Inspired, I went to the sink and got a few more drops of water directly on the Play-Doh, and then a few more, until it felt just a bit slick in my hands. I ended up kneading it and kneading it, and I worked that dried-up old mess into a moldable ball of blue beauty in about 30 minutes. (I’m still not sure what exactly happened, but I think the combination of the water and the oils from my hands and the hand soap helped rehydrate it.)

Believe it or not, we can do the same with our ideas. We may not be able to “just add water” and get everything working again, but we can add new inspiration, new research, or even other people’s input to help us try to revive our old, dried-up concepts. Sometimes, it just takes someone else’s eyes on the page to help; sometimes, it just takes being away from the idea for several days (or weeks) for us to regain some perspective.


We might not be kids anymore, but sometimes we ought to allow our brains to play instead of chaining them to desks and computers. We might be surprised at what we can come up with when we aren’t hindered by tradition, pride, tiredness, and lack of compromise.

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