Play dough is an amazing substance. My kids will play with play dough for hours.
When we lived in Kuwait, making play dough was by far easier than trying to find it. A good friend asked me to "try out" a recipe for a church group, and I am grateful for the nudge in the right direction.
Homemade play dough recipe
This recipe comes from CEF: 1 part corn starch, 2 parts baking soda, 1.5 parts water. (i.e. 1 cup cornstarch, 2 cups baking soda, 1.5 cups water)
1.Mix everything in a sauce pan.
2. Cook and stir on medium low heat, until all at once it comes together and forms into a ball.
4. Knead in a little extra cornstarch as you go.
I have to admit I was scared to try it, but it turned out brilliantly! Of course, you can always buy the commercial version.
What do we do in those happy hours?
I've noticed that my kids are interested in making stuff longer if I engage in a little parallel play making stuff too. This took a little effort at first. After a while, it became a relaxing opportunity to try something new. The picture above is my attempt to mimic pottery done by the Cherokee. Not the work of a master, but it was fun.
When I see that just making stuff is getting a little boring, I like to introduce stuff: the random piece of plastic my son is using above, butter knife, rolling pin, tooth picks, slotted spoon. Of course, sometimes my son starts pulling out tools as soon as we pull out the play dough.
Practice math skills.
My kids love asking me to make tiny balls, which could also be called spheres. Sometimes we make cubes and build structures. Sometimes I ask for a particular number of pieces of play dough. My daughter can count to six pretty easily right now, so I ask for four first. Then I ask for seven, then five and so on.
When we were learning the alphabet I made letters and asked for their names. Then I asked for the sounds that they make. Now I make simple words and coach my kids to sound them out. You could do the same with numerals.
Of course, all this time we're strengthening the muscles needed for fine motor skills.
Using just one activity I cover all my objectives for the day. Even better, I connect with my children in a way we all enjoy.