Ready, Set, Let's Dough! It's a Matter of System


  • 1 cup flour
  • ½ cup salt
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 package of Kool-aid
  • wooden spoon
  • pan
  • hot plate
Ready, Set, Let's Dough! It's a Matter of System


To discover that everyday substances are composed of parts that make a unique whole.


In this lesson, students will look at a complex system when they create their own play dough by taking several parts and creating a whole. The students will construct understanding that individual parts are used to make a whole.

This will be a creative and instructive process in helping students to understand that individual parts may have different properties than the combined substance. This is important because children do not appreciate that parts come together to make a whole that has properties that the parts do not. For children, wholes are like their parts. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 356.)

Students will reflect on how they often take small parts to create a whole object. Students tend to interpret phenomena by noting the qualities of the separate objects rather than by seeing the interactions between the parts of a system. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 355.) In the activity of making play dough, students have a unique opportunity to see how parts come together to create one substance or system with new characteristics.

Students will also reflect on how the dough system would be impacted by changing or omitting some of the parts that were used to make it. Elementary students tend to believe that a system must be doing something in order to be a system or that a system that loses a part of itself is still the same system. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 355.)


Before beginning this activity, place the ingredients on a table that is viewable by students.

Say to students: Does anyone recognize these items I have placed on the table? Allow response time.

What if I told you that we can take these ingredients and make something that is completely different than the individual ingredients? Do you think that we could do that? Do any of you know what we could make with these ingredients?


Have pre-measured and labeled ingredients arranged on the table. Warn students that they are not making something they can eat. Remind them that although the ingredients are food ingredients, it does not mean that they should be able to eat them.

First, allow students to approach the table and observe each of the ingredients being used. Once all students have looked at the ingredients, have groups of four or five students be responsible for one ingredient and allow them to take it back to their desks.

Say to students: Now you need to look at your ingredient. What does it look like? What does it smell like? How does it feel? Do you think that once we combine it with the other ingredients it will be different or the same?

Allow different students to describe each of the ingredients. You might want to write their responses on a flipchart or blackboard. Discuss responses together.

With help from students, combine all the ingredients in the pan and allow the students to make observations about the combined ingredients. Discuss observations together.

Cook ingredients until the mixture has the consistency of mashed potatoes. Students may help, but make sure that they are wearing hot-mitts and eye protection. Turn the dough out onto waxed paper. When dough is cool enough to handle, allow students to take turns kneading it. Divide the dough among the groups so that all students are able to feel the consistency of it.

Ask students:

  • What does it feel like?
  • What do you think we have made?
  • Is this like any of the starting ingredients? Why or why not?
  • How is this substance different?
  • What would happen if we left out the water? Oil? Flour?
  • What do you think would happen if we added an extra cup of flour?
  • How do you think we could find out?
  • Do you think that each of the parts or ingredients that we added was important?
  • Do you see, smell, or feel any evidence of the original parts?
  • Do you think that we could divide the play dough back to the original ingredients? Why or why not?
  • Has anyone ever seen parts put together to make a whole substance that is different? Where and what?

Be sure to record students' observations on a flipchart or blackboard and discuss their responses to these questions with them.


Say to students: Many things are made up of parts. Today we made play dough. It was composed of different parts that we called ingredients. What other sorts of things are composed of ingredients? Who can name something that is composed of ingredients?

Allow several students to give answers and descriptions, then continue:

Now I'd like each of you to think of an ingredient that was used to make the play dough. I've put the labeled ingredients that we used out on the table. You may come up and look at them if you need help remembering what we used. I want you to tell me how the play dough was like that ingredient and different from that ingredient. Here is a statement to help you get started.

The ___________ was like the play dough because __________. The ___________ was different than the play dough because_____________.

Allow students several minutes to think this through. Have them give their like and different descriptions. Record the students' descriptions on a flipchart or blackboard and discuss their descriptions with them.


Have the students perform an ingredients search. Have the students go home and find one or two things that show ingredients. Tell them that they can have someone at home help them to try to find different things that are made up of ingredients.

Allow the students to play the CD Play-Doh Creations. Have them construct creations using the many different areas.

Ask students:

  • Was your creation unique?
  • How did using different parts allow you to make your creature different than others?
  • How do the different parts or places on the island allow you to make you creation unique?
  • Would your creation change if you added a new part?
  • Would your creation change if you took a part away?
  • Are the parts that make up your creation needed to make it special?

Have the students create individual collages using different materials. Discuss how there are many parts that are put together to create a new and different whole.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards