Dough Gym Week – Creating a Dough Gym

abc doesDough Gym14 Comments

Now that you have assessed your children in relation to their gross and fine motor dexterity, you can set up your Dough Gym.

What is Dough Gym?

  • Dough Gym is a
    gym for children where you work out with dough – Simple!
  • Dough Gym is a specific
    daily intervention – If it is going to have impact it has to be regular and
  • Dough Gym is directly linked to assessment and attainment.
  • Dough Gym is
    exclusive – You need to make the children who need this intervention feel
    special and chosen for all of the right reasons, not just because they are
    failing. I usually work with a maximum of 8 children, not a whole group.

It is not impossible to do Dough Gym with a whole class, but it is a feat of organisation and you need an inordinate amount of dough! If your children are all jumping up and down on the carpet with a lump of dough in their hand, this isn't Dough Gym. What it is is a guarantee of a grumpy cleaner at the end of the day!

Dough Gym is usually done with one group of children while the others are doing a completely unrelated task or it can be done as part of a whole class session  where one group works out in the Dough Gym and the other children do dexterity related exercises. 

This is where 'Funky Fingers' comes in – but more about that tomorrow.

  • Dough Gym is
    done to music – I have found that this is key to its success. Children are
    highly engaged by music and the beat is crucial when it comes to performing the
    Dough Gym moves. Choose your music carefully. Something that is popular and
    current is far more likely to get high levels of engagement than working out to
    ‘Jesus’ hands were kind hands’!


 What do I need?

Space – If
you are working with up to 8 children who are going to be practicing a series
of gross motor movements  then make sure
you have enough space to stop them from knocking each other out!

Membership Cards 
Every Gym member needs a
membership card that they can keep in their drawer and show to the Dough Gym
leader (you!) every time they work out!

These are an optional extra. Because I first used this intervention to target children who felt they 'couldn't do' something, I wanted them to feel special. Giving them 'exclusive' membership to the Dough Gym worked a treat.

The cards were really simple, computer generated and laminated sheets about the size of a credit card with the child's photo on it.

Certificate – Dough Gym is an intervention. Children wouldn’t stay on it indefinitely
so I always gave them a certificate when they had completed their turn (often
this was around a half term)

Again, an optional extra. These are less relevant if you are doing whole class sessions like Funky Fingers.

Labelling/Posters – As this is a Dough Gym it is important to brand it as
such with lots of fitness labels posters and information. It is good to have a
mix between commercially produced and child created versions.

If you are not turning part of our space into a designated Dough Gym area, then there is no need to do this. If you have the space then 'dressing' the area often adds to the level of engagement.

Dough – Might
seem like a bit of an obvious one, but every child needs to have a piece of dough that corresponds to the areas of development that you are working on.

DSC04124The Friars Primary

As a general rule of thumb, when you are working with gross motor dexterity need a piece of
dough as big as the child's head! If you make it in a pan, it is about a pan full
each. If you are working on mid range development then a nice big ball and if you are working on hand and finger dexterity then smaller pieces of stiffer dough (or malleable material) that will give a higher level of resistance.

P5188676The Friars Primary

Music – Something
current that the children will know that has got a good steady beat to it. Your
Dough Gym session will last the length of the piece of music. Around three to
four minutes is about enough.

Work Out Routine – Dough Gym has a series of moves each that supports a different area of
development from shoulder pivot to pincer grip. Over time the children become
very familiar with the names of each move and are able to change them on
command. Never the less your workout routine should match the needs of the children
in the session


How does a session work?

  • Dough Gym needs
    to take place at the beginning or end of a session so that you are not pulling
    children out of Continuous Provision or away from areas of interest and
    exploration. I always prefer to do mine at the beginning of the day. As you
    want Dough Gym to carry a bit of prestige and have the ‘envyability factor’ it
    is better if it is done in your main space and that children aren’t taken off
    to the 'Sunshine Room' to do it!

B1The Friars Primary

  • The Dough Gym
    children present you with their Dough Gym cards and then take up their places, STANDING at the designated Dough Gym space. As I said on Monday, it is important
    that the children stand as part of this initiative is to develop their balance,
    posture, proprioception, hand/eye coordination and bilateral movement which is
    less effective when you sit down.
  • Children’s backs
    need to be straight and their legs shoulder width apart. The children will find
    it very tempting to bend forward thus using their back rather than their
    shoulders and arms to support the dough. I always tell mine to squeeze their
    bum cheeks as this tightens the ‘core’ and helps prevent bending.

Remember: When doing a session of Dough Gym you will be swapping between hand and finger exercises and palm, arm and shoulder workouts. The children won't constantly have their hands in the dough. 

  • When the music
    starts, begin by warming up the hands and fingers before you get onto some serious squeezing.

I have come up with tonnes of Dough Gym exercises over the years, but they are really easy to make up when you know the areas that you are targeting.

For hand warm ups you can do simple things like:

Jazz Hands – In time to the music, stretch your arms out straight and repeatedly 'flex' your Jazz Hands! 

Jazz hands

Sharks – Bend your elbows and put your flat palms onto your tummy. Stick up your thumb so it is nice and straight (like a sharks fin).  Keep your fingers tightly together and then bend your knuckles, DIP and PIP joints to make your fingers move like a fishes tail. Swim your hands separately out to the side, up above your head and then back down again. Keep your fins straight and your tails tight!


1,2,3,4,5,5,5 – Count to five on alternate hands starting with the thumb. Every time you shout out a number you extend your arm until it is straight and lift up the correct number of fingers. When you get to five, repeat the number three times, really stretching out your fingers and your palm.

Easy really! Just think about the muscles that you are working and how you want them to move.

Once you have done a couple of warm up exercises then you can get stuck into your dough.

  • Use the dough
    for resistance work. Anything from squashing it with a flat palm and a straight
    arm to pinching small bits out of it. The large ball of dough is also useful
    for developing arm muscles and pivots by lifting as well as hand arches and
    finger pivots by squeezing.

If you are working upper body, then you want lots of pushing, lifting, rotating and squeezing

IMG_1925Halton Lodge Primary

You can use exercises like:

Around the World – children hold their complete piece of dough with both hands. With arms outstretched and with no bend in their elbow they take their dough in a complete circle as if it was a moon going around the Earth.

Around world

If you are working elbow and wrist pivots then you need lots of bending and flexing with exercises like:

Milk the cow – This can be done with completely straight arms or by bending at the elbow. With straight arms the children stretch their arms out in front of them and make a fist. They move their arms up and down alternately squeezing their fists as they do so.

Milk cow

Lasso – Children start with their arms out to the side at shoulder height (like a scarecrow) and then bend at the elbow. They then make a fist, as if they are holding the lasso. Whilst maintaining the bend in the elbow and a fist they rotate their wrists either alternately or at the same time ending with a complete arm extension out in front of them as if they are throwing the lasso.

LassoSwim – The children begin with their elbows bent, palms down, thumbs touching each other and the backs of their hands under their chin. Keeping their thumbs together they push their hands out in front of them until their arms are fully extended before bringing their hand back under their chin to start again (like breast stroke).

SwimIn between all of these exercises you would be returning to the dough to do more pushing, rolling, lifting squeezing etc.

  • The session
    should be fast paced and hard work but most of all fun. You want to keep those
    children coming back for more.


The Friars Primary

 The role of the Dough Gym
leader is quite like that of a slightly crazed aerobics instructor. Once the
children become familiar with a few basic moves then you will be able to
sequence them just by calling out the name of the move when you want the
children to change. As the children become more proficient, you add more moves
and create a more complex and challenging work out.

After about three and a half minutes, it is all over – until the next time!

Experience tells me that if you assess well and create your exercises to match the needs you have identified, then you will see some brilliant results, especially with the children who struggle with manual dexterity. But, that is easy for me to say. Now you need to have a go and see for yourselves…

Have fun Dough Gyming!


14 Comments on “Dough Gym Week – Creating a Dough Gym”

  1. I’m in the early stages of creating a dough gym with my FS1 class and just wanted a quick safety check if possible…

    You suggest in “Getting Ready To Write” that each child should have a lump of dough as big as their head for effectively working on gross motor movements/shoulder pivot. I’ve made the dough (sooooo much dough!) and have weighed each lump to find that they’re about 1.2kg in weight. This is fine for most but I do have a couple of tiny ones with big heads and I’m worried that these big lumps might be too heavy for them.

    Do you have any safe weight guidelines? The only guidance I can find on the internet seems more about safe loads for kids to carry on their backs with school bags which isn’t really the same thing as this at all.

    Thanks 🙂

  2. I`ve worked within my setting for 20 years and wow!, this has to be the most exciting way of preparing children to write in the world. Both myself and the children have loved this, this week. I`m so looking forward to progressing this further with membership cards, gym head / wrist bands etc. As I am also a qualified fitness instructor I am loving bringing a gym into my work place. ;-)hank you T

  3. Hi
    We have been doing daily sessions of dough gym and funky fingers after attending the wonderful mark maker to writer conference, late last year. The only problem is we are struggling to find a recipe for play dough which is durable enough to last for more than one day. After this when the children lift the dough above their heads, it crumbles! I was looking for advice on good play dough recipes which last a while and are suitable for dough gym.

    Thanks in advance

  4. Hello Alister,
    I’m really keen on starting dough gym with a group of children in Nursery and I really like the idea of membership cards. Is there a template on your website for membership cards? Thanks very much for sharing your wonderful ideas.

  5. Nearly finished my first full week of dough gym. They love it! It’s now working as all the class are focused on a physical dev activity at the same time. The children responded so well to the class vote on this week’s music track. I love learning more about children’s developmental steps and have been fascinated to find I have children who cannot fully bend and coordinate their finger movements. I cringe when I reflect on my 12 years of experience which started with placing a pencil in their hands and expecting children to write their names nice and small when they clearly weren’t physically ready. So thank you Alistair for so freely sharing all you have learned. I’m sure this blog will have a massive impact on teachers and children up and down the country.

  6. Hi-great posts this week,we are looking to discuss as a team and see how this could work for our FS :)I was wondering which book your pictures are from I.e ‘shark’ and ‘swim’?
    Thanks, Kate

  7. Hi Hettie
    You are probably looking at including your Dough Gym within a session of Funky Fingers where all of the children are engaged in some fine/gross motor dexterity that matches their stage of development. That way everyone is ‘doing’ and you don’t get so many onlookers!

  8. Hi Gill
    I bet that image is etched onto your mind forever! I don’t actually have any videos of Dough Gym sessions that I can share, but plans are afoot to make one soon, so watch this space.

    1. Hi Alistair, are you any further with the dough gym video? I read about the actions but until I see it being done in the flesh I’m just no good at remembering them!!!

  9. If you’re doing this in your main space any tips on keeping it ‘exclusive’? I’m finding with my new class that there are some at the moment who are fascinated by what my Y1s are doing and hover round the edges or on occasion (only for the very brave or completely unaware!) sit on the chair a Y1 child has just vacated! I wouldn’t want to stop anyone joining in anything as fun as dough gym but wouldn’t want to reduce its specialness either!

  10. We were doing our stuff to today. One Direction!! Exhausting, perhaps why I’m not a gym instructor! I have a class of dancers and we have to dance around like maddies to any song before I use it when learning, otherwise they just break off to show us their moves! We have to do that then play the song again with our dough focus. So much super information in your week of posts, great for whole staff discussion. Easier to pop on a screen than looking at it in your book, though we have copies of the book too;)

  11. This sounds FAB!
    I remember you demonstrating something similar to ‘Moves Like Jagger’ at a Bolton Conference, would it be possible to show a video clip?

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