Self Service Dough Area!

Alistair Bryce-CleggBoys Learning, Child Initiated Learning, Continuous Provision, Creativity, Dough Gym, Environment55 Comments

I was setting up my laptop at a conference recently listening to two lovely ladies on the front row discussing me, which is always interesting! The conversation went like this…

Who is he?

You, know the ABC bloke.


No, Mr. ABC

Is that his real name? That’s not his real name. He has made that up to get more work in schools! [pause] What’s he wearing by the way?!


Actually, I think they call him Dr. ABC.

(that bit really made me chuckle!)


You do know him!

I don’t. I’ve never heard of him.

You do! The Dough Gym bloke.

Oh! Is that him? I never would have guessed looking at him!

Too funny! That’s me…Dr. ABC the Dough Gym bloke with the made up name (to get more work in schools)!

But, if I am going to be recognised for anything, I am more than happy for it to be Dough Gym as it is something that I am so passionate about. Those of you who know me will also know how much importance I place on high level independence for all children whether that be self registration, self service paint or making your own toast in snack!

So, when it comes to a self service dough area, that is two of my passions happening at the same time!

The first time I did this was in Middlefield Nursery in Speke, Liverpool about 5 years ago. With that age group of children it was always going to be messy to start with. But, once they got the hang of it, the mess factor was significantly decreased. Since then I have also improved some of the basic equipment making things a lot easier!

This is a Self Service Dough Area


The essential items are:

  • A dry food dispenser  – a basic one like this will cost you around £25

(You can usually find them on Ebay, Amazon and Betterware. Search for cereal dispenser  as well as dry food dispenser. Catering suppliers also stock them. Small word of warning…the REALLY cheap ones don’t have a  tight seal around the opening and when you turn the handle you get an avalanche!

If you haven’t got a food dispenser you can always just measure with cups from a container. This is equally as effective, but increases the potential for spillage!)

  • A water container with a tap – this is a vintage copper urn that I was using to set up this charity shop and car boot water play space.


usually I just use a plastic camping jerry can like this.


It will cost you around £8.

  • Colour and scent – I use salt and vinegar dispensers which you can get for as little as 25p each! For colour, you can use traditional food colouring but I tend to use liquid water colour as it gives you a far more vivid colour and it is washable!
  • Containers – These can be any that you have got to hand. For the set up in the picture I was thinking about different textures in the setting. We had used a lot of wood, tin and brass so I thought enamel might be a nice touch.
  • Utensils – You need things to mix with and roll with – the usual stuff!


What to do

  • Fill one side of your dispenser with salt
  • Fill one side of your dispenser with flour
  • Fill your jerry can with cold water

The dough recipe that I use is a very basic 2 cups of flour, 1cup of salt and 1 cup of water. It is not an exact science! We are letting the children experience a process, so we want them to think about how to make their dough wetter or dryer depending on the consistency they end up with.

The children (not the adults) turn the handle on the flour twice and then the handle on the salt once. (One turn is about one cup (ish)).


They then fill their water container to a given mark.


Add their scent and colour





and combine…

purple dough

Then you can play with your dough!

Because it is a simple dough mix and doesn’t include anything like Cream of Tartar or Glycerine it doesn’t last for ages, but will keep for a couple of days in an airtight container.

yellow dough

Of course, there will be mess. But you can’t really teach ‘process’ without a bit of mess. To be honest, there is not much you do in Early Years without a bit of mess! Mess is where invention, creativity, thinking and exploring starts – so let’s embrace the mess!

Go on, have a go! You know you want to!


55 Comments on “Self Service Dough Area!”

  1. Hi, better ware don’t seem to stock them any more. There are quite a few on Amazon with poor reviews. Can anyone post a link to one that works well? Thanks!

  2. Would you limit to how many children make the dough a day? I can imagine that when you first put it out all 60 of my children will want to do it! Do you just let them keep making it until you run out of mixture or limit it each session? Thanks

    1. Depends how you introduce it Emma. There is always s novelty factor when there is something new! I wouldn’t usually limit it if it is part of the provision. Have fun!

  3. Hi Alistair
    I know this is an old post, but I’m after done advice please. We bought a break dispenser which we set up today, but it doesn’t work. We get an avalanche of salt or a slow continuous trickle of salt! Really gutted as I was so excited about our self service area. Can you please put a link on to a good one or the make that you have used successfully. We bought one from Amazon, but not the cheapest. I purposely bought one that looked a little better and which had better reviews. It cost is £20 as it was reduced.

    1. Hi Debbie – I have done a little bit of research into this and from what I can find out, some of the dispensers have very rigid plastic ‘fins’ inside that rotate and these often don’t meet the outside casing , hence the disappearing salt!. Mine was a Betterware purchase and creates a really good seal, so the salt stays put. Another option is to put your salt in a large sugar shaker (like the ones you get in a cafe) or use measuring spoons. You could also take your dispenser apart and extend the ends of the rotating fins by adding some strong tape. Good luck!

  4. Dear Alistair,

    Please could you let me know where you get your liquid water colour from. I have looked on Amazon and, including postage, it is rather more expensive than the food dye I normally buy.

    Many thanks


    1. Hi Carole. It sometimes works out a bit more expensive, but it lasts much longer and often gives a truer colour.

  5. Hi abc,
    We have just set up our playdough self service center and have a double despenser for the flour and salt however when we put the salt in it just fell straight through the hole. Do u have any trouble shooters to this problem.

  6. Hi, I only just found this idea!!!
    Tried it out today using our mud kitchen area as a base and my children loved it! Some got a bit carried away with the adding of water but had an immense amount of fun, measuring and mixing the dough up in their saucepans and bowls!
    I can see that this will lead to some super outdoor learning!
    Thanks so much for a fab idea!

  7. Help! We set up our self service dough area and the salt/flour just pours straight out the bottom! Anyone know how I can fix it please?

  8. This looks great, where did you get the vinegar and salt dispensers from? I can’t seem to find any

  9. think the sale of dry food dispensers has just gone through the roof (hope you on commission Alistair ) love this idea looking now for food dispenser hope you haven’t created a shortage lol

  10. Ok we have been using the cornflour for a few weeks and they still love it, they added powder paint and glitter it was messy but fun.

  11. Set ours up today…fantastic. The language, the problem solving, the sensory experience and, most of all, the fun. Thank you for the idea.

  12. Hi Alistair, I was inspired by this and bought two food dispensers. We had them out for the first time today with my Toddlers….just for emptying and filling (we may try playdough making another time!). Completely engaged children, lots of watching, turning, commenting and re-filling: magic!

  13. Was so excited to try this… imagine our utter disappoint when my nursery officer and I put the salt in our new dispenser and it all poured out! Waaah! We bought the Zevro one from Amazon. Anyone had better luck with the Betterware one? Or any other one you can recommend? Thanks!

  14. Okay I’ve become a bit obsessed, set this up today just need some small measuring jugs. Thinking once they are using the self service corn flour I will add a double dispenser then they can choose either cornflour or play dough. I’m going to let them add powder paint for colour, looking forward to messy play next week!

  15. Have just made an order to set up the self-service dough area for after half-term. In a boy heavy (only 3 girls) class, I feel this may be popular!
    Thanks for sharing.

  16. We are experimenting with washing up bottles and ketchup bottles for a self-service paint bar but would love to see some other self-service ideas for our paint area……

  17. Love this idea. The children make their own play dough every week. But this is going to take it one step further. Just need to nag my head for some funds. Always tricky! Lol.

  18. I love this idea! But was wondering, do you end up with lots of little boxes of dough that the children have made if it’s self service? Is it kept out all the time? Would still love to do it though!

  19. Hi Alistair,
    this was on my to do list for this term but was thinking self service corn flour, I will now have to do both!
    I set up a self service powder paint last year (you should have seen the mess) and the children loved it my head was so impressed she made the whole school set an area up, I was very popular with some people LOL!
    We have booked 4 places on your “Mark maker to writer” course in London so looking forward to some great inspiration.

    1. I love the idea of the whole school going self service! See you in London – good luck with the self service dough!


    2. rather interested in a self service powder paint area. Can you explain a bit more, any photos so i can share with collegues?

  20. I had seen this and one of my friends has shared it with our Early Years network. It is such an excellent way for children to become independent. We have been looking for a dispenser. They have one (as you say) on Betterware online reduced to £17.99. I think we may start seeing more self service dough areas now! thank you.

    1. £17.99! What a bargain. They might wonder why they suddenly get a rush on! Thanks for letting me know Lesley.

  21. Hi Alistair
    What a fab idea, thank you !
    I have been looking for a food dispenser similar to this for our snack area but I cannot seem to find one. There are some in the usual places online but the shipping costs more than the product… do you have any ideas where to look?

  22. Where can I get the dry food dispensers from. I have tried Lakeland, John Lewis and other department stores?

  23. I definitely want to!! Looks lots of fun. Thank you for great idea once again. Searching for food dispenser now.
    Where did you find yours?

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