Standard molding dough, whether homemade or purchased in diminutive bright yellow buckets, has been a stalwart low-tech go-to for creative play for years. And while the colorful putty can be prodded, pounded, cut, and squished into nearly any form a child’s mind can imagine, the stuff has long defied any serious innovation (aside from new things to squish it). Which is why Dough Universe is so innovative. The STEM toy kits, created by Tech Will Save Us, turn the once-static molding substance into a motor-controlling, LED-lighting, noise-making STEM toy.
There are three distinct Dough Universe kits and each arrives with dough, a controller, and a set of activity-specific accessories. The Electro Machines Kit, for instance, comes with a wheeled, tractor-shaped contraption that activates when the dough is pressed to the controller. The Techno Sounds Kit, as you might guess, interacts with the dough to create noise. The Bright Creatures Kit features LEDs that light up when paired with dough.
The Dough Universe kits aren’t as complicated as they sound. All kid-dough has a pretty high salt content, as many might remember from putting the stuff in their mouth as a kid. Because of the salt (and moisture), the dough is pretty conductive. When applied to the controller and accessories, it creates a simple circuit that results in lights, bleeps, and motion.
Tech Will Save Us sent me all three Dough Universe kits so my two science minded boys aged 4 and 6, both of whom are dough aficionados, could put them through their paces. The Dough Universe unboxing experience is pretty cool. The boxes are bright and colorful and so are the contents. My boys were immediately fascinated by the techy-looking controllers and wires. They wanted to get playing immediately. Luckily, simple instruction about how to make everything work made the barrier to play pretty low. The gratification wasn’t instant, like opening up a standard can of dough, but it wasn’t too difficult to get started.
That said, for all of the importance of the dough, there’s not much of it in the Dough Universe kits. There are three colors of dough, sure, but there’s very little of each. It really isn’t enough to go hog wild. After all, a portion of the dough for every kit is relegated, by necessity, to creating the circuit that allows the motion, sound, or lights. This caused a bit of a dust-up between my boys as they argued over who got what dough. A single kit would be fine for a single kid. But add a second child and you need some pretty good cooperators to make play fun. Happily, the Dough Universe kits are dough agnostic. So if you have some name-brand dough laying around, it’ll work with the system too.
Some of the Dough Universe kits are a bit less satisfying than others. The Bright Creatures kit, for instance, sees the LEDs become dim as more are added to the dough circuit. While this is a fine opportunity to start talking to kids about electricity and resistance, it kind of puts a damper on the wow factor of lighting up a dough creature. By far, the most played with set was Techno Sounds, much to my chagrin. The sound is techno, to be sure. It’s also fantastically grating after a ten minutes or so.
After creating the initial circuit, the novelty can wear off quickly without some guidance. It’s interesting to note that the younger kid soon lost interest in the tech side of things and eventually just started playing with the dough. The older kid, however, continued to tinker for a while longer. It seems kids willing to experiment will likely be happy explore the possibilities of the kits.
For less experimentally inclined kids, Dough Universe does have an app that helps emerging makers learn about the circuits they’re building. The app features a cute animated character named Dr. Dry Dough that through several levels of projects to learn about things like parallel circuits and short circuits. From my perspective, the app is seriously helpful in extending the fun of the kits, turning an interesting dough toy into a real STEM learning tool.
When paired with the free app, there’s enough packed into the kits to justify their $49 price tag. They just maybe didn’t pack in enough dough.