By: Brooklyn Smith, OTR/L
Messy play or sensory play is an activity that engages one or more of a child’s senses, including sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, balance, or movement. Messy play can make an enormous contribution to a baby’s or a young child’s physical and cognitive development.
Messy Play Can Benefit:
- Using hands and fingers to manipulate different objects and textures promotes fine motor development.
- Pouring, scooping, and grasping help develop future self-care skills, eye-hand coordination, and pre-writing skills.
- Provides opportunities to practice gross motor skills, such as stomping in the mud or hopping on bubble wrap.
- Think about where you place messy play activities to encourage your child to be in different body positions ex) place on the floor for tummy time or put something on a low table and have them tall kneel.
- Messy play lends itself to countless opportunities for conversation with your child (regardless of your child’s verbal abilities.
*Does it feel hot, cold, soft, scratchy, hard, smooth? Is it large or small?
- Great time to engage in symbolic play
*Symbolic play: Shaving cream can become an ocean, playdough is suddenly a huge mountain or a forest.
- Kids learn early science skills such as cause and effect, gravity, problem-solving, different textures, and temperatures.
- It is a great way to practice concepts such as sorting, counting, directions, identifying shapes, letters, numbers, etc.
Social and Emotional Skills
- It is a great time to work on playing with peers, taking turns, and learning boundaries.
- Increasing awareness of your senses increases body awareness and emotional regulation.
- Gives children the freedom to express themselves and explore new environments. No right or wrong way to engage in sensory play!
- Children can try out new ways of doing things, and parents can affirm their problem-solving skills and build confidence.
Sensory Processing Skills
- Increases awareness of our senses and helps kids to learn sensory attributes
- For a child who struggles with textures, especially food, messy play can be a great way to encourage sensory exploration in a fun and less stressful way.
Messy play can include rice, slime, whipped cream, spaghetti/pasta, water beads, jello, or even playing in the mud. You can incorporate more senses by adding a scent, making an edible version (use Cool whip instead of shaving cream), or make it brightly colored for vision.
*For kids who are hesitant towards messy play, you can add utensils (like a spoon or whisk), cars, or even put it in a plastic bag. Try to respond to your child’s cues. If they are overwhelmed, offer breaks, or change the activity. Remember to be encouraging while still honoring their request to stop. *
Follow the downloadable resources below handouts on how to make a sensory bin and sensory bag! The downloads also have adaptations and other sensory ideas.
Sensory Bin Instructions
Sensory Bag Instructions