Messy Play and Sensory Activities

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:

Physical Development

  • 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.

Language Development

  • 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. 

Cognitive Skills

  • 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.

Creativity Development

  • 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

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