Sensory play is one of those activities that can strike fear into the hearts of parents. It’s can be messy! Not only that, but it can be kind of gross (depending on what resources you are using) and it’s time consuming.
But we’re not here to talk about the negatives. My job today is to persuade you that sensory play can be awesome and that you should be providing your child with plenty of opportunities to engage in sensory play.
Messy Play v. Sensory Play: what is the difference?
Sensory play and messy play are often used as interchangeable phrases. There is however a slight difference in their meaning. Consider ‘sensory play’ as an overarching term for the following:
- art and creative play: process art style activities that don’t have a set end product goal in mind
- messy play: activities where an intentional ‘mess’ is created – for example, a rainbow rice pouring station or driving cars through a shaving foam track.
- nature play: getting outside and playing with natural elements – make a nature potion or playing in the mud kitchen, for example.
- playdough play: easy to make, easy to tidy away but still definitely counts as sensory play!
Essentially, sensory play is play that engages at least one of the 5 senses. It can be as simple as jumping in a muddy puddle to creating a ‘muddy farmyard’ from cocoa powder and water. Even adding food colouring and Duplo bricks to a bath counts – how easy is that?!
So is it a free for all?
Nope, sensory play does not mean utter chaos! It is not an excuse for your children trash your house an you are left to pick up the pieces. You need to set clear boundaries and supervise the play. There is more advice on getting started further on down this post.
5 Benefits of Sensory Play:
- Gives children the freedom to explore new materials which in turn fosters curiosity and imagination. There is no right or wrong outcome when it comes to sensory play.
- Helps to develop fine motor skills and hand strength. This is crucial for learning to write later on down the line
- Encourages communication and language development. Sensory play can be a really social activity, particularly if you invite friends to join in!
- Helps to develop spatial awareness as children begin to understand the environment around them via exploration of materials.
- Boosts brain development which in turn helps ability to problem solve. Sensory play is a great introduction to STEAM learning.
How to get started:
- Keep it simple to start with: do not be tempted to create an elaborate chocolate mud farm on your first go! Keep sensory play small in the beginning an expand ideas as your child gets used to it.
- Do sensory play when the house is already messy! An ideal time to do sensory play is when the house already needs a clean, that way you aren’t doubling up on jobs!
- Prepare first before showing the activity to your child. Get everything you need first – wipes, cloths, a dustpan and brush and towels should be close by so you can clean up quickly
- Aim for an activity once a week. You don’t need to do a planned sensory play activity everyday. Some can be kept out for longer durations – rainbow rice, for example
- Set clear rules around mess and the tidy-up process. Your children need to help you tidy up once play has finished. Make it fun and part of the activity!
Dealing with mess
Yes, sensory play can get messy but the more you expose your child to these activities, the easier it will become over time. I’ve been doing these activities with my children every week since they were tiny. I can now keep a sensory activity out all day (or even all week) and not have to worry about the play space descending into chaos – yes, really!
When you are first getting started with sensory play, it’s about practice. Sit with your child and model how to play and how to tidy up afterwards.
When it comes to mess during play, use your best judgement. There’s a difference between sensory resources like rainbow rice getting on the carpet because of developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination and flinging it through the air or at a sibling!
On occasions, your child will try to test the boundaries around the amount of mess they can make during sensory play – this is entirely normal. Here are some example phrases to try when that does happen:
First remind your child of the boundaries:
Remember we talked about keeping the (rainbow rice/ lentils/ water) in the tray? You forgot whilst you were having fun – that’s okay as you are still learning how to play with the (rainbow rice/ lentils/ water) but now I’m reminding you.
If your child still continues to make a mess:
It looks like you are having a hard time keeping the (rainbow rice/ lentils/ water) in the tray, let’s put away the tray and we can try again tomorrow – and yes, do follow through with this!
Remember, these phrases are for when your child is making a purposeful mess rather than making a mess due to those developing motor skills. However in both instances, the more exposure they have to sensory play the less messy they will become. This is always worth keeping in mind!
Activities to Try:
I share plenty of ideas on Pinterest and on this website. Check out the following blog posts for some ideas to help get you started:
18 Simple Toddler Play Ideas for the Flisat Table.