A trail of muddy footprints leads from the back door to the kitchen. A colorful smear of paint on the bedroom wall. Toys have been dumped all around the living room floor. You heave a sigh, not looking forward to cleaning up the mess. 

It’s no secret; children favor messy activities. Splashing in water, finger- painting, digging in the dirt—you name it. However, caregivers often don’t want to deal with the clean- up afterwards, so they avoid these activities. Other times, they want to do these things but just don’t know where to start. 

Sensory/messy play is an essential part of a child’s growing development. So, how can we offer it without overwhelming ourselves? 

What is sensory play? 

In childcare, when we say “sensory play” it is often referring to science activities. However, science is just the tip of the iceberg. Sensory play refers to any activity that involves the senses. The more senses an activity incorporates, the better! 

You’d be surprised what counts as “sensory play.” Trying new food? A good sensory opportunity. Going to the beach? Lots of new sounds, smells, and textures for children to explore. Even listening to music or going outside offers important sensory input for children. Even infants learn about the world through sensory activities. 

Touch Sense (Tactile)
Tactile refers to our sense of touch and to the information our body gets through the skin.
- Our sense of touch is important because it helps us learn about our body and the environment we live in.
- Some of the tactile receptors are close to the surface of the skin and others are deep in the skin.
- Light Touch gives the brain an alerting message, "Pay attention". It is a useful sensation to increase a person's awareness of what is going on.
- Touch Pressure sensation occurs when you get a firm touch on your skin. Many people find comfort in touch pressure input.

Why is sensory play important? 

Sensory play holds a very important role in a child’s development, in both the short and long term. Here are just a few reasons why it helps: 

  • It helps them understand their senses and their own bodies more through hands-on learning.  
  • It helps improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills through practice as kids explore cause-and-effect relationships. 
  • It develops fine- motor skills, which are used in activities such as cutting with scissors and writing with a pencil. 
  • It supports emotional regulation, giving children something to help calm their emotions when they are angry/upset. 

Having several opportunities through the day for children to explore with their senses is vital to their growth and development. Caregivers can offer both structured and unstructured activities. 

How can I “accept the mess?” 

It can be very hard allowing your child to fully explore sensory activities. When I was brand new to teaching, I was far too focused on the aspect of “cleaning it up” and not the importance of allowing my students to make that mess. We often forget that the process for learning can be very chaotic at times, and that a child NEEDS to dump water onto the floor just to see what happens.  

So, what can we do about it? I decided to start where it would be easier for myself. At first, water play made me frustrated with how many times I needed to wipe it off the floor, so I traded it out for simple shredded paper and built myself up from there. There are still some days where I decide a huge mess would be too overwhelming, and so I trade it out for something more manageable, saving the big mess for another day. 

If messy play makes you anxious or is overwhelming, then start where you are most comfortable. You can make it easier on yourself by putting a tarp underneath or keeping it outside/in the kitchen. You can even ask your little one to help with the cleanup by handing them a child-sized broom or a wet-wipe. After all, even cleaning up can be a fun sensory experience! 

How do I introduce sensory play? 

Chances are, you’ve already introduced sensory play without even realizing it. However, there are several ways to deliberately encourage sensory play. Factors to keep in mind are a child’s age, interests, and developmental stage. 

For infants, start small. Offer them textile blocks, colorful scarves, or music.  

For older children, try spraying some shaving cream on the table and letting them play with it. You can also take them outside to dig in the garden or pick flowers. Going to a petting zoo or farm is also a great experience for them. 

You can also start a sensory bin – get a large, clear tub and fill it up with whatever you want. You can put it in the kitchen, on the porch, or even on a spare table. Sensory tubs can also be purchased online if you want one with a fun design to it.  

You can fill the tub with dried oats, magic sand, fake snow – anything you can think of! Your children may also have some great ideas for it. 

Other sensory bin Ideas: 

For Infants: 35+ Brilliant sensory bins for Babies – Kid Activities with Alexa 

For Toddlers: Sensory Bins Ideas for Toddlers – Enchanted HomeSchooling Mom 

For Preschoolers: 19 Amazing Sensory Bins for Preschool – Taming Little Monsters 

For School-age: Sensory Bin Ideas for Kindergarten at Home – How Wee Learn 

How else can I offer sensory play? 

Some children are more sensitive to sensory input than others. They may dislike the feeling of paint on their hands, or certain textures might make them upset. Luckily, there are many ways we can change the game and help them feel more at ease. Sensory toys such as Pop-its or a weighted blanket are a great place to start. For some older children, you could offer them a pair of gloves so they can protect their hands. 

If a child is simply not engaged, try catering it to their interests. Are they super into cars? Try having them drive trucks through the mud. Do they like baby dolls? Make a “baby doll bath station.” The possibilities are endless. 

Book of the Month: Faith and Science with Dr. Fizzlebop: 52 Fizztastically Fun Experiments and Devotions for Families. 

A fun science book that incorporates experiments with devotionals. Inspiration comes from bible stories, learning about the world through hands-on experience. Aimed at an older preschool/kindergarten demographic. 


Kostelyk, S. (2020) The importance of sensory play for children, The Chaos and the Clutter. Available at: https://www.thechaosandtheclutter.com/archives/the-importance-of-sensory-play-for-children (Accessed: October 12, 2022).  

Susie (2018) Are you terrified of messy play? (You don’t have to be!), Busy Toddler. Available at: https://busytoddler.com/managing-messy-sensory-play/ (Accessed: October 12, 2022).  

What is sensory play and why is it important? (2019) UGro. Available at: https://www.u-gro.com/blog/2019/06/what-is-sensory-play-and-why-is-it-important/ (Accessed: October 12, 2022).  

What is sensory play and why is it important? (2022) Action for Children. Available at: https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/blog/what-is-sensory-play-and-why-is-it-important/ (Accessed: October 12, 2022). 

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