What About the Mess?

When it comes to sensory play friends often ask me, "What about the mess?" My answer is, embrace it!

Set expectations for yourself and start small. There are lots of non messy sensory ideas for you to start with if you're new to sensory activities. Like putting paint in a baggie and taping that to a table with masking tape for your little one to squish with no mess!

When it comes to sensory play with dry foods, such as rice, oatmeal or pasta, expect it to get everywhere. Expect to find it in your hair later. Expect to find some behind the chair next week. Expect it to get messy.

Painting is a great sensory activity. You may lay a drop cloth down and cover your child in a smock. However always expect that some paint may make it just past the drop cloth! Expect that you may encourage your one year old while she's painting. You may say, "You're painting so beautifully with your paint brush!" Then she'll look at you curiously and slowly sweep the brush in her hair. Because after all, you said brush. Or maybe that was just our experience!

Those little mishaps are a great way to teach your child language and help them to make those connections through play. For example, I said, "You're thinking of a hair brush. We use hair brushes to brush our hair on our head. This is a paint brush. We use paint brushes for art, to make pictures with paint. Paint brushes don't go in hair, they go on paper." and then I dipped the paintbrush back in the paint and swiped it across the paper.

Always use washable paint!

Play. Create. Explore. Clean Up.

This is my motto when it comes to sensory play. Allowing children the ability to explore during sensory play gives them the confidence to create amazing things. You may be surprised with the things they can create, or the things they imagine in pretend play. Teaching children to clean up after sensory play is all a part of the activity. Give your one year old the dust pan. They will sweep the rice everywhere for a few minutes before you grab a vacuum. They won't actually clean up at that age but they will learn the basics of clean up time. They'll learn that playtime is over now and it's time to clean up. Have them say bye bye to whatever they were playing with, "Bye bye oatmeal, bye bye beans."

These basic skills that were learned at 18 months, though it seemed like oatmeal was being sloppily poured all over the floor, has grown into a 2 and a half year old who is an expert at pouring, and can fill the bird feeder on her own. Fine motor skills are at work with this basic sensory play.

Tips for Messy Play

  • For water play especially, don't use more than you are willing to clean up. If you can only handle wiping up a cup of water, then only give your toddler a cup’s worth of water to play in. Before you place dried foods or water in front of your toddler, for sensory play, expect the entire contents to be dumped. With that expectation you can then decide the amount you feel comfortable letting them play with. Based on how much you're willing to clean up.

  • Start small, as your child grows they'll be able to help with more and more clean up. The 1 year old who you let wipe a rag towel all over the floor, barely soaking up any water, will quickly grow into a 3 year old who can clean the floor on their own.

  • Keep extra rag towels, baby wipes and dust pans on hand for messy activities. If you have 6 cups of water in a bin for washing toy animals and cars, make sure you have enough towels nearby to wipe 6 cups of water off of the floor.

  • If the weather is nice, try these things outside, however in my experience we’re usually doing these types of things on rainy days. In which case it’s best to have a few old bath towels on the floor for easier clean up.

  • Sometimes it’s ok to completely abandon an idea if it did not turn out how you thought it would. Try again with something simpler next time.

  • If you have a stool or learning tower that your child is comfortable standing on, set up car washes at the sink. This makes for easy clean up as all you have to do is drain the sink when playtime is over. Add a little dish soap for bubbles and a sponge or brush for scrubbing.