Sensory play, also referred to as “messy play,” is any activity that engages and stimulates children’s senses. While sensory play can often mean getting messy or dirty, it’s much more than that. It’s actually an important part of childhood! Children are discovering and experimenting each time they engage in sensory play. Sensory play offers significant developmental benefits for young children that can be hard to replicate in other activities.
What Does Sensory Play Look Like?
Sensory play is really about allowing your child to explore with their senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing. This could be anything from jumping in puddles to playing with play-dough to smelling scratch and sniff stickers. Children’s brains are stimulated by the textural experiences that come with messy play. In some instances, sensory exploration can get messy, but it doesn’t have to.
Natural Child Magazine offers a good explanation of why sensory play is important: “Children learn primarily through play, so combining their need to play and their need to explore often results in a mess. This can’t be avoided, and we would do well to remember that a degree of mess is part of life as a child.”
Benefits of Sensory Play
Sensory play offers many benefits. It expands children’s vocabulary as they learn about descriptors or attributes, like warm, rough, smooth, and slimy. It’s a great way to teach your children how to describe the world around them.
This type of exploration also supports development of fine and gross motor skills. When children are squeezing dough or holding a paint brush, they’re engaging the small muscles in their fingers and hands. During puddle jumping, they’re using their larger muscle groups.
Because sensory play is open-ended, it naturally fosters independence. They can explore the world and get creative with objects they are playing with. There’s no right or wrong way to play.
Messy Play Activities
So, if your children want to get messy, let them! Some great messy play activities include making mud pies, playing with finger paints and play-dough, and even helping with real baking.
Sensory play doesn’t have to require planning. Simply get outside and allow your little ones to explore their surroundings. Jump in the puddles, play in the leaves, listen for nature sounds, and have fun! The sandy beach is an ideal outdoor setting for sensory play as well.
Not only is baking a great way to spend time together, but it also provides opportunities to engage in sensory play. They’ll love mixing the dough and rolling it into different shapes in this pretzel dough recipe.
Keep non-toxic paints on hand for an easy activity that engages children of all ages. Younger children will like touching and feeling the paint. You can introduce paint brushes and other tools as they get older. Your children may even express an interest in painting unusual items like rocks.
Don’t be surprised if some paint ends up on your children as they explore. That’s part of the fun!
Look for ways to let your child use their senses that also introduce them to other concepts. For example, STEAM activities provide hands-on learning experiences that teach children about science, technology, engineering, art and math. These five STEAM activities are a great way to engage your child’s senses if you have a little time for some light prep work.