Teaching and learning

8 messy play ideas for hands-on learning

The very best messy sensory play ideas
Two children engaging in messy play
February 26, 2020
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Messy play helps to grow happy and curious minds. Through messy play, children explore the world’s textures and sensations, and involve more of their senses in the learning process.

These new sensations enable the brain to establish new synaptic-connections — This is why learning through play is so crucial to everything we do in the early years.

5 key aspects of messy and sensory play

When children are born, they need time for their brain pathways to develop. Their surroundings and experiences help create these pathways, which is why those first few years are so crucial to develop little minds. In fact, during those first few years, more than 1 million new neural connections form every single second.

Neural pathways are the foundations of a child’s learning journey, as they’re how the brain receives and processes information. They’re how the brain communicates with the rest of the body. If children aren’t stimulated enough in the Early Years, their neural pathways won’t develop and strengthen, and this can cause significant learning delays as they get older.

Language development:

Children have a heightened sensitivity to language during those first years, and sensory play is the perfect opportunity to get them talking and using new words. With all those new and interesting textures, smells and sounds, use this opportunity to describe what you’re doing with new vocabulary and phrases, such as ‘Why is the playdough soft and squishy?’ ‘Can you stretch it?’ ‘Why don’t we roll it out?’

Personal, social, and emotional development:

A shared activity, like a sensory box [see below] for several children to use at once, helps children build social skills as they start interacting with each other. They might talk and discuss the objects if they’re exploring the objects side by side, or they might join forces and start exploring together. Not only does this help them learn how to work together, but it lets them develop their communicative skills, too.

Cognitive development:

Cognitive skills, or the skills we use when we start to solve problems, start with observation. When children really look at, and explore new objects, they’re piecing all that information their brains are processing together to understand the object in front of them. If they’re given wooden blocks of different shapes and sizes, for example, it teaches them that some are heavier than others. Letting children understand early on that different objects feel different, taste different and smell different is crucial to later problem-solving tasks, as they’re creating those pathways that connect how they use reasoning. When they do get to solving real problems, realising that all the playdough wouldn’t fit into a tiny bucket will have been a massive help.

Motor skills:

Motor skills are incredibly important in later life, as they’re vital for holding pens, pencils and paintbrushes. Developing those necessary muscles is easily done through sensory play, as can use fine motor tools, like pincers, to pick up dried beans. Even the simple act of pinching objects and pouring liquids gives children the opportunity to develop and hone their ability to control their hand movements. That’s why involving objects like pincers and small jugs lets children concentrate on grasping and controlling objects.

Creative development:

By giving children colourful, creative and new objects that they can explore any way they like helps them to become creative thinkers, as sensory play is completely open-ended. There is no goal apart from to explore – if they want to create an underwater scene out of the lentils and dolphin figurines you brought in, they can. It encourages their imaginative skills, as they can be as free as they like, the main goal is to engage the senses.

Ready to get your hands dirty? Roll up your sleeves — here are ten messy play ideas to get the creativity flowing.

1. Dinosaurs in taste-safe mud

Dinosaurs in Taste-Safe Mud by My Bored Toddler

The messy play idea:

Realistically mushy squishy mud becomes the foundation for messy play. This game gives very young children and toddlers an opportunity to get messy, without the fear of too much real mud being consumed. Simply combine the corn flour and the cocoa powder in a bowl and add some toy dinosaurs or farm animals.

  • 2 cups of corn starch
  • Water
  • 1 cup of powdered hot chocolate mix or cocoa powder
  • Assorted dinosaur toys
  • Container
  • Spoon

2. Fizzy cloud dough experiment

Fizzy Cloud Dough Experiment by Powerful Mothering

The messy play idea:

This form of sensory and messy play will wire a whole bunch of new connections in the brain. It includes visual elements to stimulate awe followed by a sensory haven when little ones feel the fizzing on their skin. Start by creating sensory play dough (which is also safe for little ones who still put everything into their mouths). Then, add a bit of vinegar to the dough to bring the fizz out. The little ones will have a wonderful time grabbing the fizzing foam.

  • 1 cup of flour
  • 1 cup of baking soda
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • Oil-based or powder food colouring
  • Vinegar
  • A mixing bowl
  • A tub for playing in

3. Balloon painting

Balloon Painting by Mosswood Connections

The messy play idea:

This activity is a new and exciting spin on painting, as children squeeze and spin the balloons to release the paint. Start by filling the balloons with paint and tie them off. Next, use a safety pin to poke holes in the bottom of the balloon.

  • Balloons
  • Child-friendly paint
  • Cardboard or large sheets of paper (easel pads, for example)
  • Large safety pins
  • A funnel

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4. Under the sea sensory jelly adventure

Under the Sea Jelly Sensory Adventure by Natural Beach Living

The messy play idea:

Follow the instructions to make the jelly, but instead of using a glass bowl, have the jelly set in the plastic container. After you pour the liquid into the container, add all the animals and the underwater creatures. Once the jelly is set and cool, let the messy play begin.

  • Jelly mix (blue is best)
  • Aquatic animal figurines
  • A large container

5. Colourful melting ice cubes

Colourful Ice Cube Melting Activity for Toddlers by Bambini Travel

The messy play idea:

This activity allows young children, especially toddlers, to explore the different material states of water. It’s perfect for a hot summer’s day, as it demonstrates the power of the sun and provides messy play fun that's lovely and cooling. Simply fill the ice cube trays with water and add a few drops of food colouring. Once that’s done, add the colourful cubes to the plastic container.

  • Ice cube trays
  • Food colouring, or other non-toxic dye
  • Water
  • A large plastic container, or outdoor area
  • Towels that can be stained

6. Window painting with shaving foam

Window Painting with Shaving Foam by Fun Learning For Kids

The messy play idea:

Use each indent in the muffin tray for a different shade of shaving foam. Create your palette by squeezing some shaving foam into each indent and mixing in some paint or food colouring. Keep adding paint or colouring until the colour is where you want it. Voila! Let children apply the paint with their fingers or a paintbrush to the outside of the windows. When you’re done, it simply rinses off.

  • Shaving cream
  • Food colouring or washable tempera paint
  • Muffin or cupcake tin
  • Paintbrushes (optional)

7. Painting with trucks and cars

Painting with cars by Super Simple

The messy play idea:

Children drive their toy vehicles over a paper roadway — As they pass through slicks of paint, they leave colourful streaks in their tyre tracks. A long strip of paper is your painting surface and roadway. Add blobs of paint in random areas on the paper and invite the young ones to use the trucks and cars to create tyre marks, spreading the paint into a vehicular masterpiece.

  • Toys with wheels
  • Large sheets of paper (butcher paper or easel pads are ideal)
  • Washable paints
  • Wipes

8. Sensory soup

Sensory soup

This outdoor activity can get messy and wet, as children explore the garden to make a pretend ‘soup’. Start by walking around the garden and introducing the young ones to the different edible herbs, rubbing them gently to smell their scent. Allow the children to choose the herbs they like the most. Tearing, breaking, cutting and crumbling different plants develops fine motor skills. Allow each child to dish their herbs into their own bowls and observe as they mix up their own creative concoctions.

  • Herbs from the garden, or dried herbs
  • Flowers, shells and stones
  • Ladles and spoons
  • Bowls
  • Cups or scoops
  • Scissors
  • A large pot of water

The big ideas

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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