Let Your Little One Get Messy!

Does the word “messy” make you think of baby wipes, cleaning up, and maybe make you cringe a bit? We understand how great it can feel to be clean and organized, but allowing your child to get messy can benefit their development in many ways!

Read below to learn about what messy play is, why it’s important for development, and ways to incorporate it into your daily routines. Try to keep these benefits in the front of your mind to help ease the stress or anxiety you may feel when managing your child’s messy play!

What is Messy Play?

Messy play, sometimes referred to as sensory play, is any activity that allows your child to engage in a task with their body to create a “controlled mess”  that stimulates their various senses. Oftentimes, this is exploring different textures with our hands, but it can also be with our feet and toes!

Why is Messy Play Important?

Messy play can be beneficial at all ages, but today we’re focusing on messy play with your baby and toddler. Messy play provides an exciting tactile and sensory experience. It allows children to explore their environment, engage in their curiosity and enhance their learning, creativity, and language. 

When your child engages with different textures, it helps their brain learn about different sensations – how it feels, what it might smell like and look like, or even how it sounds when being squished! This is incredibly important for babies as it provides the basic skills for tolerating and eating various foods (which can contain a variety of textures, colors, smells, and tastes). When a baby has positive experiences with these different sensations in a playful way, they learn that it is safe and okay to engage with food.

You may think of messy play as solely a sensory activity, but it can also help with motor development, such as fine motor skills and visual-motor skills! When a child is squeezing playdoh, moving their hands through whipped cream, or using a paintbrush, they strengthen the muscles of their fingers, hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders to make refined and purposeful movements. They are learning to look at what’s in front of them then coordinate their muscles to engage and play with it.

How to Prepare for Messy Play

  • Layout a mat or trash bag on the floor underneath your child’s high chair or under the table and chair. This will help catch any of the mess and allow for easy cleanup.
  • Is it warm enough to be outside? When possible, messy play outside makes clean up much easier and less stressful for you!
  • Use an empty, small kiddie pool with whatever you will use for your messy play task. This keeps it a bit more contained and may help keep your baby more contained too!
  • Add toys, buckets, cups, or paintbrushes to messy play to encourage those motor skills and help keep your child’s attention.
  • If working inside at the table, use a plastic container or a cookie sheet to help contain your messy play task and allow for easier cleanup.

Messy Play Ideas

Mealtime Messy Play

Dampen that instinct to instantly wipe your child’s hands or mouth if they have food all over. Follow these tips to help mealtime be a sensory-rich experience:

*These activities should still always be completed under constant adult supervision for safety.

  • While feeding your baby in a highchair, don’t always hold the jar or bowl away from their tray. Put a tiny bit on their tray table to see and feel, smear around their tray, and maybe stick their fingers in their mouth afterward!
  • Let them try out the spoon! This is great for both messy play and learning self-feeding skills. Yes, it will get on their face, hands, and your floor. It is still a beneficial learning experience for your baby. They’re learning how to get the spoon to their mouth better and what it feels like when it’s on their hands.
  • Is your toddler refusing most of the food you offered them? Encourage them to engage with it in another way. Try finger painting with condiments or sauces or making designs with their pasta. They can also talk about its texture in their hands – is it crunchy, soft, squish, slimy?

*Remember, don’t feel like you have to do these ideas for the entire meal or every meal! Try out some ideas for the last part of your mealtime, or aim for a few times each week.

Other Fun Foods to Use in Messy Play

Food is the perfect messy play item because we know that babies and toddlers put everything into their mouths. You can always change up these foods by adding a bit of food coloring to them for bright and fun colors. With these ideas, sit and participate in the activity right alongside your child to model what they can do with it. Try squeezing it, using a finger to poke it or draw in it, crunch it, pinch it, clap with it on your hands, pull it, and more!

Here are some great options for safe and fun play! 

  • Whipped cream
  • Pudding
  • Jello
  • Oats or dry cereal
  • Dry or cooked pasta
  • Marshmallows (large, not mini-size as they can be choking hazards)
  • Flour or cornmeal
  • Edible paints or playdoh (Click on the links to learn how to make them!)
  • Ice or frozen vegetables on a hot, summer day

Which ideas are you going to try first? Just remember, take some deep breaths, embrace the messiness, and have FUN with your child engaging in these beneficial activities!

Have more questions about messy play, motor skills, or overall child development? Reach out to Skills 4 Life Pediatric Occupational Therapy for a free, 15-minute consultation or schedule an evaluation. Skills 4 Life can be reached at 303.351.1828 or karina@skills4lifeot.com.

About Skills 4 Life:

Skills 4 Life offers a broad range of pediatric occupational therapy services to children from birth to high school. We help children master age-appropriate developmental skills, become more independent, increase academic success, & develop confidence. The experts at Skills 4 Life specialize in handwriting, keyboarding, & executive function coaching. We also work with children on the building blocks of writing, social & emotional learning, motor skills, self-regulation strategies, sensory integration, early intervention, & activities of daily living. Skills 4 Life offers your child a safe, compassionate environment to learn the critical skills they need to succeed in learning and life. Learn more about our team & services at www.skills4lifeot.com. You also can contact our office by email at karina@skills4lifeot.com or by phone at 303.351.1828 for a free consultation.

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