Sensory Play is More than Mess

Sensory Play is More than Mess


There’s no doubt about it – small children certainly love getting messy! Child development experts are now telling us this is an important developmental stage we ought to encourage…. But why?

Covered in it

Until they reach the age of 3 or 4, we seem to spend the whole time wiping them up! Have you, like me, been worried that we will be judged for being neglectful if they appear in public covered in yuck? And we all try to find the washing powder with the ability to remove the most stains, don’t we? So what is the purpose for all that mess?

Recently I started looking more closely at this fascination with messy play. I had heard it was vital for brain development and so something one must allow (with gritted teeth and a blind eye to the kitchen being trashed) in case one stunted their creativity… or something.

Sensory Joy

Why do they like wading gleefully through puddles, making mud pies, getting covered in paint and plunging up to their elbows in papier mache? When I last made papier mache with school kids, we never actually got to make any models, the kids were enjoying themselves far too much just squishing around in it! In fact one of my most popular activities at the after school club was the day we had a Gloop Competition. I divided the kids into teams and gave each team a set of ingredients: Flour, water, liquid soap, oats, cornflour, salt and food colouring. They mixed everything up in various combinations and then went round judging their friends’ creations for the grand title of Most Glorious Gloop. The winning criteria was the gloop mixture that felt the most irresistible.  And these weren’t toddlers; the average age was eight!

As I began to do more art and baking activities with the kids, I began to really enjoy it and totally understood where they were coming from! The breakthrough moment came as I supervised a toddler doing finger painting one day. He swirled the paint around, getting great squishy lumps of it all over himself, the table and some on the paper. He informed me he was making a slug. A daddy slug! I suddenly realised he wasn’t talking about the image on the paper but the tactile feel of the slimy paint between his fingers. He picked up a little blob of paint, stuck it to the paper and said in a squeaky voice, “baby slug!” The feel of the paint reminded him of the feel and look of a slug! It is an adult concept that art has to be representational. Art for small children is all about the creative, tactile process. He experienced his world directly through his senses, primarily the sense of touch. It was clear he was making brain connections through what he felt with his fingers.


When baking, I now always let the children mix with their hands so they can really make a connection with the materials. It’s not about the cake they’re making – for them the joy is in the goop squished between their fingers, and the bowl they can lick out afterwards. They need to physically explore everything, in order to really understand how the world works. Once they have thoroughly explored a new substance or object, they are then ready to work with it as a means to an end rather than as a process in itself.


They’re not being ill-mannered when they blow bubbles in their drinks or make patterns in a puddle of soup on the table. They’re experimenting with the physical properties of materials in their environment. Water, mud, paint, sand, jelly, soup, flour, all have different properties that have to be investigated so that brain connections can form and enable the child to relate to the physical world.


Encouraging Sensory Play

So for a few years, just let go of your preconception of a perfectly clean and tidy home and remember that children NEED sensory development and it WILL be messy, but glorious too! As well as mud, leaves, water, sand and other materials found in the natural environment, I have a couple of favourites!

Jelly bubbles, or water beads, are small grains of water-absorbent substance that swell into squishy marble-sized balls when soaked in water. All children find them irresistible!



Jellybubbles go extremely well with ducks or sea creatures, and experiments can be made with combining lentils and jellybubbles to watch what happens…..

Another wonderfully calming sensory activity is a tray of small seeds. I find flax seeds and lentils are most irresistible. Rice is slightly spiky, so use rounded seeds. Every child I have put a tray of seeds in front of is instantly hooked and can’t stop feeling the wonderful flowing texture. It is amazing at calming down hyperactive, anxious or restless children.


We take this very basic information about how stuff feels for granted, since we cannot remember a time when we didn’t know what paint or cake mix felt like. But the child is just beginning! The getting messy part is merely a side-effect of the necessary exploration of his world. It is his baseline, the foundation of a lifetime of discovery. If you allow him to enjoy this messy stage, it will help him to always enjoy learning, and become spatially confident in his environment.  In a few years he will build on this experience to start using materials in constructive, creative ways, and phase in other ways of relating to his environment… and you can enjoy having a clean kitchen again!

Exploring The Delights of Natural Play


Keeping A Sense of Humour


There are many situations in life where you have to laugh or you’d cry. (I used to work in a nursing home, which was the perfect training ground).

I find it absolutely essential to keep a sense of humour when dealing with other people, especially little ones. Maybe I haven’t quite grown up yet, but if being a responsible adult means I can never see the funny side, I’d rather be a child. And anyway, I think it helps children gain a sense of perspective when they see I don’t take life’s ups and downs too seriously.


We all make mistakes along the way, and being able to acknowledge with a smile that you’re having a ‘dropping day’, or are a bit of a ‘forgetty-pants’ (as the four year old puts it when I’m being scatty) can help children accept their own limitations with less frustration.

silly face.06

One day I was preparing supper whilst dancing to an Abba CD with the three children, who were two, four and six. As I waved a bag of frozen peas above my head, it suddenly burst open and a cascade of peas showered over me and the floor…right on the spot where the new puppy had done a poo earlier. It was actually incredibly funny (judging by the childrens’ reaction) and I had to laugh as the cold peas ran down inside my bra. Suddenly I found myself spontaneously changing the lyrics of ‘Dancing Queen’:
“Lots of peas, covering meee, running everywhere! …. Yeah, I’ve lost my peas, oh where can they be, do I even care? Oh yeeeah!”
As the song changed to ‘Mama Mia’, my lyrics became a song about sweeping:
“Dearie dear, here I go again, sweeping, all those naughty little peas!”
I hammed up my performance, revelling in the lack of self-consciousness that the company of small children can release. The kids cavorted happily around me, hooting with laughter at my pea song .
It crossed my mind as the kids joined in with their own songs while helping me scoop up peas, that not only were we acting as a team engaging in cooperative helpful behaviour, but they were learning about rhyme, rhythm, metre and performance, as well as attitudes and ways of responding to an accident. If I had become upset or angry over the waste of peas or the inconvenience of having to clean up when I was busy, I bet I wouldn’t have had any happy little helpers. And what a different message I would have conveyed: that cleaning is a tedious chore, accidents are very upsetting, and fun stops when somebody makes a mistake. Instead, the pea mishap had turned into a joyous occasion of shared laughter and performance art.

It was very liberating.

I have also found that since play is the way kids relate to the world, I can make better relationships with them if I join in.

funny sieve

Children have a highly developed sense of the ridiculous and will turn anything and everything into a game. They don’t need expensive toys. Which is why I always save bubble wrap. They love it even more if I join in with the game and make bubble wrap outfits for them. Sometimes I think laughter is the fuel kids run on.

bubblewrap fun

bubble dress

On a deeper note, shared laughter is incredibly strengthening, healing and intoxicating for kids. It releases a flood of happy emotions and endorphins that bind you all together. Laughing together at something she says or does (coupled with lots of hugs and physical play) gives your child the powerful internal message that she is worthy, accepted, loved and strong together with you. It promotes resilience and self-confidence for the future: no matter what the world throws at them, they know they are strong and loved.

laughter laughter Felix & Joe

Answering The Big Awkward Questions


Every child, at some point, will hit you with one of those Big Awkward Questions of life that we tend to dread. You know the ones: “How did the baby get into your tummy?” “Why can’t I see God?” “Why do some people have different colour skin?” “Why did Jesus die?” “Why is poo brown?” Children really want to know everything, don’t they?
Lots of us feel a bit nervous about what to tell young children about the facts of life and such sensitive subjects, how much detail to go into and when is the right time to begin. The last thing we want to do is corrupt their innocence or upset them. I have been asked by several mums what is the right thing to do.
Of course there are very many opinions, and you must do what seems right to you. But if you want my opinion, here it is.

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