Messy Play is Good for the Soul

Sensory play has an important role in development. When you talk about the senses, most kids over a certain age can rattle them off without problem: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Any and all of these can be incorporated into sensory play.

But there are two more - vestibular and proprioceptive.

The Vestibular Sense refers to the body's set of mechanisms that monitor and adjusts the body's sense of balance and orientation to the world. This sense is what keeps the body upright while standing, sitting or walking and is primarily located in the inner ear.

Proprioception is our body awareness system which unconsciously tells us where our bodies are in relation to other objects and space, and how our different body parts are moving.

Motor skills

There are two main types of motor skills that your child develops. gross motor skills are those needed for the coordination of the large muscle groups that help us with running, walking etc. and fine motor skills that help us use and coordinate our small muscle groups that help us with doing up clothing, cutting, tying shoelaces and handwriting. Sensory play often involves development of these skills.


So what is sensory play?

Sensory play is all about using the senses: smell, taste, touch, balance, sight, hearing and movement. It is play that is all about exploration and encourages children  to use scientific processes - all in the name of play. The children play, create, investigate and explore. Sensory activities allow children to refine their thresholds for different sensory information helping their brain to create stronger connections to process and respond to sensory information. It isn't all about touch, it's about using all of our senses. 


From birth through to early childhood, children use their senses to explore and try to make sense of the world around them: babies put objects in their mouths exploring what they taste like, toddlers will twirl round and round until they are dizzy,  children will make noises and then put their fingers in their ears to see how the sound changes, they will pull and stretch play-dough or run their fingers through gloop, they will listen intently as you read stories and make different voices for the different characters, they will sit quiet and watch what is going on around them.

All of these things are not only fun - they are learning experiences. 

As parents we need to encourage this. Yes, I agree, some of these activities might  be a little messy. But as the children get older, think of that as a great way of getting them to help with the clearing up.

The Role of Sensory Play

There are  groups of children, such as those who have autism or those who have sensory integration dysfunction disorder who have specific difficulty making sense of and organising all the stimuli that come at them via their senses. There are groups of children that have poor or limited gross and fine motor skills that benefit from sensory play.

The truth is, all children need help learning how to use their senses.

In play experiences, combining the sense of touch with the senses of vision, hearing, taste and smell helps build cognitive skills.

Cognitive skills are those skills we use when we solve problems. The process of solving problems begins with observation. Young children use all their senses to explore objects and they file it away in their memories. Also, when children have sensory experiences, they store their whole body experiences in their sensory memory. We use our sensory memory to begin the process of understanding and gaining knowledge.

The importance of sensory play cannot be overstated for the development of the educational process. It is the foundation of all the skills children will use in school learning to read, write and solve math and science problems. 

Sensory play is learning through play at its BEST

For some ideas on what kind of activities to do then click here to go to sensory pots page.

What kind of materials will you need:
Supplies for sensory exploration are usually easy to gather and inexpensive. The following lists provide some suggestions for items to fill your sensory table or tubs with and materials to add to the experience. Select items that are of interest to the child, and are safe for the age of the child involved.

Water -Sand (dry and/or wet) -Dirt (dry and/or wet) -Rice - Pasta - 
Sawdust - Dried beans -Fingerpaint with additives (sand, glycerin, sawdust) - Homemade sieves (poke holes in foam trays) -Fingerpaint in sealed plastic bags - Scents (almond or mint extract) -Shaving foam
Playdough - Clay - Whipped Cream - Foam pieces - 
Materials - Basters
Whisks - Waterwheels - Ice cubes (add food coloring) - Tongs

Shaped sponges - Food colouring - Wooden blocks
Cooking utensils (measuring cups, spoons, funnels, etc) - Combs -
Funnels and sifters - Different kinds of bowls and containers - Cardboard tubes - Plastic eggs - Buttons - Spools - Dollhouse furniture
Rocks and pebbles - Ping-pong balls - Straws - Pump and squeeze bottles
Corks - Wind-up bath toys - Buckets and pails  ----- and many more, you just need to follow the lead of your child.


Here is just one sensory activity to start with.

 It is great fun and children just love it. I bet you will not be able to resist playing yourself. Give it a go........

Magic Goop
1.       Mix 1 part cold water and 3 parts cornflour with hands in the sensory table or tub.
2.       If the mixture doesn't dissolve in your hands, then add more water. If the mixture is too runny, add more cornflour.
3.       Store in an open container and leave to dry; the mixture will solidify. To use again, add water and mix to the desired consistency. It will last indefinitely when stored properly.


So much fun to be had on a rainy day.

Wer'e going on a Worm Hunt.  Worms just love the pitter-patter of rain on a bit of lawn. Now is a good time to look for them. Talk about their size - what they look like - Extend this by drawing worms - find out more about worms in books or on the internet. A good bit of Science going on.

Measure the rainfall.  Discuss how much rain is falling. Try to catch some rain in plastic cups. Talk about how we could measure how much rain has fallen. Set up some containers and leave them there until the rain has stopped, or later in the day. Use a ruler to measure how much rain has collected. A good bit of maths can develop from this as well all the talking and listening skills. Later, this could be extended to more weather watching including measuring the speed of the wind and the tempreture.

Talk about how the rain changes the way things look. What kinds of clouds are in the sky. Ask questions like 'Can you see any shadows? Why have our shadows disappeared? This could be extended to painting clouds or making a weather chart with symbols to go with it. Science and Art.

Painting and Art. Try painting with mud. Make muddy handprints on paper.

Raindrop painting. How do the drops of rain affect the picture.

Rain Dancing. Do silly rain dances. The person with the best silly dance gets a prize. Arts covered here as well as physical development.

I forgot the most fun one of all......

Puddle Jumping


The benefits of playing with sand

There are so many benefits to a child's learning and development just by playing with sand. And a bag of sand is not that expensive.

A bag will last a few months and the cost is about £4. You don't need an expensive sand pit. Just a container that can be covered.

Not a bad price for all the learning that can be gained from it.

There is not right or wrong way to play with sand. This makes the whole experience so exciting for the child.

Playing with sand can stretch the imagination and take a child on a journey of discovery.

Physical Development

  • Large muscle skills are developed as your child pours, digs, scoops and cleans up the sand with a dustpan and brush after playing.

  • It is good for developing hand-eye coordination.

  • Using child friendly tweezers to pick up objects from the sand will develop control and dexterity.

Children can explore what the difference is between wet and dry sand.

Objects can be hidden in the sand.

Sand can become a landscape for small world play.

And soooooo much more.


Areas of Child Development (Early Learning Goals):


Listening & Attention
  • Children listen attentively in a range of situations.

  • They listen to stories, accurately anticipating key events and respond to what they hear with relevant comments, questions or actions.

  • They give their attention to what others say and respond appropriately, while engaged in another activity.

  • Children express themselves effectively, showing awareness of listeners’ needs.

  • They use past, present and future forms accurately when talking about events that have happened or are to happen in the future.

  • They develop their own narratives and explanations by connecting ideas or events.

  • Listens and responds to ideas expressed by others in conversation or discussion.

  • Children follow instructions involving several ideas or actions.

  • They answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions about their experiences and in response to stories or events.


Making Relationships
  • Children play cooperatively, taking turns with others.

  • They take account of one another’s ideas about how to organise their activity.

  • They show sensitivity to others’ needs and feelings, and form positive relationships with adults and other children.

Self Confidence & Self Awareness
  • Children are confident to try new activities, and say why they like some activities more than others.

  • They are confident to speak in a familiar group, will talk about their ideas, and will choose the resources they need for their chosen activities.

  • They say when they do or don’t need

Managing Feelings and Behaviour
  • Children talk about how they and others show feelings, talk about their own and others’ behaviour, and its consequences, and know that some behaviour is unacceptable.

  • They work as part of a group or class, and understand and follow the rules.

  • They adjust their behaviour to different situations, and take changes of routine in their stride.


Moving & Handling
  • Children show good control and co-ordination in large and small movements.

  • They move confidently in a range of ways, safely negotiating space.

  • They handle equipment and tools effectively, including pencils for writing.

Health & Self Care
  • Children know the importance for good health of physical exercise, and a healthy diet, and talk about ways to keep healthy and safe.

  • They manage their own basic hygiene and personal needs successfully, including dressing and going to the toilet independently.


  • Children read and understand simple sentences.

  • They use phonic knowledge to decode regular words and read them aloud accurately.

  • They also read some common irregular words.

  • They demonstrate understanding when talking with others about what they have read.

  • Children use their phonic knowledge to write words in ways which match their spoken sounds.

  • They also write some irregular common words.

  • They write simple sentences which can be read by themselves and others.

  • Some words are spelt correctly and others are phonetically plausible.


  • Children count reliably with numbers from one to 20, place them in order and say which number is one more or one less than a given number.

  • Using quantities and objects, they add and subtract two single-digit numbers and count on or back to find the answer.

  • They solve problems, including doubling, halving and sharing.

Shapes and Measure
  • Children use everyday language to talk about size, weight, capacity, position, distance, time and money to compare quantities and objects and to solve problems

  • They recognise, create and describe patterns.

  • They explore characteristics of everyday objects and shapes and use mathematical language to describe them.


People & Communities
  • Children talk about past and present events in their own lives and in the lives of family members.

  • They know that other children don’t always enjoy the same things, and are sensitive to this.

  • They know about similarities and differences between themselves and others, and among families, communities and traditions.

The World
  • Children know about similarities and differences in relation to places, objects, materials and living things.

  • They talk about the features of their own immediate environment and how environments might vary from one another.

  • They make observations of animals and plants and explain why some things occur, and talk about changes.

  • Children recognise that a range of technology is used in places such as homes and schools.

  • They select and use technology for particular purposes.


Exploring & Using Media & Materials
  • Children sing songs, make music and dance, and experiment with ways of changing them.

  • They safely use and explore a variety of materials, tools and techniques, experimenting with colour, design, texture, form and function.

Being Imaginative
  • Children use what they have learnt about media and materials in original ways, thinking about uses and purposes.

  • They represent their own ideas, thoughts and feelings through design and technology, art, music, dance, role play and stories.