Let’s get messy! Messy play that is. Check out these easy ideas and inspiration for some home-made sensory play.
You’re probably already aware of sensory play – or “messy play” – by now, but don’t mistake it for just another parenting buzzword. Although, obviously a great indoor activity (or outdoor if you have the space!) where everyone can let loose, it also has many other positive benefits.
Develops babies’ senses; it offers them an outlet to learn and explore new sensations in a safe and fun way.
Develops fine motor skills and even helps build nerve connections.
It’s just really, really, fun!
There are endless activities you can concoct for the muckiest of play, but here are some of our favourites.
Sensory Play Squishy Bags
Squishy bags (or sensory bags) are great for little hands to grab onto other than your hair or the front of your shirt (seriously bubs, thanks for showing our bras to the whole world) and you can go as simple or as complicated as you want.
Using zip-lock bags, you can either simply add paint, coloured rice, play dough, or whipped cream. We’ve had particularly great success with a combination of flour, water and food dye to make a satisfyingly squeezy sensation, similar to that of a stress ball (1 cup of flour, 6 tablespoons of water and food colouring).
For older toddlers, you can even use the bags to practice drawing letters or shapes on the surface of the bags by manipulating its content. Check out this list of awesome ideas for creating an endless number of sensory bags.
Messy Spaghetti Sensory Play
Spaghetti is often the main event at messy play parties. Cook up a batch of spaghetti but skip the sauce and add some food colouring to make rainbow wriggling worms for the kids to get their hands on. Often the cooled pasta is enough on its own to keep kids entertained, but you can engage older children with different tasks to help develop their fine motor skills, such as having them try to thread the noodles through a colander. For older kids learning numbers and letters, hide items (these can be fridge magnets, wooden toys, small stones with numbers/letters written on) and have them pull the pasta apart to find them.
Finger Paint Messy Play
Strip everyone off for this one (the kids – not you) because things are about to get seriously grubby. Finger paints are the best way to introduce playing with paints and colour to your bubba. You can either sit them down on an old sheet and let them run wild or find some plastic pots and contain the fun (boo!). Encourage them to mix the colours together and see what they can create. There is a multitude of edible finger paint recipes online, but we loved this one.
Ultimate Messy Play — Bins And Trays
Now, this is where things can get really grimy (in the best possible way). Find some shallow bins/trays, like these ones from IKEA, and fill them with all sorts of gooey goodness. Fill the tubs with water, sand, rice, jelly, sponges, spaghetti, water beads and homemade slime are also fun additions.
The bins work especially well if you’re hosting your own messy play playgroup and you can easily create a baby-to-bin rotation system (let’s not have things descend into complete chaos). Let them explore through touch and even have them stand in the bins and steps between them.
For older kids, you can create themed tubs, and have them find bits and bobs you’ve hidden in the mix – for example toy dinosaurs in sand or numbers and letters – and ask them to find certain digits for you to add together.
Sensory bottles — Non-Messy Play
Sensory play can often have a calming effect on kids; it uses up a lot of brainpower and is very stimulating, so they can get pretty zen afterwards (much like after bath time, which can itself be a form of sensory play — try popping in water beads or some water balloons for bath time play!). Chill out bottles have become a very popular calming aid for kids, especially those who deal with anxiety and autism.
Mini Rain Sticks — Musical Sensory Play
Obviously, sensory play is designed to get all the senses stimulated. So, music and noise-makers are always a winner (and require less clean up!). There are plenty of baby-friendly mini instruments on the market, but we suggest making your own rain sticks for soothing sounds. Simply fill a bottle with a concoction of rice, beads, and cocktail sticks (obviously it goes without saying that any bottle or container should be made 100% child-proof).
If you want to add a visual element to your rainmaker, use a clear bottle and coloured ingredients. If your little one has an older brother or sister, why not get crafty together and help them make their own customised rainmaker for their little sibling.
Bubbles — Sensory Fun For Everyone!
Do not trust anyone that does not love bubbles. This one might seem like a no-brainer but playing with bubbles is actually a great way to develop movement and auditory skills, as toddlers and tots need to listen to your instructions to have fun; teach your babe how to poke, pop, stamp and clap the bubbles. If you’re looking for some more relaxed bubble play, consider combining it with some light and music sensory activities.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published by Lauren Boydell in 2019 and updated by Jess Mizzi in February 2022.