Ideas and inspiration for some home-made messy 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. First of all, as the name suggests, it helps develop babies’ senses; it offers them an outlet to learn and explore new sensations in a safe and fun way. It also helps develop fine motor skills and even helps build nerve connections. The first few years of a child’s life are incredibly important for brain growth, and many of the nerve connections are built during this phase, which means the more stimulation a baby’s brain receives, the more connections it will develop. But aside from all the science-y stuff, getting messy is just really, really, fun. There are endless activities you can concoct for the muckiest of play, but here are some of our favourites.
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.
Sassy Mama Tip: Next Halloween, keep the inside of your carved pumpkin and pop it in a bag, the sticky innards make for a great seasonal squishy bag!
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.
Edible finger paint
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 for its simplicity. You only need two ingredients: Greek yoghurt and food colouring.
Bins & Trays
Now, this is where things can get really grimy (in the best possible way). Find some shallow bins/trays, the kind you use for storage under the bed, 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 party 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 play can often have a calming effect on kids; it uses up a lot of brain power 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 (see video below) have become a very popular calming aid for kids, especially those who deal with anxiety and autism. They are even sometimes used as a relaxing activity for Alzheimer’s patients.
Mini rain sticks
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. It’s basically the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) for babies. 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.
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. Projecting lamps such as this one, available on Amazon, are an awesome chill-out alternative.