Let's Get Messy!

The Benefits of Messy Play

By Stephanie Kovacs, Growing Together Pediatric Therapy November 29, 2018

What a Mess!

If you’ve ever left your child unattended for a moment while finger painting or turned your head to grab something while feeding your baby a nice big bowl of colorful puree; I’m sure you’d agree each of these situations should come with the warning: 

“DANGER: expect more mess than you can possibly imagine!” 

We love them, but it’s impressive how talented kids can be at making a mess.  Now that I spend my days playing with kids as a pediatric occupational therapist, believe me - I know how cringe-worthy it might be to read what I’m about to say, but…Messy play is exactly what our kids NEED!

Wait, Messy is…Good?

By interacting with different mediums like food, art supplies, mud, grass, etc., a child is learning about their world and developing their sensory systems to understand what things feel like and how to interact with different materials. When they are touching, squeezing, throwing, building, scooping, and manipulating these materials in different ways, their brain is getting a ton of feedback! It helps them learn what that material feels like on their skin, what it does when you squish it or move it, and so much more. Some textures feel wet, some feel dry; some feel soft, some textures feel hard; some materials crumble when you squeeze them, some squish and ooze out of your hand; some materials like sand you can build with, and some are more fluid and need to be in a container to stay put. 

Playing and getting messy isn’t just a fun way of spending a few hours; it’s how kids learn and develop their skills. What may look like executing a simple task, playing with toys, or sifting through different materials, is actually a very productive and engaging task for the child! Playing with different toys and materials is productive in encouraging a child’s tolerance for different textures and temperatures, and serves as a foundation for tolerating an increased range of textures in food, different textures of clothing, playing barefoot, etc. I acknowledge that many of us (myself included) will continue to cringe seeing our child running around barefoot outside in the dirt and then barreling into the house with muddy feet, but hey, they were doing their job as children by playing and learning! Sure, you will still have to mop the floor after this “learning experience,” but at least you can feel a little less stressed knowing how important making a mess can be!

The following is a list of tactile activities for kiddos, using materials many of us frequently have around their house!

Messy ‘Sketti
Cook up plain spaghetti and put it in a large bin to play with.
Variations to target skills:
o Add playdough scissors for early scissor skills
o Use tweezers or tongs to get the “worms” in the jar to work on fine motor skills
o Give them a little tray of paint and a brush and let them paint the spaghetti (fine motor skills…but this is just fun!)

Splendiferous Shaving Cream
Put shaving cream in a large bin or on a baking sheet.
Variations to target skills:
o Make a car wash! Add mini cars to the shaving cream and then have a separate bin where they can use a spray bottle/turkey baster/eyedropper
to clean them off with water
o Spread out shaving cream on a baking sheet. Have them use a few drops of food coloring spread across the shaving cream. With a toothpick or craft stick, swirl and make a colorful “marbling” effect!
o Add a few cubes of colored water (or Kool-Aid for more of a scent!) into the bin and watch them melt and color the shaving cream

Shredded Paper Paradise
Instead of recycling your shredded paper, put it in a big bin to play with!
Variations to target skills:
o Grab paper with large grilling tongs, salad tongs, bowls, etc.
o Hide little mini Lego figures or mini animals in the bin. Wrap the little figures in large rubber bands or hair bands for an added fine motor
o Add a variety of little objects (different shapes, colors, textures, size, etc.) and play I-spy by finding items with a certain description. For example,
find something orange, or find something that is hard and round. This can easily be adapted for different ages and skill levels
o Hide puzzle pieces and set a timer for a few minutes. Set a longer time than they expect - we want our kids to feel successful!

Winter/Holiday Sensory
o Sort jingle bells into small jars

o Freeze small animal or dinosaur figures in ice cubes. To melt and save the animals, first have them sprinkle salt on the ice, then use spray bottles or turkey basters with warm water to “melt the icecap”.

o Use bits of wrapping paper or ribbon to practice cutting

o Make fake snow and play with sand castle tools (cloud dough: 3 cups flour and 1 cup baby oil)

While messy activities are not usually quite as fun for the parent, you can take steps to make cleanup quicker and easier. Put a large sheet or dollar-store shower curtain on the floor under the table, put kiddos in old clothes (or little to no clothes!), follow up with bath time right after, have the kids participate in clean-up (vacuum, washcloths, dustpan, spray bottles with water
and some washrags, etc.) or do the activities outside on a warm day! And even if there is a little mess, put on your best calm and collected parent face and watch as your little ones grow
and play right in front of your eyes!

Please note: If your child has difficulty tolerating messy play or presents with some of the difficulties with sensory processing listed above (i.e. aversive to eating or touching certain textures, difficulty tolerating teeth-brushing, etc.), this does not necessarily indicate that your child has difficulties with sensory processing.

 If you do have questions about sensory processing or difficulties your child might be having, feel free to reach out to Stephanie at Growing Together Pediatric Therapy
Phone at 312-358-1674
You can also visit them on the web at