From smearing oatmeal across the highchair tray to making a beeline for the mudhole, young children are hardwired to engage in messy play. As adults, it’s easy to feel guilty for derailing a child’s fun in an attempt to save ourselves some extra cleanup time, but is it just fun that we’re keeping them from? Or is there a method to their (quite annoying) madness?
The brain grows rapidly throughout the early years (ages 0-7), and it does so by receiving information through the child’s seven senses (yes, seven!), organizing that information, and then using it to create appropriate motor or behavioral responses. Meanwhile, the brain practices processing multiple senses at once, which becomes the child’s sensory processing system – basically, the system that decides how we respond to everyday stimuli like lights, sounds, and textures. An efficient sensory processing system is important for things like attention, behavior, social skills, and motor skills.
We’re all aware of the five basic senses – sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound – but what about the other two? The proprioceptive sense receives information from our bones and muscles to help us with body awareness. This affects hand-eye coordination as well as our ability to understand force, like how hard to touch a friend while playing a game of tag. The vestibular sense receives information from the inner ear to let us know where our body is in space, which helps with balance and makes it possible to land a double backflip. This is why children are drawn to crawl, spin, roll, swing, jump, balance, somersault, and cartwheel.
To help young children explore and activate all seven senses, we want to give them natural opportunities to see, touch, taste, smell, hear, move their bodies, and practice hand-eye coordination. Unstructured outdoor play in a natural environment is the best and easiest way for children (and grown-ups!) to engage the senses. Sunlight shining through tree branches, sand between the toes, raindrops on the tongue, musty fallen leaves, birds singing overhead, rolling down a grassy hillside, climbing a tall tree – nature brilliantly provides the perfect sensory environment in a way that isn’t overstimulating or understimulating for the developing early childhood brain (or for the fully developed and often stressed out adult brain).
It’s easy to see why nature’s balance of stimuli is ideal for providing the young child’s brain with plentiful opportunities to practice processing multiple senses simultaneously, but maybe you don’t have easy access to nature play, maybe the thought of mudpies makes you queasy, maybe bundling up a toddler for frigid winter play is the absolute last way you want to spend your precious (and limited) energy. Thankfully, messy sensory play at home has similar benefits. Here are some sensory-rich play ideas for days at home that require minimal prep and fairly easy clean-up.
Sensory Play at Home: 5 Indoor Sensory Activities for Young Children
Finger painting is the quintessential preschool activity for good reason. Children hear thick, gooey paint squish between their fingers as they watch the colors change before their eyes. They feel their slippery little hands glide across the paper as they move their entire bodies to reach every inch of their painting canvas. With its unique combination of movement and texture, finger painting is the closest thing to mud play a child can get indoors!
Tip: Paint on a large, wipeable surface using non-toxic, ultra-washable paint. Splash mats are also helpful! (And you might want to have a bath ready. Sensory play, round 2!)
Painting with Brushes
If your child is reluctant to dive finger-first into slimy paint, painting with brushes is a great place to start. Children still benefit from the interesting sight, touch, smell, and, let’s be honest, taste experiences, while also practicing hand-eye coordination and emergent writing skills.
Tip: Old makeup brushes make excellent toddler paint brushes. (And of course, stick with the ultra-washable paint!)
I have a theory that natural playdough is one of the most important “toys” for young children. Nearly every culture uses some form of dough, and dough has been around for thousands and thousands of years. Throughout history, anthropologists have noted the typical scene of an adult giving a young child a piece of dough (or clay) to play with while they work. This sensory-rich material not only engages multiple senses at once – it also exercises the hand muscles that are necessary for writing, sculpting, crafting, cooking, and other essential fine motor tasks.
Tip: The best playdough tools are in your kitchen: crinkle cutter, garlic press, butter knife, rolling pin, small containers. (Don’t forget the cutting board!)
Process over product. Art in early childhood should always be instruction-free and sensory-focused (meaning it’s a-okay to skip the Pinteresty crafts!). By providing a selection of materials and allowing children to do with them as they wish (within limits), we allow them to activate a variety of senses while also practicing creativity, problem-solving, and fine motor skills. Non-toxic glue, child-safe scissors, washable markers or crayons, and an array of miscellaneous materials can quickly turn into childhood magic.
Tip: Yogurt containers, lids, old buttons, bottle caps, cardboard boxes, and other recyclables make great process art materials. Start a “beautiful junk” collection to make art time more affordable and sustainable. (Of course, beware of choking hazards and scissor safety with little ones.)
Last but not least – baking is an incredible, sensory-rich connection activity. Young children love exploring all of the different smells, tastes, and textures of the ingredients. They’re able to observe new smells, tastes, and textures as the ingredients are combined, and again once they’re cooked. They practice body awareness and hand-eye coordination while scooping, pouring, and mixing. Plus, language skills will emerge while you work and chat.
Tip: Be sure to talk through the recipe aloud, communicating ingredients, measurements, and techniques (even if they seem too little to understand!).