Messy play is a great activity for any child who is sensory-seeking. You can be so creative, link it to other lessons or topics and also use it as an emergency activity if everyone is getting a bit over- or under-stimulated. Messy play also supports brain function and can build on motor skills - so here are 30 great activities you can use in your classroom or home today!
Benefits of Messy Play
Messy play is not just for fun - it is also super beneficial for development! Experiencing and sensing different textures is great for stimulating brain development. The area of the brain responsible for detecting what our fingers and hands are sensing in terms of texture is close to the part of the brain that does this for sensations in the mouth. Therefore, if a child is exposed to more textures via their fingers, this could make it easier for them to tolerate different textures in their mouth. For autistic children, this could open a world of possibilities as some children can really struggle with foods and have a very restricted diet due to texture.
Difficulties in sensory processing is a key trait of autism, and children can be hypersensitive (which can lead to tactile defensiveness) or hyposensitive, where they don't feel things as much. Messy play offers a controlled way of introducing various different textures and allow children to explore them in a safe, controlled manner. This can then help them tolerate different textures in every day life.
For children who are sensory-seeking, messy play is incredibly rewarding! Children who enjoy various textures and different sensations may feel the need to suppress that desire throughout the day, but during messy play, they have free reign to explore whatever they want!
Finally, messy play can help build hand-eye coordination, fine & gross motor skills and develop hand strength. Depending on the activity, you can focus in on one or more of these physical development areas, but pretty much any activity will allow children to explore sensations with their hands and feet which can build muscle tone and improve coordination.
Introducing Messy Play
While some autistic children actively seek tactile inputs and LOVE getting messy, others are sensitive to touch and unusual textures, and might be a bit hesitant about messy play. If this is the case, we can model what the activity involves and describe the sensations in front of the child before they decide if they want to experience it themselves as well. You should always keep wipes, tissues or towels on hand in case a child wants to clean themselves straight away after experiencing a new texture.
We obviously want to encourage children to explore new sensations, we should never force them into an activity they feel distressed about. The activities in this article won't be for everyone, but there are always alternatives for children who prefer 'cleaner' activities.
Remember that many sensory-seeking children are drawn to putting things into their mouths, and as such we should make sure that the objects we give them to play with are non-toxic and safe. Many food items also provide great messy play opportunities and all the activities below that require a recipe are safe to ingest.
30 Amazing Messy Play Ideas
Messy Play with Dough
Ice Cream Dough - Playdough that looks, feels, smells, and acts like real ice cream!
Rainbow Scented Cloud Dough - soft, aromatic sensory dough
Play dough - a childhood favourite that is easy to make!
Fizzy Cloud Dough - interactive dough that fizzes before your eyes.
Messy Play with Slime
Messy Play with Paint
Balloon painting - think water balloons plus paint
Ice paint - a great one for toddlers (and slightly cleaner)
Rubber Band Painting - a great one for fine motor skill
Mud paint - great for forest school!
Messy Play with Shaving Cream
Shaving cream or foam soap always goes down well in SEN classrooms - so stock up on this!
Messy Play Outdoors
Dry Messy Play
These are great messy play activities for children who don't like getting messy!
Sensory bin - you could fill this with anything dry (paper, ribbons, rice etc)
Edible Messy Play
Some of the best foods you can use during messy play are: rice, raw chickpeas, jelly, cornflour, flour, cheerios, cornflakes, pasta and whipped cream. Be mindful of any allergies!