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Why Sensory and Messy Play are Essential for Building Healthy Brains

Children love to play. Play is the medium through which they discover the world and explore their physical and mental capabilities. Your child has a lot to gain whilst making a mess with finger painting or jumping around in the playground.

In today’s post, we’re focusing on sensory and messy play. We will not only discuss the benefits but also give you a few ideas on simple sensory activities that you can do at home with your child. 

What is sensory play and why is it so beneficial?

Sensory play is the type of play that engages one or more of the child’s senses. The terms sensory and messy play are used interchangeably because they’re pretty much the same thing. 

When a child uses their senses during play, they begin to make sense of their surroundings and their bodies. They discover new smells, colours, textures and become more comfortable with the world around them. The more senses are engaged during play, the better. And which senses would that be? You’re probably thinking of taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing. But, sensory play often requires (and improves) balance, body awareness, and spatial awareness too. 

Each time a child engages in sensory play, their corresponding nerve connections grow a bit stronger, and their brain develops its sensory processing capabilities. Since the senses develop optimally until early childhood, play is all the more important for toddlers and young children. 

Sensory play does a lot more than improving the brain’s ability to perceive and respond to sensory information. It additionally promotes brain development, enhances several skills and has a calming effect. 

Let’s see the benefits of sensory play in more detail

  1. Communication and language skills. You don’t play in silence, right? As you encourage your toddler to describe their experience or what they want to do next, they find ways to communicate through non-verbal cues, like pointing. Young children also expand their vocabulary with sensory concepts, descriptive adjectives and so much more. 
  2. Cognitive skills. Learning using multiple senses not only facilitates understanding but also improves knowledge retention by engaging the whole brain. 
  3. Fine and gross motor skills. As children explore and manipulate objects through touch, they learn to control their muscles and coordinate their moves. This helps with activities like writing and drawing. Children also become more independent as they can perform small tasks, like tying their shoelaces, on their own. By jumping and moving around, they also learn to control larger muscle groups, which are essential both for everyday functions, such as climbing out of bed or sitting upright at the table, and for engaging in sports.
  4. Socialising. When children play together, they begin to form relationships and explore the mechanics of them. They learn how to share, take turns, cooperate or even negotiate with others. 
  5. Soothing. Apart from enhancing all these skills, therapeutic sensory play reduces anxiety and other negative emotions children often experience but can’t regulate on their own by helping to reduce the stress hormone, cortisol, through engaging the body and senses physically in play.

Sensory play ideas

Even simple activities like dancing, smelling flowers, or mimicking animal sounds count as sensory play. Of course, the messier you get, the more your child will enjoy it. If you’re worried about cleaning up later, use waterproof covering sheets to protect your play space. To make cleaning even easier, choose washable markers and watercolours, or do messy play in the bath or outside! 

Here are some fun sensory play ideas to consider:

Playdough. Help your child develop their fine motor skills and unfold their imagination and creativity with this popular play activity. Playdough is also a fantastic way to introduce your child to the alphabet and the numbers, as well as simple shapes and colours. As an alternative to playdough, you can use kinetic sand or, why not, edible, home-made cookie dough to explore touch, smell, and taste at the same time.  

Sensory bottles. Does your child feel restless or anxious? Fill a bottle with warm water, add some colourful glitter, food colouring or dish soap, and watch your child get drifted away by the beauty of colours and movement. 

Bath time can be playtime. Prepare a warm bath and use a rich bath cream to create bubbles. Toddlers and young children alike love popping bubbles or blowing them away (ok, us adults love it too). Don’t forget to bring along small bottles they can fill with water and sponges they can squeeze. You can also use different calming scents, like lavender or chamomile, to start exploring different smells and help them relax. 

Treasure box. Fill a box with crinkle paper and hide inside a few candies, little balls of different colours, etc. Encourage your child to dig in to discover the goodies while enjoying the different textures. Turn this into a guessing game by using fruit-scented candles or soap.

Frozen paint cubes. Your regular ice cubes with a bit of food colouring! This might create a bit of a mess, so it’s best to do it outside. Once the cubes start to melt, your little artist can create their own abstract painting. Try to use colours that mix into a new one, like blue and yellow for green or red and blue for purple.  

Beach scavenger hunt. Time for a little adventure. What could a child possibly notice around the beach? Umbrellas, seashells, flip flops, birds, and so on. Draw them out for them or print a ready-made list and join them for a scavenger hunt that will develop their observational skills and spark their curiosity.

With a little imagination, you will find plenty of opportunities for sensory play around the house. Given the great contribution of sensory play to healthy brain wiring and nervous system regulation, use every chance you get to create a mess with your child!