When a child puts their hand in paint, a set of nerve cells in the brain captures information about how the paint looks as it smears. A separate set of neurons codes how the paint feels squishing between their fingers. The sound of the squishing paint and paper crinkling as a toddler’s hand moves around is “recorded” by yet another set of neurons.
Up until about 8 months, babies experience sensory input one sense at a time. As your baby gets older, their brain will start to link input from the five senses—touch, sound, sight, smell, and taste. In order for any of those individual senses to give them meaningful information about the world, they need to be linked in the brain—and this is the case for getting messy.
Some of us adults need a few deep breaths to be okay with a mess, and some of us think sensory play is the best thing ever. Toddlers are the same way. Either way, your toddler benefits immensely from trying it.
Some things to note:
If your child resists getting their hands messy, offer them an implement like a popsicle stick to use at first to help them get comfortable.
If they refuse to get involved in messy play, touch the paint (or shaving cream, sand, dry pasta, etc) yourself to show them how much fun it is. Describe what you are doing.
Even if they don’t need convincing, play with your toddler. This will help sustain their interest.
Have a wet towel ready to help your toddler wash the mess from their fingers if it gets to be too much.
Try not to clean up while they’re playing, which can send the message that getting messy isn’t okay with you. Being messy is part of the fun and freedom of sensory play.
Let your child be the boss of their work. They may make a single mark and be done—that’s okay.
Let them self-feed and use their hands. Your toddler may be more tolerant of their hands and face getting messy if there is food involved.
Your toddler can have successful messy experiences with a variety of materials. Consider starting with dry pasta, seeds, water, or ice, then moving up to more textured substances like play dough, corn meal, wet sand, or kinetic sand. When they’re ready, your toddler can try shaving cream, paint, or oobleck.
More sensory play ideas:
Homemade finger paint
Fingerpainting is a classic sensory play activity. At this age, remember to protect your toddler’s clothes with a smock or old clothes—or simply take them off. Taping down the edges of the paper helps keep it in place.
Here is a recipe for homemade finger paint:
- 1 cup of flour
- ½ cup salt
- ¾ cup water
- Food coloring
- Mix together thoroughly
- After your toddler becomes used to smooth paint, you can expose her to different textures by mixing in coffee grounds or rice.
You can reuse your toddler’s art for wrapping paper, or fold it into greeting cards.
To make “moon sand,” you’ll need one cup of oil. You can use anything from baby oil—which has the softest consistency—to edible oils like canola or (liquid) coconut. Combine it with 8 cups of flour (if you want to make less, remember the 8:1 ratio; for half the amount, for example, use 4 cups of flour and ½ cup oil).
You need to mix it well—this will take time, but it’s worth it! When you’re done, you’ll have a sand-like texture that also allows you to mold it into fun shapes like making a snowman with balls. You can scoop and pour it as well. This activity is fun with kids of all ages. When you’re done, store the sand in an airtight container to play with again in the future—gallon-sized zipper bags work great.
Rice or birdseed in a bin
This is a fun outdoor activity that will also make the neighborhood birds happy. Lay out a blanket on the grass, fill a bin with birdseed, then take a puzzle (Circle of friends, Friends of all Shapes, or Community Garden) and hide the pieces in the birdseed. Leave a corner or two peeking out to make it easier at first.
Let your toddler find the pieces and complete the puzzle in a whole new way. They’ll love the treasure hunt before doing their puzzle, and they’ll feel successful multiple times. Once you’re all done, fold up the blanket and pour the seed back into your bin to use later.
Fun with shaving cream or whipped cream
Shaving cream or whipped cream in a shallow dish is fun sensory project. If your toddler loves getting messy, this can be very satisfying. However, some kids want to experience everything sensory play offers without getting messy. You can offer a popsicle stick and add a little food coloring and watch them create color combinations and shades of colors.
Animal washing station with dirt
Fill up a bin with dirt (the wetter the dirt the “messier” it will be) and another with water. Put some small animal figurines in the dirt and rub them around. Hide some of the animals under the dirt so they really have to dig for them! Then encourage your child to find the messy animals and clean them in the water with paint brushes or other brushes.