28 - 30 Months

4 fun sensory activities that build neural pathways

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We often associate sensory play with babies and toddlers, who are just learning to explore the world around them. This type of play is also beneficial (and really fun) for older children—two-year-olds in particular tend to love it.

Sensory activities engage the body and mind in a way that builds critical neural pathways: children do something, and the environment around them reacts, forming new connections and associations. We all need feedback to grow and thrive, and this is particularly true of young children.

The following activities are best done outdoors, but several can be adapted for indoor play. Everyone has their own tolerance for messiness, so feel free to use goggles, aprons, and gloves if something seems like too much to manage.

4 TYPES OF SENSORY PLAY, GAMES, AND ACTIVITIES FOR TODDLERS

Painting with your feet

Sometimes we think of sensory play as something you do with your hands, but getting other parts of your child’s body involved is a fun way for them to gain proprioception skills. Proprioception is the perception or awareness of the body’s position and movement. Between 22 and 30 months, children can often jump in place with both feet, stand on their tiptoes, and leap a distance of 8 to 14 inches—all of which are gross motor skills this activity promotes.

Here’s one way to do it:

  • Lay out a long piece of paper (or smaller ones taped together) flat on the ground, and tape the ends down or weight them down with heavy objects, like bricks or rocks.
  • Dot the paper with washable paint like Tempera, or any fingerpaints. Use a variety of colors, but don’t use too much paint—small dollops, spaced a few inches apart, should do the trick.
  • Invite your child to paint! If they need a little encouragement to use their feet, invite your child to try a finger first. They can explore how the paint moves and feels with a finger before trying their feet.
  • Chances are they’ll love painting with their feet and won’t need any encouragement or direction. If they do want ideas, you can suggest the following: press feet firmly into the paint, slide feet back and forth, hop from one spot to another, and make different shapes (like a circle) with toes.

Messiness rating: 🧼🧼🧼

Materials list

  • Must-haves: washable paint, paper
  • Extras: long paper (like butcher paper)

Ice play

Now that your child is two, there’s even more they can do with ice. Simple toddler activities like transferring cubes from one container to another are still fun and engaging, and a more complex collection of ice activities are also possible now. Silicone ice cube trays make perfect cubes in various sizes and might be fun to try. Consider adding a drop or two of food coloring to your next batch of ice cubes.

  • Ice cube and salt towers. At 31 months, many children can start building block towers in more complex ways, including making a bridge with three blocks and a tower with eight. As a fun twist, try it with ice cubes on a tray—their cold, slippery properties make them difficult to balance, but dipping an ice cube in salt (then waiting a few moments) before adding it to the tower helps it all stick together. 

You can also lay a piece of string on top of an ice cube, sprinkle it with salt, and wait. A few moments later, when your child picks up the string, the ice may remain attached—which can form a suspension bridge. *Note: this last part takes patience and is tricky 🙃

Messiness rating: 🧼

  • Dinosaur excavation. Between 24 and 30 months, your child may be able to hold a spoon between their thumb and index or middle fingers, with their palm up, like adults do. They can also hold a toothbrush and start brushing their teeth. These new fine motor skills are great for a dinosaur excavation: freeze small dinosaurs (and any small animal figurines) in ice—you may need larger trays than usual—and give your child a collection of tools: toothbrushes, scrubbers, bristle brushes, spray bottles filled with water, and chopsticks. It takes a while to free the animals, and you may need to help them in the beginning. 

Messiness rating: 🧼

  • Painting with frozen paint. You can freeze washable paint (add a little water as well). A popsicle stick or toothpick for the perfect paintbrush. To get the “handles” to stay put, you can either wait until the paint is partially frozen, or cover the tray with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and poke the sticks through. Once they’re frozen, let them melt for a few minutes (this makes them easier to paint with) and give your child a large piece of paper and let them paint. They’ll enjoy how the texture changes and the colors mix as the paint cubes begin to melt. 

Messiness rating: 🧼🧼🧼

Materials list

  • Must-haves: ice cube tray, salt, small toys that can be frozen, some kind of scrubber, washable paint, popsicle sticks
  • Extras: food coloring, string, toothbrushes and other scrubbers, spray bottle, foil or plastic wrap

Shaving cream play

Shaving cream is inexpensive and so fun to squish through your fingers, which is why it’s a favorite sensory play ingredient. Here are a few ways to get the most out of a can:

  • On a hot day, give your child a can of shaving cream and a hose with the water set to mist or fine spray, and let them play. They can be naked or in a swimsuit, and this is best done on a hard surface (a driveway, sidewalk, brick, or stone). 

Messiness rating: 🧼🧼🧼

  • DIY puffy paint* is not exactly paint, but it’s a fun way to make art, and can be done as messily as your child is comfortable with. Choose a few different colors, and for each, you’ll need ½ cup of shaving cream (the foaming kind), ¼ cup of glue, 10-15 drops of food coloring (or a spoonful of paint), and some plastic bags. Combine everything except the coloring or paint in a bowl and mix until just combined; separate into a few different containers before adding color.

Add in the color, mix, and pour some into a plastic bag; cut the end off, and use it like you’d use a pastry or grout bag—this is now your spout. You can “paint” on paper, cardboard, or any surface. You can also use a brush or a shirt bottle instead of a plastic bag.

Messiness rating: 🧼

  • Host a shaving cream car wash**. You can do this simply with just toy cars, shaving cream, and some brushes, but you can also take it up a notch with a few added ingredients: a plastic bottle, an old sponge, and some scissors. Take the bottle (milk jugs work best) and cut the bottom half off, cut an opening in one of the sides, and add some masking tape to protect little fingers. Flip it upside down, then cut your sponge into strips and tape them to the opening so they hang down. 

Put your cash wash station into a large container with the toy cars, some shaving cream, and a few toothbrushes, and let your child play. 

Messiness rating: 🧼🧼

Materials list

  • Must-haves: shaving cream (the foaming kind), glue, food coloring or paint, plastic bags, toy cars, scrubbing brush
  • Extras: milk carton or other plastic bottle, sponge, masking tape

Mud play

Playing with mud is timeless, and it turns out that it’s also good for your brain. Studies have shown that a bacterium found in mud known as Mycobacterium vaccae is good for the immune system and promotes the release of serotonin, the feel-good hormone. 

A child playing with mud is learning how much messiness they can tolerate, the properties of mud and how it behaves, and how to test out an idea they have: what if I squish my fingers through the mud? Specific texture words like slimy and gooey are great for building vocabulary, and mud is a perfect ingredient for their budding symbolic play. Mud engages not only their sense of touch, but also their sight (is my cup full?), smell (what makes mud smell the way it does?), and sound (why does it make a funny sound when I dump it onto the ground?)… but hopefully not taste 🙃.

Here are a few ways to encourage mud play with your two-year-old:

  • If you’re up for a DIY project, you can make your own mud kitchen with wood, a saw, and some nails—but it can also be simpler than that. If you have an old play kitchen, some empty flower beds, or even a spot in the yard, you can create a mud kitchen for your two-year-old. All you’ll need is some old kitchen utensils (muffin tins, pots and pans, ladles, spoons), and of course, some mud. You can use existing dirt or buy soil from a nursery, and moisten it enough so it clumps but not so much that it drips. 
  • Mud sculptures are a great opportunity to get creative—make sure the mud is wet enough to pack. If you have beach toys, you can bring them out to create castles, homes, and roadways. Add stones, twigs, leaves, acorns, and other things you can find outside.
  • You and your child can make your own model adobe structures with just an ice cube tray and some dirt, grass, sand, and water. Mix the dirt and water together to create a fairly wet mud, add some grass and a little bit of sand, then pack them into the ice cube tray. Let the “bricks” dry for a few days, pop them out, and soon you’ll have bricks to build with. When building, you can use some wet mud as mortar to hold your structure together.

Messiness rating: 🧼🧼🧼🧼

Materials list

  • Must-haves: mud, old kitchen utensils, ice cube tray, grass, sand
  • Extras: carpentry tools and wood, nature items like stones, twigs, leaves, and acorns

*Thanks to Artful Parent for the fun idea.
**Thanks for Paging Fun Mums for the shaving cream car wash.
Check out Hands On As We Grow for a way to build a mud kitchen.

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Posted in: 28 - 30 Months, Sensory Play, Playtime & Activities, Playtime & Activities, Child Development

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