16 - 18 Months

The case for messy sensory play: ideas for right now

Young child mixing shaving cream and blue food coloring on a paper plate

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. In either case, 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:

Fun with shaving cream or whipped cream

Shaving cream or whipped cream in a shallow dish is a 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.

Homemade finger paint

Two young children holding up their hands that have paint on them

Fingerpainting is a classic sensory play activity. At this age, remember to protect your toddler’s clothes with a smock or old clothes—or by simply taking 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 
  • 1½ 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.

Moon sand

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 moldable sand-like texture, allowing you to scoop, pour, and mold it into fun shapes. This activity is fun children 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

Toddler sitting outside with a container of seeds with puzzle pieces hidden in them
In photo: Circle of Friends Puzzle from The Babbler Play Kit

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 friendsFriends 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.

Animal washing station with dirt

Toddler playing outside with a container of dirt with animal figurines and they're cleaning them off
In photo: Montessori Animal Match from The Companion Play Kit

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 your toddler really has 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.


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Posted in: 16 - 18 Months, Real World Play, Sensory Play, Crafts, Playtime and Activities, Child Development

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