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Updated Parent Guide: Understanding Sensory Play

Sensory play (also known as messy play) is a term you might have heard often in nurseries but why do we seem to love it so much?

What is it all about?

Doesn’t it just mean your little one ends up looking like a Persil advert? (The answer is yes by the way).

In this guide, we’ll explore what sensory play is, its benefits, activity ideas and more.

Let’s dive straight in!

What is sensory play?

Sensory play is all about unstructured activities that encourage children to use all of their senses to explore.

These activities primarily focus on the sense of touch, sometimes adding in an aspect of the others such as smell or taste.

They give your little one the opportunity to freely manipulate materials without an end goal – e.g. playing with a tray of mud or sand.

The idea is to stimulate your child’s natural curiosity and make the learning process a more enjoyable one.

What are the benefits of sensory play?

Sensory activities are key in your little one’s healthy development!

This is because sensory play:

  • Helps children associate learning with fun.

  • Encourages creativity.

  • Introduces children to subjects like math – for instance looking at shape, size, counting and timing pouring.

  • Develops children’s language and communication skills naturally by asking and chatting about the activity.

  • Develops problem-solving and concentration skills.

  • Promotes fine motor skills like hand-eye coordination – essential later on when learning to hold pencils properly.

  • Encourages children to be independent by giving children the freedom to explore and play in their own way. This also helps little ones to make their own decisions and take responsibility.

Is my little one too old for messy play?

We encourage you to introduce sensory play as soon as possible!

Early Years experts suggest that more messy play can result in increased concentration, confidence and more.

They further suggest that sensory play is particularly important when children are between 2 – 5 years old. This is because at this stage they are developing a sense of autonomy and initiative.

But really, your little one should take part in messy play as long as they enjoy it and it helps them make progress.

What kind of activities can we do at home?

Sensory play can be just about anything! Here are a few ideas:

  • Water play

Mix a tray of water with natural materials like flowers and leaves or things you have laying around the house like small containers, rice etc.

  • Tray play

Similarly to the tray above you can mix a range of items like rice or another grain with natural resources or things around the home! We love making these themed, for example, flowers and leaves are perfect for springtime.

  • Bath time play

Bath time can be super fun with the addition of sponges, containers or toys.

  • Make your own playdough

This is one of our favourites. Cheap, eco-friendly and fun for days! Mix flour, water, salt and oil (you can also add food colouring and/or essential oils) and it's ready!

  • Get outdoors

The natural world is a playground for the senses. Your little one can jump in some puddles, collect leaves or play with the grass. The possibilities are endless.

  • Dig in your food cupboards

Rice, pasta, mashed potatoes, jelly, and baked beans all provide an amazing sensory experience (please be careful of allergies and choking hazards).

Any tips to keep things clean?

You may dread the aftermath of messy play but it’s important to remember mess makes memories that you and your little one will cherish forever.

Still, there are some things you can do to ensure the mess is contained:

  • Cover floors with old bed sheets or towels,

  • Have your little one wear spare clothes or an apron,

  • Move furniture away or head outdoors,

  • Keep play sessions contained within a small area.

Additional Resources


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