Originally Posted February 2015
Ah, Sensory Play, kids LOVE it, but in my experience many parents do not.
Sensory activities are great for toddler and preschool brains because they help build neural pathways in the brain associated with multiple senses to make stronger connections, they build fine motor skills as kids manipulate the medium and the tools, and they are a great vehicle for linguistic development (describing words) as well and socio-emotional development (decision-making)! On top of that, a great invitation to play can keep kids engaged for long periods of time, which is a hallmark of effective learning!
Here are some tips for making the messy stuff fun for you both:
1. Location, Location, Location! Everyone’s different, but I figure anyone can find somewhere they don’t mind a little mess. There’s really something to be said for the bathtub, or the backyard, or kitchen tile. If you want your kid to be able to really let loose, make sure you pick a place with easy cleanup. Drop cloths are great, so are trays, having a clearly defined play space will help you to tell your kids where the mess stops. If you want mess containment to be part of the lesson, that’s fine too, but lead up to it slowly, and take your child’s development of motor skills and self-control into consideration.
2. Join in the fun! To be clear, I’m not suggesting you become your child’s entertainer here, but rather that you enjoy the medium yourself. Draw, paint, sculpt, make a sand castle, or even experiment with slime. If you’re enjoying yourself, you can bet your kid(s) will too, and your modeling of appropriate use of the materials is great for them, too!
3. Create a YES space. If your child is in the same testing phase as mine, starting out with a list of don’ts might not be the safest idea as it can pretty much guarantee you’ve just given them an arsenal of buttons to push. Even with kids who are not currently experimenting with testing, it can be quite deflating to start out with lots of no’s. I recommend creating a YES space, giving them ideas of what they CAN do with the medium, and setting a general expectation of where this play CAN happen (see #1).
4. Boundaries. When something unacceptable does happen, try to address it firmly and calmly on a case-by-case basis. It’s helpful for me to think about what might go awry ahead of time and think of a few key phrases I can use so that I stay calm in the moment (you know, that moment when you’ve suddenly got oobleck in your nose and an elbow in your left rib!). “I won’t let you throw the sand. It could get in our eyes.” “I can see you’re having trouble keeping the slime in the bin, I’m going to put it away for a little while, we’ll play again later.”
Whatever limits you set verbally, make sure to follow-through, this will make future play much more fun for the both of you! For more on YES spaces and setting boundaries, I highly recommend Janet Lansbury’s blog, Elevating Child Care!
Lastly, remember that playing in dirt, exploring nature, cleaning, cooking, and even bathing are terrific sensory experiences. Everyday items provide great sensory experiences, you don’t have to buy a lot of fancy stuff, it’s all around us all the time. For instance, try putting some shaving cream on the table the next time you want your kid to help clean up!