If the thought of messy sensory activities makes you shudder – you may find hope for trying out this type of fun with the following tips written by a mom of two busy and MESSY little ones. Also included are three easy clean-up and easy set-up sensory activities for toddlers and preschoolers. Read on and get ready to get (less) messy.
Be Honest With Yourself About the Mess Level You Can Handle
Before you even pull out messy items, it helps to be clear about what you can tolerate and what will send you over the edge. It’s totally okay to have limits about things no matter how fun they might be for your kids. It won’t be fun if it turns you into a giant grouch.
Your ability to handle mess may fluctuate as well. Sometimes it’s a bright sunny day and you can easily handle a mess on the back patio. Other times, you get horrible sleep and just don’t have the patience for any mess. Assess where you are, and save the more comfort-zone-pushing play for the days when you’ve got a bit more energy for it. There are plenty of captivating sensory toys and activities that don’t cause a big mess.
Keeping Sensory Play Clean Starts With a Good Set Up
- Get out only a limited amount of supplies at a time – if you limit yourself to one or two messy items, it’s less likely to become overwhelming at clean-up time.
- You might find a piece of furniture like a hutch or sideboard to store your sensory items all together. The large shallow under-the-bed storage bins work well as a container for holding in sensory play, and you can slide them under the bed. You can try putting a smaller container within the larger one to keep the mess at bay when the kids are playing.
- Always set up messy sensory play where it’s easy to vacuum, mop or wash down.
- Using the kitchen, bathroom or garden is perfect as clean up can be done quickly afterwards – a kitchen sink will fit a young toddler in to be washed down – the shower and bath is perfect and there is no better way to clean up in the garden than with a paddling pool or hose fight which even the youngest toddlers love
- Use a messy mat – or vinyl tablecloth, or vinyl shower curtain underneath the tray or bin. That way the majority of the mess will be contained within this area – then you can swoop up corners of the mat to dump out the rest of the mess at clean-up time.
- Similarly, use a blanket or tablecloth underneath toys with many small pieces that get dumped out such as Legos or blocks.
- Strip down to nappies or underpants for toddlers and older children – cloud dough is very difficult to get out of clothes once it becomes embedded, as is homemade puffy paint.
Clean-Up Tips for Sensory Play:
- A lint roller can help pick up bits of sand or glitter that seem impossible otherwise.
- Try to make cleaning up part of the normal sensory play process. Getting a little broom or other cleaning tools for your child can help enroll them into cleaning up.
- We like to designate certain toys for the sensory bins – that way, you don’t have to worry about cleaning them off each time. They can live their gritty life stashed away inside of the sensory bin.
Three Easy to Clean “Messy” Sensory Activities:
- Finger painting in the bath is an easy way to contain the mess and clean up quickly afterward. Even without finger paints, sometimes taking a bath is just the sensory activity to calm a restless kid. They’ve already had a bath you say? Is it worth some peace to have a second one? It just might be.
- If you have a plastic highchair tray, a toddler can decorate their tray with washable markers which can then be easily wiped away – they may even enjoy the wiping up as a whole new activity. Older kids might get a kick out of using dry erase markers to write on a window and then wipe off.
- Put out muffin tins, spoons, and plastic containers along with a bit of warm water. Set out a large towel in the kitchen to give a nice absorbent place for water play. Here is one way we have frequently set up water play, allowing for the exploration of colors too.
When you know you need low mess ideas, you might try some of these independent play ideas for toddlers that involve less cleanup.
Why Is it Worth It to Push Past the Fear of Mess?
Young children are eager learners, but due to their limited language abilities, they primarily learn from hands-on experiences. Of course, we know they explore by putting things into their mouth. But they also love feeling interesting textures, smelling different scents, hearing rhythmic/rhyming music and words, seeing/observing everything around them, and moving/interacting in their fascinating world. Sensory activities give kids a chance to explore their world, boosting their developing sensory system and their ability to self-regulate.
Not only is sensory play good for kids’ development, as a parent, sensory play can be a sanity saver. Little kids are often full of energy and sensory play can help soak up some of that constant activity. Yes, some sensory activities are messy, but they’re super engaging, often taking a crabby toddler and turning them into a curious and cooperative kid.
Want More Ideas? Try One of These Fun Sensory Activities:
Alissa Zorn is an author, and founder of the website Overthought This. She's a coach and cartoonist passionate about helping people overcome perfectionism and shame to build authentic, joyful lives. Alissa is certified through the International Coach Federation and got her Trauma-Informed Coaching certification from Moving the Human Spirit. She wrote Bounceback Parenting: A Field Guide for Creating Connection, Not Perfection, and is always following curiosity to find her next creative endeavor.