Messy play activities for disabled children with behavioural and/or sensory difficulties including those with Autism, ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder
We call these children our Leaping Leopards.
This page gives messy play ideas for our Leaping Leopards who may have difficulties with touch.
Messy play is a lot of fun but is also great for your child’s development.
Feeling different textures is good for stimulating brain development as well as helping children get used to different sensations.
The part of the brain which feels what is happening in the fingers and what happens in the mouth are close to each other in the brain, so if a child gets used to a texture with their hands it is going to make it easier to tolerate this in their mouth. Therefore, messy play can be used to try to help any child who doesn’t like to eat different textures.
There is a strong cause and effect with messy play so children can make a big impact with little effort which is great for learning and motivation.
Messy play also allows for hand strengthening, fine motor development and hand/ eye coordination work (see appropriate links below for more details).
Many children with different abilities have trouble with different textures – either feeling too much (hypersensitivity which can lead to tactile defensiveness) or not feeling enough – (leading to sensory seeking behaviours which can include self harm or inappropriate or unhelpful behaviours).
Messy play is a controlled way to encourage tactile sensitive children to get used to different sensations. This can allow them to tolerate more of their everyday textures.
For those with reduced sensation, messy play is a lovely way to give them a lot of sensory input so can be a great place for learning and developing gross and fine motor skills.
If your child is less good with different textures it is likely that dry messy play is easier to tolerate than wet messy play.
It is important if your child isn’t keen on different textures not to force them to put their hands in the substance. Try to coax them to use implements instead until they feel confident enough to use their hands.
ALWAYS have wipes, a bowl of water or a towel available so they can clean their hands as soon as they want or need to.
If your child seeks tactile sensory input, try to mix sensations to give them a large sensory input – for example adding rice to yogurt or putting marbles in their playdough.
Messy play is a brilliant opportunity for imaginative or pretend play. Making food out of playdough for a dolls tea party, going shopping for items hidden in the messy substance or giving baby a bath in some coloured yogurt can entertain your child for hours.
2 handed play is good for brain development, as is crossing the middle of the body with your child’s hands so try and incorporate these if possible.
The most straight forward way to play is just to help your child put their hands in the substance and help them feel around.
You can prepare your child by waking up their hands and making them less sensitive. Do this by massaging or squeezing their finger tips, hands and lower arms so that they get the most out of the activity.
Use kitchen utensils to play with the substance – using a wooden spoon to stir, a ladle or spoons to scoop some into a different container or a potato masher to squish the substance.
You can also put different objects into the substance – things they need to find or things to play with e.g. cars or plastic animals/ dinosaurs/ figurines. This will also help them with fine motor and visual perception skills.
Try dropping some items inside the substance and see if they can find them – start with bigger objects so they hardly have to touch the messy play mixture and then get smaller and smaller so they have to get their hands in it and manipulate the substance to find the object.
Take the opportunity to work their finger skills by asking them to manipulate the smaller objects, draw pictures with their fingers in the substance, or build or mould where possible to make the most of these activities.
This list below starts with dry messy play and gradually becomes more wet and more messy. If your child is not keen on different textures, start high up the list and slowly make your way down the list as they get happier with each one.
Dried pasta. If they still don’t want to touch this, use buckets and spades or kitchen implements to scoop between different containers.
Dried rice or lentils
Dried cereal such as Cherrios, Rice Crispies or they could even break up Weetabix and get them to make it into powder.
Dried flour/ sugar or salt or a bowl of breadcrumbs – all for slightly different textures. Brown sugar stacks well and makes great sandcastles.
Slightly cooked pasta
Slightly wet sand
Play-dough, salt dough (salt, flour, water and oil), cloud dough (flour and oil), oobleck (corn-starch and oil) for slightly different textures, (baking soda and conditioner) fake snow.
Scented play-dough or play-dough in a plastic bag can be great for those who don’t want their hands too dirty. See our ‘Our Home’ videos for details of both of these, and some other great play dough activities.
13. Cooked pasta – as above. Could use glitter or mix with other textures like sand to make the texture different.
14. Introduce wet messy play by putting shaving foam or water in a water tight zip bag for your child to manipulate. You could add some other toys into the bag which they need to identify or move around the bag to help get them used to the sensations.
15. Whipped cream for young children who may mouth/ eat it.
16. Shaving foam on a window/ mirror. You can also do this on the wall in the bath. Slap your hand against the window to make mini mountains. Make a track for cars to drive around, make drawings or write messages.
17. Yogurt and even yogurt with pieces in it. Die the yogurt and then it can be used as paint.
17. Edible paint – (flour, salt, water and food colouring)
18. Baked beans – use the beans to draw pictures. Use a spoon to pick them up if getting hands in it is too hard.
19. Bubbles – make bubble mixture from non-toxic soap and water or washing up liquid and water. Using bubbles to help eye hand coordination if great fun for your child as well as being beneficial (see hand/ eye coordination page). You can also cut out the bottom of a water bottle, put a sock on the end and dip it in bubbles. Blow the end to make thousands of bubbles.
20. Add objects such as sand or wet Rice Crispies into your wet messy play for children who struggle with lumpy soft food.
21. Playing with ice can be an extreme sensory experience. Put some ice cubes in a bowl and, on a hot day, watch them melt in the sun. You can add die to the water before freezing them to make it more interesting. Let your child handle the ice as much as they feel comfortable to. They can use a spoon to handle the ice if it is too much for them. Put some small toys in the bowl and watch them start to swim as the bowl contents turns from ice cubes to water.
22. Use food colouring in water and freeze to make ice pens!
23. Use frozen veg in a sensory bin.
24. Use ice cream for extra delicious messy play.
This link gives a wide variety of ‘how’to dye’ ideas including oats, chickpeas, epsom salts, barley, dried beans, dried hay, corn kernals, dried pasta, rice noodles, cloud dough, puffed wheat cereal, wet spaghetti, rice, salt, shredded coconut, sand, shredded paper, water beads, baking soda, egg shells.
Here are 40 recipes for making all kinds of messy play – from slime, dough and oobleck to shaving cream, edible recipes and ones you want to keep for outside.
Try making the messy play with your child as this will introduce much of its own sensory inputs and fine motor skills.
Here are a selection of suitable Our Home videos for Leaping Leopards
Silly Socks and a bit of Boccia
Lucy Lost-it has created some fun easy to set up games. All you need are some socks!
Stealthy Ways for Handwashing
This video contains tips on how to ‘stealth handwash’ whilst still having fun with various kitchen or household props. And also how to pimp up our liquid pumps to make it more fun for children.
This video is suitable for mobile children. You can create the laser string quest anywhere in your home and make it as big or small or as easy as you like!
The scavenger hunt is really simple and easy to set up. It can be adapted to suit any disability and household.