10 Dry Messy Play Ideas Children Who are Sensitive to Touch
Messy play is a brilliant opportunity for imaginative or pretend play or just to feel new textures and have lots of fun! The great thing about messy play is that it doesn’t matter how much movement or control our child has in their hands. Any child can access some form of messy play.
If our child dislikes feeling mucky and getting dirty, dry messy play is a great activity for them! We can use utensils, funnels and zip lock bags so your child does not have to touch the substance if they do not want to. Having water, a towel and/or wipes to hand shows our child they can clean their hands as soon as they want or need to.
Below we share a list of our favourite dry messy play items, as well as a little more on the benefits of messy play.
If our child is happy getting messy, they may also want to try some ‘wet messy play‘ ideas!
Messy play allows for hand strengthening and developing hand-eye coordination. It provides a lot of sensory input and is a fun place for learning and developing gross and fine motor skills.
There is a strong cause and effect with messy play so children with limited fine motor skills can still make a big impact. This is great for learning and enjoyment.
Many children with different abilities have trouble with their sense of touch: either feeling too much (hypersensitivity, which can lead to tactile defensiveness) or not feeling enough (hyposensitivity, which leads to sensory seeking 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. 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.
Feeling different textures is also good for stimulating brain development. Physical movements like two handed play and crossing the hands to the other side of the body during play, also helps brain development and body awareness.
Preparation is everything! Choose a place in the home or garden for messy play activities – ideally somewhere easy to clear up. You’ll need a surface to play on: tuff spot trays are brilliant for minimising mess, but you can also use trays or containers you already have in the home, or an easy to wipe playmat or table. You’ll also need water, wipes and a towel available nearby for washing hands. Decide what material you are going to play with in advance: some activities take a little while to put together, and you also might want to consider how to make them extra motivating for your child.
Choose a time to play where you are able to join in. Messy play should be an active experience that the child initiates in some way through imitation. If a child is nervous or unsure they might want to watch someone interact with the materials first, so you need to be prepared to get stuck in! Playing together with your child also means you can watch for ways to enhance or extend their play.
Before play, massage, squeeze or brush your child’s fingers, hands and forearms. This alerts their system and brings awareness to the whole upper limb. A quick finger, hand or wrist stretch can also help them feel and manipulate the messy play substance more effectively, especially if they have tight hands.
The most straight forward play technique is to help your child put their hands in the substance and let them feel around.
If your child is able to hold objects, or with some hand over hand help, use kitchen utensils to play with the substance – using a wooden spoon to stir, a ladle or spoons to scoop or a potato masher to squish. You can use other things from around the home as tools to further develop motor skills, like paintbrushes, rolling pins, biscuit cutters, cutlery, containers, cups or sponges.
You can also put different objects into the substance for the child to play with. This is motivating and helps build fine motor and visual perception skills. Good options include cars, plastic animals or figurines. Try dropping some items inside the substance for your child to find. Start with bigger objects so they hardly have to touch the messy play mixture; as they get more confident, hide or make the items smaller so your child has to get their hands in.
If your child has movement limitations, it could be beneficial to use different parts of the body for messy play. Use their feet in the substance, or put them in the bath and allow them to get covered in the messy play! This extra sensory input will allow them to learn more about their bodies as well as being great fun.
We have ordered these items with those most likely to be tolerated at the top. Work through the list slowly to give the child time to get more comfortable with each texture.
If a child doesn’t want to touch pasta, use buckets and spades or kitchen implements to scoop between different pots.
Dried rice or lentils.
We can dye items different colours to make them more appealing. See our page on dyeing sensory materials.
Little lego pieces.
Such as Cheerios, Rice Crispies or they could even break up Weetabix and get them to make it into powder. Mix different cereals together for different textures.
Flour/sugar/salt/a bowl of breadcrumbs/oats – all for slightly different textures. Brown sugar stacks well and makes great sandcastles.
Cotton balls or pom poms.
Playdough in a plastic bag.
This can be great for those who don’t want their hands too dirty. See our ‘Our Home‘ videos for details of great play dough activities.
Slightly cooked pasta.
You could use glitter or mix with other textures like sand to make the texture different.
Wet or slightly wet sand.
This is a good way to push your child a little further with something more wet. If your child isn’t comfortable, stick to dry play!