I like cleaning up messes – said no mom ever, most especially me. But, making a mess is important to children’s brain development. It is not making the mess, really, but playing with the different textures, scents, and sounds that makes those important neural connections. But it often does makes a mess. We can be prepared for the mess, we can even contain the mess. But we should not fear the mess.
How many senses do we engage with the toys in our little one’s toy boxes? We cannot do much with smells, with hot and cold, with sticky, and with wet, within the toy box. Unless something weird is in there. Ewww.
To get those little neurons firing, creating new pathways that will serve them for the rest of their lives, we need to engage as many of their senses as possible while they play. Toddlers need both new experiences and the repetition of experiences for brain development.
It is a toddler trait to do something new over and over until conquered – climbing up the slide the wrong way is Rainbow Baby’s current favorite activity to repeat dozens of times. If they want to keep doing a particular activity, let them. But what they cannot do is to create a new experience for themselves. This is one of our responsibilities as caregivers.
These experiences can be as simple as outdoor walks. When I go for a run with the jogging stroller, I tell Baby what we are going to look for on our run: ducks, flowers, trees, turtles, dogs, rocks, or even stop signs. It gives us something to talk about together along the way and a new word to work on. All of my dolls have been very verbal and chatting with them about everything we are doing throughout the day has helped build a vocabulary to match their chattiness. We smell and touch what we can. We listen for airplanes, animals, and the wind. Occasionally we even get to taste something!
The beach is a giant sand box and a perfect place for sensory exploration. So are other natural outdoor surfaces: grass, dirt, clay, fallen leaves. Barefoot is best for new walkers. Let their little tootsies feel the earth beneath when appropriate.
When I was little I regularly baked gourmet mudpies. They were finely decorated with pretty leaves and flowers and presented fashionably on bark or shell plates. I took a great deal of pride in my work and I presented my mother and baby sister with bakery selections sure to please any mud connesseueir. I may have had my fair share of worms. But that mud play was of great value in connecting my hands with my brain. We can offer similar experiences in sandboxes, water play tables, in trays and in our yards. Nature Play QLD lists the many benefits of playing in mud itself.
Baby and I made this “hot chocolate” cloud dough from Sugar, Spice & Glitter the other day (similar to moon sand). We used a couple of hot chocolate packets that were getting old, to scent this chocolatey dough. It is great for playing with sand or candy molds. As I measured the ingredients, I let her feel each one. Her response to putting her hand in the flour was “gross”. I put her in the high chair to play with it and I parked the vacuum close by for easier clean-up. I usually strip her down to her diaper for finger painting and plop her right in the bath tub afterwards. We water play in our DIY play fountain or water play table outdoors. Shells have been her favorite addition to water play. My older daughters have collected shells from many beach trips through the years. Little Mermaid that she is, we were not surprised to find that these shells are one her her favorite toys.
Childhood 101 has a fun list of toddler and preschool activities categorized by sense that we are working our way through. Yogurt painting has been my introduction to finger paining for each of my girls. Plain yogurt, tinted with food dye on wax paper or a plastic tray is lots of slimy, but safe fun for a little one.
This brings me to the book that I think every family should have: The Ultimate Book of Kid Concoctions! This book provides safe recipes for all sorts of sensory rich doughs, slimes, putties, and paints. This is my go-to birthday gift for young children. There is a holiday concoction version as well. We LOVE this book. It is the cure for boredom. Let your upper elementary and older kids run wild with it.
Embrace a little controlled chaos and do not fear the mess. Be prepared for it, even minimize it, but let the little children play in the mud! Share your best sensory mess recipes below!
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