Why messy play is critical to your babys development and 5 activities to try: baby's feet covered in paint

Messy, or sensory, play refers to any activity that engages a child’s senses, including sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. When a child is born, the only sensory information they have been exposed to is what they experienced in utero. From the age of around 5 months, a child will naturally start exploring the world around them by touching and reaching for items. But parents can, and should, expose their babies to different sensory experiences before that.

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How children learn & why sensory play is important

Children learn primarily through play and messy play makes use of things with different textures like slime, sand and water, to encourage sensory exploration in a fun way.

Why is sensory play important? As an adult, when you walk into a new environment and need to sit on a chair, you can anticipate what the material on the chair will feel like, and there’s no perceived threat for you to approach and sit down. This is because you’ve been exposed to it previously, and your brain has ‘filed’ the experience to draw on in future.

But messy play is so much more than just sensory stimulation, it’s critical for a child’s development because it helps develop motor and language skills, creativity and problem-solving skills. During these sensory experiences, a few things happen simultaneously:

  • The child takes in information via their senses.
  • This new information is ‘filed’ in the brain so that a frame of reference is established for the future.
  • The child becomes more secure in their environment because they can anticipate what kind of texture they’ll be confronted with.

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Messy play activities to try with your baby

Sensory exposure is the first step in a complex learning process and it’s vital that their first step is well formed in order to lay a good foundation for further learning – and that makes the ‘clean up’ after messy play worthwhile.

Messy play activities to try with your baby:

  • Give your child soft boiled spaghetti to run his fingers through – you can color it with food coloring if you like.
  • Edible yellow “finger paint” made with custard powder and boiled water (allow to cool down before use).
  • Boiled jungle oats, roll it into a ball and let your child play with it.
  • Sit and allow your baby to play in rice or mealie meal.
  • Stick bubble wrap on a tray and cover it in a think layer of Aqueous cream or Vaseline, and expose your child’s feet to new texture.

Article by Danielle Petzer of Mothers & Miracles Highlands North. For more information, email Danielle on highlandsnorth@mothersandmiracles.co.za