Founder of @inspiremyplay, Early Years teacher for 11 years and mummy to three gorgeous girls. I'm passionate about about the benefits of play in early childhood.
It is no secret that sensory play, even in a tray, can get messy! That beautifully set up tray, lovingly prepared can be everywhere in minutes and we’re left feeling frustrated and disappointed!
So how do we temper our expectations yet ensure that sensory play doesn’t become something that we dread? Here are a few tips that I have learnt over the years- often the hard way!
1. Pick your moment well
If you’re already feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of the day, it may not be the right time to complicate things with some messy sensory play! Save messy play for slow days and choose your timing carefully. Just before a bath works well or before a meal, snack or TV time so that the kids are occupied whilst you put things away.
2. Be realistic
Whilst you’ll find many photos of beautiful play tray set ups across the internet, the reality is that they don’t stay looking that way for long. By all means enjoy setting up inviting trays- it’s a great way of capturing a child’s interest and imagination, but understand that they will want to play with it!
A child’s natural inclination is to investigate, test ideas and experiment. When they mix the oats with the water it may make you whince, but this is what curious kids do! So try to let go of any pre-conceived notions and focus on the memorable experiences you are giving them.
3. Keep it simple
Not every sensory play experience needs to be elaborate. In fact, often the simplest of set ups are the most engaging for children. Children often need and enjoy repeat experiences, so don’t be too quick to move on to the next idea.
4. Use a cloth or sheet to catch the mess
An old bed sheet, shower curtain or table cloth laid on the floor is a really useful way of catching any stray sensory materials. It also defines a play area or boundary for your child to keep within whilst playing. Bed sheets are particularly easy to gather up things such as rice and oats and return them to the tray. A tablecloth is useful for protecting carpets from messy materials, like shaving foam. If we are doing any sort of water play, I usually put the tray on a large towel to absorb water that overflows.
Whether you choose to place the tray at floor level or at a low table may vary depending on the activity. Dried materials like rice and cereals tend to travel quite far when dropped from height, so the floor may be preferable. Conversely, you might find ‘wet’ activities are best done at a table so only their hands are in the tray! Obviously, this depends on the age of the child and their ability to sit or stand at a table and play comfortably. Most baby and toddler play is more practical on the floor and they may like to explore with their whole bodies!
5. Wear old clothes
Get your kids in old clothes, particularly when playing with activities involving food colouring or messy activities like oobleck and cloud dough. It will stop you from feeling anxious about them getting messy and make the whole experience more enjoyable for everyone!
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6. Have a bowl of water and towel to hand
You may find that when playing with particularly messy materials, such as shaving foam and oobleck, children often want to wash their hands. This is completely normal and to be expected. By having a bowl of clean water to hand it helps them feel more comfortable with the experience and
confident to get messy. It also means the mess stays in a defined area rather than having to move to a sink to clean it off.
7. Involve your child in clearing up
As much as possible involve the kids in cleaning up sensory play. Most children love the novelty of washing up or using a dustpan and brush and it teaches them such important skills for the future. Give them a bowl of soapy water placed at their level to wash up tools and utensils and a towel to lay them on to dry.
8. Take sensory play outside when possible
Taking your play outside whenever possible will save on the time it takes to clear up and may just save your sanity! If you’re hoping to re-use the sensory material, lay the tray on a mat or picnic blanket first.
9. Set clear boundaries
Whilst we need to accept there will be some mess with sensory play, we can, and should, set boundaries that keep things within a level that we, as adults, feel comfortable with. This will vary somewhat for different people, but the key is to communicate these boundaries clearly and be consistent in enforcing them.
Do make sure you sense check your expectations- a child of one will not have the same ability to keep the sensory material in the tray as a four year-old. The more experience of sensory play children have, the more likely they are to understand how to play within the limits.
Think about resources too- are you happy for them to grab whatever they like and add it to the tray or are they to use only the tools/ animals/ equipment you’ve pre-selected? Setting this expectation beforehand saves the frustration when you realise they’ve just emptied the contents of your kitchen drawer into a tray of oobleck!
And what about those that keep dumping or throwing sensory materials? This is quite a common experience, particularly with toddlers. Be clear that this is unacceptable and what the consequence will be- “We will have to put the lid on the tray until you are ready to try again”.
One of the very best ways to help a child understand the boundaries of sensory play is to play alongside them, particularly when introducing something new. Model how to enjoy sensory play whilst keeping within the limits set, giving them occasional verbal reminders and offering them plenty of praise.