What is sensory play?

Sensory play simply means the engagement of our senses through play. Sensory play is often called Messy play as well, due to its potentially messy nature from how children choose to interact with the setup. Through the stimulation of their senses – touch, smell, sight, taste, hearing, balance and movement – children are innately encouraged to explore, observe and experiment. When learning becomes playful, it creates positive association towards acquisition of knowledge and skills in our children.

How does sensory play benefit children?

There is more than meets the eyes with this almost abstract-looking form of play. Besides being very engaging for babies and young children, sensory activities encourage children to inquire – observe, form hypotheses, experiment and make conclusions. It develops better thresholds towards different sensory inputs, allowing their mind to connect useful sensory information and block out unnecessary ones, an important key to gaining focus for effective learning.

Sensory play creates opportunities for children to touch, smell and play with textures in a setting with little expectations. As they develop trust and understanding towards different textures, it helps to build positive association with unfamiliar things such as food, for example.

Of course, the benefits of sensory play does not limit to only the above mentioned. To name a few, sensory play promotes the following:

– Builds neural connections in the brain

– Encourages fine-motor and coordination development

– Supports language development

– Encourages risk-taking and problem solving

– Promotes mindfulness and can be therapeutic

Therefore, sensory play should be encouraged and supported both at home and in school.

Sensory play can be planned or spontaneous. Here’s an example of a spontaneous moment where a few children from playgroup decided to cover their hands with colours, with the initial plan for them to explore paint colours with brushes and paints to paint on their self-portrait pictures as an option.

Here’s another example of a planned activity with older children from K1, where they were given free reign to explore papier-mache making process, where they get to play around with the soaking paper pulp and tools to scoop, sieve, squeeze dry and transfer into another bowl. Despite being a brand new experience for them, they have gained more confidence through their many past sensorial experiences to trust in me and the messy medium presented to them.

What are the inevitable consequences of sensory play?

Sensory Play can get really messy. And there are good reasons for it. For children to feel safe and be comfortable in their learning, we have to minimise structure – to control what and how things should be done. Unstructured exploration means minimal interference and allowing children the autonomy to find things out for themselves. This is especially important for really young children who have yet developed the understanding, vocabulary or motor skills to carry out task-driven activities. For example, before a baby can learn to feed themselves, they have to first be able to make sense of the food they are putting into their mouth. The food would usually go through many of their senses before finally landing into their mouths (or not). This is natural because we are instinctively cautious since birth, a way to protect ourselves from the unknown, be it with new foods or experiences. And because of this, it is our prerogative as parents and caregivers to be supportive and guide them into this unknown of a world they are new to, so they may feel safe exploring and experiencing the wonders around them. Thus stains of all sorts on their skin and clothes will be inevitable, even with the best of protections such as bibs and aprons.

How can we support our children in their play?

In my experiences as a preschool art teacher, oftentimes, I have seen children with little to no prior experience to sensory play, joining my class for the first time and showing clear aversion or discomfort when presented with art activities that are (even remotely) messy. A smitch of pigment on their finger can automatically send them wiping it off on their clothes, or wanting to run to the sink to wash their hands, or even not wanting to participate in the activity altogether. These are normal: like I’ve mentioned earlier, cautious behaviours. With time and support, while creating a safe space for them to explore, they will eventually be comfortable experiencing and exploring new tools, materials, mediums and concepts with greater confidence and little to no disruption or distraction from the mess – an inconsequential effect of learning through play. Once in a while, some children do still respond to the mess they made by showing me their paint-covered hands and saying ‘dirty’ or ‘oh-oh’. They are aware of the mess they made and some still worry, and I would often respond with, ‘It’s okay, lets have fun and not worry about the mess’ or ‘wow, ain’t the colours beautiful?’ or ‘we can always wash our hands when we are done having fun!’, so they may put their fear aside to fully immerse in the experience.

As parents or caregivers, it is important to not take cleaning up a mess too seriously. Like how a little exposure to germs is good for our kids’ immunity, closing one eye for them to make a meaningful mess is vital in their learning too. Pause, and sit back to allow some mess to take place. Want to paint your hands instead of the paper? Go ahead, you may have discovered hand-printing. Grabbing a fistful of glue and allowing it to dribble down the arm instead of pasting paper with? Yes please, now you know why glue is great for sticking things together. Scribbling on your arms and legs? Why not, now you know 3-dimension has a surface all around.

I understand how mess can be a daunting sight. But the benefits of allowing your children to make a mess far outweighs the anxiety from having to clean up after. Children gain confidence with the new things they work with in their exploration because they are in control. Children given free reign to explore and experiment , with safety and reasonable boundaries for mess in mind, pick up new skills and knowledge faster. See them as little mad scientists making up their own concoctions and forming their own theories about the works of the world and you will be able to appreciate (or withstand) the mess much better. Trust me, I’m a mum to an active and immensely inquisitive toddler, so I do empathise with how parents feel about mess.

Here’s a picture of my son at 15 months old, exploring and experiencing the tools and materials provided for him. In just a simple setup albeit the mess, he had discovered how the tools and materials work and interact with one another..

Where does the mess end?

As with all child appropriate activities, there should be a framework on where mess stops. Mess should be interfered when it poses a danger to themselves or others. Mess should minimise or cease when they become adept with their spatial awareness and fine motor coordination. We would discourage children from putting any art tools or materials in their mouths, or allow them to draw or paint on their friends, for example. Children usually show great improvements in keeping their mess in check as they get older. I have a parent once thanking me because she has seen improvements in the amount of mess made, reflected on her child’s uniform during laundry days.


So bring on the mess, Daddies and Mummies! Let your children come back from school wearing a stain or two proudly like a badge of honour and sharing their adventures with you on how they got them.





Ms Rachelle, Mess Advocate (embracing and cleaning up messes in the Art Atelier since 2016)

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