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Our Favorite Messy Play

April 5, 2023

Our sensory system constantly takes in information from our environment. For a child who is sensitive to tactile, or touch inputs, making it through their daily routines can be challenging. Activities that are normal parts of a child’s day can become very stressful.  The seams on socks, toothbrush on gums, scratchy jeans, glue projects at school, someone bumping into them as they line up, squishy and firm blueberries, messy peanut butter and jelly, or the crumbled bed sheets under their back are just a few examples of tactile triggers a sensory-sensitive child may experience throughout their day. Understanding that these tactile sensory experiences are much more overwhelming for a child sensitive to touch on their hands, feet, or mouth, otherwise known as tactile defensive, is critical for co-regulation and helping them through these experiences.

Do you have a child who struggles with touch? They might be uncomfortable with messy hands, strong preferences for certain clothing (i.e., soft, stretchy), or selective eating based on food texture (i.e., crunchy). Remember that PLAY is how children learn and that messy play is a way to stimulate their tactile system and learn how to be okay with different messy textures without the pressures of getting through a routine.

Messy play can be intimidating for exactly what it’s called: messy! Here are two easy messy play activities (with minimal preparation and clean up) that you can try at home:

Shaving Cream

  • Stimulates the visual, tactile, and olfactory (smell) sensory systems
  • Try in the bathtub for easy messy play → starting messy play in the bathtub allows the child to rinse their hands when they please and decreases the overall pressure of messy play
  • You and your child can take turns drawing pictures, letters, or numbers on the walls of the bathtub or covering toys in shaving cream and rinsing them off.
  • If they are ready, you can make a shaving cream beard or mustache on their face!


  • Stimulates the visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory (taste) sensory systems
  • Before bathtime, lay out a disposable table cloth (or cut open a trash bag) and spread the pudding out. With chocolate pudding, add trucks for a construction site or bugs for a garden. With vanilla pudding, add little crackers as sleds or veggie straws as skis for a winter wonderland.
  • Provide a wet paper towel or hand towel as support should your child want to wipe their hands. Let them practice using their words to express how the play makes them feel (nervous, excited, uncomfortable, silly, etc.) Notice signs of dysregulation with messy play (flapping or waving hands, wiping hands on shirt/pants frequently, retracting one or both hands).

    Our best advice for messy play is to let kids lead! Model different ways to play with messy textures and spend this time connecting with your child to better understand their tactile preferences and aversions.

    If you worry about washing their favorite pair of pants each night, struggle to have enjoyable mealtimes, or notice different tactile preferences that impact daily routines, we would love to help you navigate this and learn more about your child’s tactile system. Contact Connect Pediatric Therapy at 402-413-1356 to schedule a free consultation. Sign up for our email newsletter to learn how pediatric occupational therapy can help your children.

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