Messy play – Why is it important and what are the best ways to introduce it

DSCF4654‘Messy’ play is something which should be an enjoyable, fun experience for toddlers and is an important part of learning. It helps to develop fine motor skills, understanding of the world through investigation and problem solving, language and social skills and also importantly can be good fun!

It doesn’t have to be expensive, much can be done using everyday household items and adapting toys such as stacker cups for pouring and measuring etc.

Messy play plays a significant part in the nursery curriculum.

It can be a great multi-sensory experience, however, for some children with a visual impairment, it can also prove challenging. Some children may have issues around using touch to explore, in particular certain textures may trigger anxieties or reluctance to participate in such activities. The child may have been described as being ‘tactile defensive’.

In a child who has more generalised sensory processing issues a programme such as a ‘sensory diet’ from an occupational therapist may be needed.

However, how can we help children with a visual impairment who are reluctant to take part in aspects of messy play?

First of all, put yourself in the child’s shoes, for some children with a severe visual impairment and in particular children with a visual impairment who may also have additional needs, activities requiring them to use many senses at once can be overwhelming.

Ask someone to take your hand and put it into something when you don’t know what it is, whilst keeping your eyes closed.

sonny eating banana blind foldedWhat did it feel like? Did the thought of the unknown make you anxious? You knew that it wasn’t going to be anything dangerous, but a small child may not realise that and maybe would instinctively pull away. What does it feel like to have someone take your hand and put it in something, not to have control over what is happening? Even if your hand hasn’t been taken, how does it feel to be expected to put your hand into an unknown substance? Is this something new to the child, so that the other things which give them a clue to what it is such as smell haven’t been encountered before? What was the temperature like, was it very cold?

Tips for Success:

  • Don’t bombard the senses, in particular for children with complex needs, one sense at once, maybe over several ‘sessions’, they might not be ready to explore through touch until they learn to recognise through smell.
  • If a child is reluctant to explore for themselves using touch, they may be DSCF4844happier to use hand under hand technique, especially with someone they are close to and trust. Ask the child if their hand would ‘like a ride’ on yours. For children with complex needs you may need to support their hand gently on top of yours with the other hand, a bit like a sandwich with the child’s hand in the middle, however this should not mean that your top hand is clamped onto the child’s hand to stop them withdrawing it, in most cases you may just need to gently lay their hand on top of yours, with the very tip of their fingers just over the tip of the adults fingers.
  • Do this in a quiet environment where the child is able to focus on what is going on. Making sure that the temperature of what you would like the child to touch is not too cold (as near skin temperature as possible), gently place your hand on the object, initially with the very tip of the child’s fingers touching it. Give them time to process what it is, if they are unhappy let them withdraw and repeat another day, if they appear happy to accept it, you could gradually withdraw your support little by little. This may happen relatively quickly or over many, many sessions. Most children given patience, time and consideration of smell, temperature and unfamiliarity will learn to trust and explore if handled sensitively.
  • Consider the temperature of everything you are using, straight from a fridge or cold tap might not be most appealing!
  • Scented bubbles might also encourage water play.
  • Give the child time to thoroughly explore the smell of any objects you are using where possible.
  • Ensuring that the child is supervised when playing with it, you could add a safe extract or essential oil to play dough if you know the child likes a particular scent, sand can also be added to provide texture as some children are not keen on its smoothness, safe glitter can also prove an attractive addition for some children.
  • Depending on the child’s vision, letting them choose a colour (using food colouring) to add to glue or water can make it more appealing to play with.
  • Do they like water? Will they accept something when it is wet which they are less keen on when it is dry where appropriate.
  • If your child likes bath time, messy play exploration can be incorporated as part of that routine, cups, jugs and household objects for pouring, counting and measuring, they may then be happier to continue the activity in a different context.
  • Helping stir and pour and get hands on when the end result might be something good to eat can also be an incentive!


DSCF3861For some children messy play may always be a challenge, but by trying to understand the activity from the child’s perspective, being patient and giving them lots of time they may learn to experience messy play as a fun activity, rather than an ordeal.



Written by- Janet Harwood

The CVI Society


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