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Let them get dirty!

Rogers Bridge » Let them get dirty!

Have you ever been to a therapy session where the therapist lets your kid get messy? Have you felt a sense of panic creep in when a therapist sits calmly by as your kid gets shaving cream or applesauce on their hands or shirt? 

As parents, you want your kid to look their best and not make a mess in someone else’s space.

Let them get dirty! The importance of messy play and sensory processing disorder for child

Therapists know that everything is washable. Hands can be washed; clothes can be changed; the table can be wiped so why not let them explore, play, and get messy? It may worry you when you see us letting your kid play in shaving cream or applesauce or pudding but, trust us, these experiences are developing their brain and senses to better live in our crazy world. 

What is the science behind it? 
The central theory behind sensory development says that children can adapt to the constant changes that are happening all around them. Children, like adults, take in thousands of little pieces of information and process them to understand the world. 
Think about this: you are sitting on your couch reading this post; your kids are playing on the floor; the TV is playing their favorite cartoon; the dishwasher is running in the kitchen. Even with all the extra noise, lights, and movement around you, you can focus on what you are reading. This is because, from experience, your brain is taking in everything and tuning out what is not important. You can shut out the dishwasher sounds but still know when your child says something important. You can see movement in your peripheral vision and know when your child is about to fall off the couch.

But how does this all apply to eating? 
Just like you can take in the noise and sights, your child is doing the same thing when they are eating. They are getting a lot of sensory information from their environment and their brain is working to process it. If we are constantly keeping kids clean by wiping their face or hands any time something gets on them, we are not giving their brain a chance to learn that being messy is not the end of the world. When you wipe your child’s face after every bite, you are teaching them that the feeling of food on their face is bad and needs to be removed. Their brains are going to generalize that experience to mean that the feeling of food anywhere is bad, including on their hands or in their mouth. 

If we let kids explore food with their hands, they know what to expect when they put it in their mouth. Without first exploring with their hands, they have no idea of how it is going to feel or taste once they get it to their mouth. We want to give them a chance to feel and smell it before asking them to put it in their mouth, so it is not a total shock to their system.

5 ideas for messy play at home

  1. Sensory Bins: Create a sensory bin by filling a large container with materials like rice, dry pasta, sand, or water. Add toys, spoons, cups, and scoops for your toddler to manipulate and explore. This encourages tactile exploration and hand-eye coordination.

  2. Finger Painting: Set up a designated area with washable paint and large sheets of paper or a washable tablecloth. Encourage your toddler to dip their fingers into the paint and explore different textures, colors, and patterns. It's a wonderful way for them to express themselves creatively. Try making some edible finger paint for your child to explore.

  3. Playdough Play: Provide your toddler with playdough or homemade dough and let them squish, squeeze, and mold it. You can offer cookie cutters, rolling pins, and other tools to enhance their play. Playdough helps strengthen hand muscles and promotes creativity. Put down a plastic shower curtain if you are worried about dropped play doh being ground into the carpet.

  4. Water Play: Fill a basin or large bowl with water and add floating toys, cups, and spoons. Let your toddler splash, pour, and explore the water. You can also introduce different containers, funnels, or sponges for added variety. Water play enhances sensory development and fine motor skills. This is a great outside activity.

  5. Sensory Bags: Fill a Ziplock bag with various materials like colored gel, rice, or pom-poms. Seal the bag tightly and tape it to a table or window. Your toddler can press, squish, and move the materials inside the bag, providing sensory stimulation without the mess.

Remember to closely supervise your toddler during messy play activities to ensure their safety. Also, make sure to use age-appropriate materials and non-toxic, child-friendly products.

So, when your child’s therapist is letting them make a complete mess in therapy, remember that it will be okay. We will clean them up and move on with the day. When your child is playing with the new food you gave them, let them be dirty and explore the food. Then, when they are done, change their clothes, wipe the table (and maybe floor), and clean their face.

Kids are just like adults, they are going to love certain foods, like some, and really hate others and that is perfectly fine. But if you feel like your child has difficulty with mealtimes that is impacting nutrition and weight gain, talk to your pediatrician. Your child may benefit from a feeding therapy evaluation.

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