The Importance of Sensory and Messy Play in the Early Years

The importance of sensory and messy play in early years.

by Helen Tchatchouang 

From birth to early childhood, children use their five senses to explore and try to make sense of the world around them.

Learning through sensory exploration comes naturally to young children, which makes sense when you consider that the skills they’ll come to rely on to build an understanding of objects, spaces, people and interactions are yet to be fully developed

Sensory play encourages learning through exploration, curiosity, problem solving and creativity. It helps to build nerve connections in the brain and encourages the development of language and motor skills.

Children learn best when they actively engage with their environment! Young children are in a very concrete stage of development; they need to feel and see their world in order to understand it.

Toys are fun but they can be restrictive because sometimes, they have a specific intended use or function. They are good for exploring certain skills, but messy and sensory play with open ended materials like rice, rainbow spaghetti, or play dough help children learn to play independently, increase attention span, provide opportunities to problem solve, and build self-confidence and self-esteem.

What is Sensory Play?

Sensory play includes any activity that stimulates a young child’s senses of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing, as well as anything which engages movement and balance. Picking things up and feeling their texture is what people often associate with sensory play, but it’s about much more than touch. Firstly, sensory play helps children to develop their physical skills; sensory play introduces actions such as shaping, pouring, moulding and scooping. These skills require multiple muscles to work together which helps a child’s fine motor skills.

What is Messy Play?

Messy play is the open-ended exploration of materials and their properties. It allows children to use their natural curiosity at the developmental level appropriate for them. They learn foundational cognitive principles as they exercise motor, language, and social skills. Messy play is also a great way to encourage children to work together and cooperate in group play or one-on-one play. They learn about personal boundaries, understanding someone else’s ideas and views, and they have the opportunity to express their own. A shared activity for several children to use at once, helps children build social skills as they start interacting with each other. They might talk and discuss the objects they’re exploring or they might join forces and start exploring together.

In early years settings, It is important for us to establish and sustain a safe and stimulating environment where children feel confident and are able to learn and develop. Overall, during sensory as well as messy play, they’ll learn how to communicate, how to troubleshoot problems and learn to adapt to how others play. Children learn to self-regulate, communicate their ideas, and are ready to absorb new information.

Here, I have a suggested sensory activity you can try at home.


  1. Put 1 cup of rice (orzo or pasta) in a ziploc plastic bag.
  2. Add few drops of liquid food coloring. Alternatively, add 1/2 tsp. of vinegar and a bit of the icing gel.
  3. Seal the bag and shake well.
  4. Spread the coloured rice out on a baking tray to dry overnight.
  5. Repeat with other colours.
  6. Use in sensory play.
  7. Add spoons, plastic cups, funnels, measuring spoons and cups, cupcake forms as well as kids appropriate twisters.
  8. Have fun!!!

Finally, remember that all exploration takes time. If a child is to become attuned to and engaged with their environment, they will need time to explore, discover, and connect with all their senses. When this is encouraged, challenging behaviors naturally lessen. Most importantly, children will find a joy and enthusiasm for learning which will carry them through their whole lives.

By Helen Tchatchouang 
Key Teacher, Kidsperience Preschool