One of the most common complaints we hear about sensory play is that people simply don’t like the mess. We get it. Busy moms, dads, and teachers don’t always have the time (or the energy) to clean up a huge mess after the kids have gone crazy with shaving cream or a big bin of sand.
But what if we told you that making a mess with your hands is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sensory play? The truth is that what most people think of as “sensory play” is actually tactile play.
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Don’t get me wrong, we therapists love a good healthy dose of messy tactile play. But the sense of touch is only one of the avenues we can use to target overall sensory development in kids. In addition to the tactile system, kids also need exposure to play that appeals to the vestibular, proprioceptive, auditory, olfactory, oral sensory, and visual systems.
The good news? Addressing these other sensory systems through play typically involves very little set-up, only the simplest materials, and hardly any mess at all! Hooray!
Here are some of our favorite no-mess sensory play activities for kids! And, for good measure, we’ve also included some fun tactile activities that don’t result in a big squishy mess!
The Vestibular System helps children process movement experiences (where their bodies are in space) and contributes to balance. There are tons of low maintenance vestibular activities that will leave your house or classroom neat and tidy and don’t involve a lot of complicated materials. When it comes to vestibular activities, position changes and movement are then name of the game! Here some of our favorites:
1 || Row, Row, Row Your Boat – No mess, set-up, no materials necessary…a tried and true favorite with my kids at school and at home!
2 || Playing on Playground Equipment – Playing on swings, slides, seesaws, and merry go rounds are great ways to stimulate the vestibular system!
3 || Playing on Scooters – Lots of great movement going on here – and all you need is a kid and a scooter!
4 || Rolling, Tumbling, and Somersaulting – We love laying out our tumbling mat and letting kids go wild, showing off their favorite acrobatic moves! Or, take it outside! The only mess in sight will be a few grass stains from rolling around in the yard!
5 || Rough House Play – Get kids upside down, spun around, and rolled around with some fun rough house play! Great fun and great for the vestibular system!
6 || Balance Activities – See if kids can walk on the curb or a balance beam; walk across a bed, a couch, or a floor covered in cushions; walk while balancing items on their heads; walk across a slackline; or balance on some stepping stones! No fuss and no mess!
8 || Kids Yoga – This is another great way to get kids into lots of different positions without any materials or mess at all! Try Snowga in the wintertime, or check out this awesome deck of yoga cards for kids if you just want to try a quick pose or two.
The Proprioceptive System helps kids process and coordinate movement via messages sent to their brains from their muscles and joints. Picture stomping, jumping, pushing, and pulling against resistance and you’re picturing the proprioceptive system at work! Again, activities that target this sensory system usually require little set-up and no mess. And you’ll get lots of bang for your buck with these activities as kids are often better able to focus and attend after some good proprioceptive input!
9 || Playing With Couch Cushions – No squishy shaving cream or gritty sand to clean up here – just throw the cushions back on the couch when you’re done, and clean-up is complete! Kids will love these fun couch cushion games!
11 || Climbing Activities – Get kids climbing trees, stairs, rock walls, rope ladders – even climbing up the slide – and you’ll be giving great heavy input that helps stimulate the proprioceptive system.
12 || Playing With Resistance Bands – One of my favorite no-mess sensory materials is a stretchy resistance band. There are tons of fun ways to play with them and when you’re done, you just throw it in your bag! My kind of clean-up!
13 || Making Your Own Roller Coaster – Got a bed sheet and a few kids? That’s all you’ll need for this fun activity that requires kids to pull against resistance (targeting proprioception) and gives a great vestibular (movement) experience too!
Yep, you guessed it…the Auditory System is all about processing sound. And the beautiful thing about sounds? They don’t make a mess! :) Here are some of our favorite quick and easy auditory activities for kids.
14 || Blindfold Play – This is a great way to challenge the auditory system, as kids have to learn to move and navigate using only their sense of hearing.
15 || Playing With Musical Toys – As therapists and as moms, we have seen the power of music to get little ones moving, singing, rocking and rolling! Musical toys are a great (and simple) way to stimulate the auditory system!
16 || Making Your Own Musical Toys – Try making your own instruments or simply dropping different small objects (e.g. Legos, paper clips) in clean empty food containers to make your own simple mess-free shakers!
17 || Playing Music That Gets Kids Moving – Kids songs are great for encouraging kids to listen to and follow directions and to work on processing, timing, and sequencing.
The Olfactory System is the way children process the smells in their environment. There are lots of great olfactory activities for kids, but not all of them require time in the kitchen or a big clean-up. Here are a few simple ideas to stimulate the sense of smell:
18 || Scratch n Sniff Stickers – There’s no need for a lot of fancy materials when this tried and true classic does the trick! Kids love smelly stickers – try some fun sticker activities using these smelly little gems!
19 || Scented Markers – Another fun, simple, and relatively mess-free way to address the olfactory system – drawing and coloring becomes a lot more fun when the markers smell like strawberries, blueberries, mint, and more!
20 || Smelling Scavenger Hunt – Take kids out into a garden or into the flower section of the grocery store and see which plants and flowers they can identify by smell!
Oral Sensory Activities
The Oral Sensory System is how kids sense different tastes, textures, and temperatures in their mouths. There is also a proprioceptive element at work here, as the joint of the jaw picks up on information like whether foods are chewy or crunchy. Aside from good old snack time, there are other no-mess ways of incorporating the Oral Sensory System into play.
21 || Playing With Mouth Noises: Try buzzing like a bee, clicking your tongue, humming, or blowing raspberries!
22 || Making Funny Faces: Play with making silly faces in a mirror or imitating each other’s funny faces: open your mouth wide, stick your tongue out, smile, frown, or fill your cheeks up with air!
23 || Drinking from a water bottle with a straw or drinking through silly straws
24 || Blowing Up Balloons!
The Visual System depends on the eye and the brain working together to help kids interpret what they see. Sensory play definitely doesn’t have to be messy in order to stimulate the visual system. There are all kinds of ways for kids to explore their sense of sight with no clean-up required!
28 || Playing Matching, Sorting and Categorizing Games – Sort or match by color, shape, size, or any other visual attribute!
29 || Playing I Spy – Play the old fashioned way, or try this fun twist on the game!
30 || Playing Follow the Leader Games – This is a great way to get kids to pay close attention to detail and a fun way to combine a movement activity with visual input! Try one of our favorites: Mirror, Mirror!
31 || Making Sensory Bottles – Like a miniature game of hide and seek, sensory bottles are a way to keep the mess contained, letting kids search with their eyes to find small objects. Just drop small letter beads, small toys, or other manipulatives into an empty water bottle and then fill it up the rest of the way with dry rice or beans.
And, last but not least, the Tactile System! This is how kids process information they get from their skin – by touching. Not up for a super messy tactile play experience? We get it. Finger paint, sensory doughs, and shaving cream are so much fun, but aren’t the best when you’re not in the mood to clean up a huge mess, or when you don’t have a lot of time on your hands. No worries – there are some great mess-free ways to play with the sense of touch!
32 || Playing With Sensory Balloons – Try filling balloons with dry rice, dry beans, sand, or play dough. Check out one of our most popular sensory balloon activities: Baby Bumble Bee!
33 || Milking a Cow – Okay, so you probably don’t have a cow, right? Don’t worry, you can still do this one – and it’s a lot less messy than playing in a barn, especially if you try it with water!
34 || Taking a Bath – The ultimate way to get rid of the mess? Get in the tub! Check out these great activities for bath time play – an awesome way to target the tactile system!
35 || Putting the Mess in a Bag – You can still use shaving cream, finger paint, and other messy materials without making a huge mess. Simply seal the messy material inside a large sealable bag and let kids squish away!
Want a fun, no-mess, outdoor way to target all of the sensory systems at once? Try our Sensory Motor Scavenger Hunt!
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