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Let Them Get Messy!

“Don’t jump in that puddle!”

“You got your clothes dirty. Go change!”

“What’s all over your hands??”

Sound familiar? These are examples of common statements directed at children when they have been found in a “messy situation.” These comments put a negative thought in a child’s mind that getting dirty while having fun is bad for them, when really it’s an important part of child development.

As occupational therapists, we work with children on increasing independence in their activities of daily living skills such as dressing, brushing teeth, eating, and handwriting. An occupation is any functional and meaningful activity in someone’s day. One of the most important areas we help children develop is in their occupation of “play.”

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and developmental delays have a difficult time knowing how to play with toys or friends appropriately. It may also be challenging for them to process sensory information they receive from the environment and make an appropriate response. Some children may be hypersensitive to various types of input from bright lights, loud noises, or wet substances, whereas others may be under-sensitive or under-responsive to sensory input, especially during messy play activities.

For example, a child who is hypersensitive to wet substances will want to wipe their hands off immediately after touching shaving cream, paint or mud, whereas a child who is under-responsive to wet substances may not be aware of food on their face while eating lunch.

How Messy Play Is Meaningful

While playing with various items such as dry beans, sand, leaves, water, play-doh, and slime, we help children develop their:

  • Senses
    • Touch – learning to be comfortable touching various wet and dry substances they may encounter throughout their day, such as glue or glitter during art activities
    • Smell – distinguishing between pleasant and non-pleasant smells
    • Taste – enjoying tasting new foods
    • Sight – discriminating between small items like rocks, letters, beads as well as looking at various things like foods they are not used to eating or certain colors they might resist looking at
    • Hearing – tolerating and adapting to sensitivity of sounds or tones through the use of headphones and exposure to various music and sounds
  • Movement and Body awareness – becoming familiar with their body and its relationship to things in the environment, and identifying what their bodies are telling them whether they are hungry, tired, or need to use the restroom
  • Language and Cognitive Skills – learning to describe experiences, textures of items and ask questions about what is happening around them
  • Emotional Regulation Skills –connecting what they are feeling to pictures or words and express those emotions
  • Social Skills – sharing and taking turns, waiting
  • Imagination – last, but not least! Through messy play, children learn to develop their imagination and creativity

Messy Play Activities

With Fall finally here and Halloween around the corner, here are some fun, messy activities for you and your child to enjoy at home!

  • Baking – Bake fall colored cookies or rice crispy treats and let your child mix the dough with their hands. Or, use Halloween or fall themed cookie cutters for Jello!
  • Pumpkin Patch Dirt Cups ( – Create an edible pumpkin patch with crushed Oreos, milk, and instant chocolate pudding. Add pumpkin candies and sour straws. This can also be an edible worm garden with gummy worms!
  • Bath Time Art – Mix fall or Halloween colored washable paint with shaving cream and let your child finger paint in the bath tub (makes it easy to clean up J ). Using a squirt bottle is a great way to let your child participate in clean up all while developing hand strength and fine motor control.
  • Monster Brains – Combine cooked noodles with yogurt and blueberries. This is a great activity for food exploration.
  • Witches Stew – Mix purple, orange, or green food coloring in clear hair gel with water and add various fun Halloween toys and trinkets such as spider rings, toy bugs, and squishy eyes. For more Halloween creativity, let your child mix the stew in a plastic cauldron!


There are many other fun and messy activities available on the internet, but please contact your child’s occupational therapist for more advice based on your child’s sensory processing needs. And remember close supervision is always recommended for our little ones.