How Sensory Play Helps with Your Child’s Big Feelings

Summer is finally here and that means a lot more time outside. Sensory play is a fantastic way to help your child gain the skills she needs to manage big feelings.


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what is sensory play?

Sensory play is any activity that invites exploration through – you guessed it – the senses. It’s child-directed, meaning it’s all about the process, not creating a final product. Since sensory exploration is totally normal for kids, it doesn’t require much set-up, if any. In fact, the simpler the better, as that allows your kiddo to become immersed in the experience and not distracted by too many options. 

Some of the benefits of sensory play include: better self-regulation, especially when faced with new or non-preferred textures; language development as open-ended play encourages labeling and narration; cognitive growth since it meets the child where he’s at developmentally while inviting the child to process through new and unique challenges.

The Connection Between Sensory Play and Big Feelings

You’ve probably noticed that when you ask your child how he’s feeling, he struggles to answer. That’s because feelings are abstract descriptors we put on physical cues. Put another way, our body is really good at letting us know where it is on the continuum of comfort versus discomfort. 

As we gain social experiences we start to label these physical cues according to the nuanced interaction we are having in relationship to another or the environment. We’re happy when we get a hug, we’re mad when someone says no. At their essence, however, feelings are a clear signal whether or not we feel comfortable in the current situation.

Sensory play does a couple of things to promote a child’s shift towards being able to label cues of comfort/discomfort as a feeling. First, our sensory system only operates in the present moment. By offering sensory stimulation, your child can get familiar with what comfort and discomfort feels like for her, right now. She then can make decisions about what she can and can’t control, and can explore different responses, all while speaking her primary language – play.

Second, you might also notice how your child talks throughout the play. Your child is working out which category these sensations fit. This is the first step to moving from “I’m super uncomfortable and I don’t know why so I’m going to fling myself on the floor,” to “You told me no and I’m REALLY mad!!!” 

Incorporating Art Materials with Sensory Play

Art materials on their own are the perfect sensory toy. They have texture which can provoke comfort/discomfort, they require varying pressures to apply, there’s an immediate and cause-and-effect experience when you use them, they stimulate the visual system, and the list goes on. 

Some of my favorite sensory art experience for outside play are:

  • objects frozen in a tray of ice, to be released (you can watch a video tutorial here)
  • painting with water on the sidewalk
  • chalk drawing on the sidewalk
  • body painting
  • nature object collages
  • all of those messy projects your more independent kids have been begging you to make – slime, cloud dough, you get the picture
  • shaving cream on a tray with a few drops of kid-friendly paint
  • finger paints
  • a tub of water with a few drops of dish soap, a drop of paint to give the water a tinge of color, and whatever objects feel like they want to “play” with today

When Setting Up Messy Play Feels Like Too Much

 You know your kiddo would love to make a mess AND you want them to spend more time outside BUT ughhhhhhh, the mess!!!

That inner cringe is a signal that YOU need something – help, ideas, a break, or self-compassion. Instead of letting your thoughts suck you down into a shame spiral, try meeting your needs first. 

Some ideas for showing yourself self-compassion:

  • Any of these guided meditations from self-compassion expert Dr. Kristin Neff
  • A quick round of sun salutations or a one-song dance party, anything to get your body moving in an enjoyable way
  • Anchor your thoughts to your YES for the summer – enjoyment, relaxation, adventure, less screen time
  • Sit back and watch your kiddos make a mess. Allow yourself to savor in their delight and playfulness
  • Bonus points if you allow yourself to feel the discomfort and do it anyway. This is the perfect opportunity to work on naming and making decisions about your own big feelings
  • AND you’re in charge! When you’re done, your kiddos can be done also.

For more tips on making art with kiddos, even when it feels hard, check this out!

Have an Exit Routine

One of the biggest barriers to enjoying messy outdoor fun is figuring out how to get the kids back in the house – while leaving the mess outside. Try setting up a predictable routine for the transition.  A sample clean-up routine might look like:

Before you go inside:

  1. Put the toys/materials/tools back in their storage container
  2. Take off any dirty shoes and leave them by the back door
  3. Rinse off your body/hands using the (hose, bucket of CLEAN water, etc)
  4. Dry off with a clean towel
  5. If you’re still really messy, ask for help

The trick to setting up routines is to practice them BEFORE you introduce the messy stuff. Run through your expectations with your kids first, let them show you what they understand, and THEN start the fun. You’ll probably need to supervise the first few times but if you keep it consistent, even the littlest of kids should be able to follow the routine.

Download a ready to use clean-up routine here!


Being able to freely make a mess is some of the most important work of childhood. Plus it’s a low-prep/no-prep way to support all of those developmental tasks so necessary to managing their feelings and their growing independence. With a few structures in place I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience as much as your kiddos do!


Want to quit yelling and start being the parent you dreamed of? Check this out…

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