Introducing ex-teacher and mom of four, Jo, who’s going to share some sensory play ideas for 1 and 2-year-olds, specifically dry messy play for toddlers (yup, ironically “messy” play can be relatively tidy!)
Welcome to your one-stop shop for some simple, fun, and importantly, ‘dry’ messy play ideas for toddlers. Each messy play idea will not only facilitate learning and development in toddlers but are also loads of fun. Ideas are aimed at 1 and 2-year-olds – that tricky stage when they just want to move, move, move and play with ALL the things, but never for long enough for you to even finish a cup of tea, right?!
So as well as giving your little one chance to burn off some of that instinctive desire to explore the world around them, these messy play ideas may give you an extra few minutes of peace. I’ve tried and tested each one with my daughter and managed to finish off a few jobs on the never-ending list of to-dos, all while drinking a full cup of tea hot for a change. Result!
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What is messy sensory play for kids?
Messy sensory play refers to any activity that allows children to work with their hands to create a controlled mess. It is a style of play in which children get to take the lead, explore and learn with their hands and experience a wide variety of textures and materials.
While you may be thinking that messy play means a ton of mess and a lengthy cleanup of your entire kitchen or play area, as well as your toddler, fear not. Ironically, messy play doesn’t have to always be….messy. It certainly doesn’t need to be sticky. While the wet, sticky, gooey type of messy play is also important for your toddler’s development, they’re probably getting plenty of that at every meal time… (As hard as it may seem, it’s a good thing when toddlers and babies play with their food).
But sensory activities, of the dry messy play variety, are just as important for your 1 or 2-year-olds development; the focus of this post is dry messy play ideas, when the hoover or a quick sweep deals with the bulk of the mess in a matter of seconds.
How does messy play help child development?
Messy play aids child development in a number of different ways:
Fine motor skills
Messy play uses the hands and fingers, which promotes fine motor skill development. As a result, your toddler’s gross motor skills improve; the foundations of their body balance and spatial awareness have been laid. Therefore, ultimately messy play promotes physical development.
Fosters curiosity, imagination and exploration
When you try some of these messy play ideas you’ll notice how your toddler becomes lost in their own little world. They will be so excited when faced with a box containing unusual materials and (if anything like my little ones) will be thrilled to learn that this is an opportunity to ‘get stuck in.’ Before you know it, the rice tray is the beach and the cars are delivering the families for a fun day out. It is amazing to sit back and see where their imaginations take them.
Encourages communication and language development
If you get involved with your toddler in the midst of their messy play, you will experience the joy of actively growing their vocabulary. Perhaps you will be Mummy Bear returning from your morning walk in the forest, only to find that your little Goldilocks judges your porridge to be ‘too hot’. Messy play ideas for 2-year-olds can easily facilitate communication. Interacting with your child in this fun and imaginative manner has a direct effect on their engagement with the world around them.
This is one way to create a chatterbox – your toddler is learning that talking is fun.
Facilitates good concentration & independent play
Your toddler will undoubtedly want to apply their concentration to completing the tasks that you have facilitated, because the messy tray in front of them looks so inviting. Although I have thoroughly enjoyed playing an active role in our messy play sessions, I have also found it very fulfilling to leave my youngest two to investigate tray contents together, and develop their own games. Their confidence in doing so quickly develops.
What can I use for messy play?
When it comes to sensory activities and messy play, just about anything goes really. In our crazy busy household, it’s the simple ideas that work best. There are plenty of things you can use that you’ll probably already have at home, from dried pasta to oats, with or without some measuring cups to use as scoops and something to contain the mess in – a ‘messy tray’.
So use whatever you have to hand, but in the meantime keep an eye out for things of interest that you can easily collect. With milk-guzzling older kids, collecting bottle tops was a no-brainer. Who’d have thought a large tray of bottle tops could prove so much sensory fun to a 2-year-old?
How do you set up a messy play at home?
1. Find the ‘stuff’ for your little one to experiment with
This is the obvious key component when it comes to messy play; the thing your 1 or 2-year-old is going to be squeezing, squishing, rummaging through, stacking scooping and pouring.
Because we’re sticking to ‘dry’ messy play ideas here, the idea is minimal cleanup, so stick to things that are easy to tidy away and, very importantly, are baby and toddler safe. So if, or should I say, when it goes into your little one’s mouth, be sure that the play materials are neither poisonous or a choking hazard. Use things such as rice, pasta, oats or those cleaned-up bottle tops.
2. Find a messy tray
This is not always necessary, it just depends on the messy play “stuff”. But if you’re going to do a lot of messy play at home, this messy tray or Tuff Tray from EdXEducation would be worth the investment (or if you’re in the UK, try this Kub Original Tuff Messy Tray). It’ll be great for all those stickier sensory activities too, if you’re brave enough.
Or again, simply find something usable from around the house. For example, under-bed storage draw/trays, a large shallow tupperware, roasting dishes and cut-down cardboard boxes all work well.
Alternatively, a groundsheet or tablecloth will ensure a super quick and easy clean-up operation.
3. Add in some utensils or other things of interest
Silicon and wooden kitchen utensils are perfect for 1 and 2-year-olds, plus spoons and measuring cups. Just avoid anything metal which could be sore for your toddlers gums, when they start putting them in their mouth (which they will!) For this reason also, ensure anything you give them is clean.
This toddler-specific fine motor toolset, which includes a pipette, giant tweezers, is definitely worth the investment if you’re going to be doing lots of activities at home with your toddler.
If you are, this post should be your next destination: 39 simple & sanity-saving activities for toddlers & preschoolers to do at home (minimal prep, minimal mess)
Other fun things you can add into the mix when facilitating messy play ideas for 1-year-olds include: cardboard tubes, egg box cartons, empty chocolate boxes, toy cars, Duplo… Again, it depends on the messy play material you’re dealing with.
Here are some messy play ideas for 1 & 2-year-olds
Need some messy play ideas for your young Picasso? Want to give your toddler the best possible start? Most importantly, young children need to see and feel their world in order to understand it, so look no further than these messy tray ideas for your toddler.
#1 Pasta messy play
Your enthusiastic toddler is bound to love playing with pasta. It’s a great messy play idea for 1-year-olds as pasta pieces are the perfect size for little hands to grab onto easily. They will really enjoy exploring the feel of the raw pasta, and will likely find dropping it onto the floor very exhilarating. Remember, it’s the simple things… Include different pasta varieties so they can explore the different shapes.
You can extend this messy play idea for 2-year-olds by encouraging them to sort the pasta by shape. This develops an awareness of the meaning of ‘different’ and ‘same’/’identical’.
For older toddlers, you could add in some spoons or barbecue tongs and containers and encourage the development of fine motor skills. Who doesn’t love a teddy bear’s pasta party? You could also add in some math by encouraging your toddler to count the pasta pieces into each pot.
Why not try threading the penne pasts onto string, creating your very own nutriment necklace? It’s good fun, and does wonders for increasing finger dexterity.
You could of course easily turn this into a wet messy play idea, simply by cooking the pasta. This will completely change the type of senses your 1 or 2-year-old will experience – they’re bound to love the slippery feel.
#2 Rice tray
This is not only a messy play idea, it’s a messy tray idea…
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous and have a spare few minutes, learn how to make colored rice here, it’s not too difficult. However, don’t panic if you’re short of time, white rice is still great fun.
Your toddler will love the feeling of the rice sifting through his hands. Finger dexterity and hand and shoulder strength are all necessary skills for handwriting in the future. What better way to start than by moving fistfuls of rice from one container to another? It’s just so calming…
Why not create roads amongst the rice realm? Add in dump trucks and diggers, for a fun messy play idea for 2-year-olds and older toddlers too. This one is still a hit with my 4-year-old.
We invented numerous road setups, and even needed a traffic light system due to to some inconsiderate drivers!
#3 Frozen toys
This fun frozen sensory activity can be enjoyed using any mini toys.
- Firstly, put the toys in your chosen container, and fill with water.
- Secondly, leave the container in the freezer overnight.
- Throughout the next morning, place the ice block complete with frozen toys in the messy tray and watch as your toddler witnesses their very own Ice Age phenomena…
Older toddlers will enjoy using a spoon to chip away at the ice, to retrieve their dearest dinosaur. There’s plenty of opportunity here to explore scientific vocabulary. Gasps of, “Oooh that’s cold!” are to be expected. Some words and phrases to consider incorporating when engaging in the activity are: ‘Frozen,’ ‘melting,’ ‘smooth,’ ‘hard,’ ‘changing to water,’ ‘becoming a liquid.’
This has become a favorite outdoor activity in the summer when it’s hot. My older kids love it too and have contests as to who can rescue their toys first…
#4 Playdough faces
Older toddlers can help to make fresh playdough, offering the chance to discuss which ingredients have been used, and whether the flour or the salt is ‘heavier’ or ‘lighter.’ I love this no-cook playdough recipe as there’s no worry about burns on a hot stove.
If you’re hard-pressed for time, however, store-bought playdough does the job. 1 and 2-year-olds could add buttons and wool to create eyes, a mouth and hair. For the 1-year-olds, the process of creating a button moon mound is a success in itself. Isn’t it wonderful that a box of buttons can be so entertaining?!
Add in a garlic press to make some fun squiggly hair. (We now have a dedicated playdough garlic press as it can be a bit tricky to clean up.)
#5 Oats or cereal messy tray
Another great way to improve hand eye co-ordination – dish up teddy’s breakfast.
In fact, this messy tray idea definitely lends itself to a re-enactment of our favorite story: ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’.
- First of all, serve the dry oats or cereal, and make sure you lock the door to your cottage when you go for your morning walk in the forest.
- On returning, discuss which bowl is too large or too small, and which is just right.
- Next, add some containers and spoons – your toddler will be happy to play independently.
It really is as simple as that.
#6 Sand box
It only takes a minute to place some Playmobile people in the sand tray alongside some stones and a few leaves from the garden. Instantly you have created a new world for your toddler to enjoy, and their creativity and imagination can really run wild.
Since sand play lends itself to social interaction, this is a great opportunity for language development. What stories you could create!
Younger toddlers benefit purely from a sensory-touch perspective. They will likely find the feel of the sand intriguing and their confidence will flourish as they manipulate objects and mold the sand.
Kinetic sand is a very versatile sensory play material that can be great fun. It looks similar to regular sand but acts more like wet sand as it can be molded and can hold shape, making it an ideal material for sensory play. Making your own is not complicated, simply mix flour into the sand, followed by oil in the following ratio.
- 4 cups sand
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
Alternatively, you can of course purchase kinetic sand – there are lots of bright colors to choose from to add to the sensory experience. (It also makes a great gift for all those a kid’s parties – sand is such a wonderful dry messy play idea and the teacher in me cannot help encourage it.)
#7 Shredded paper
This is a super fun activity that will really foster your little one’s curiosity. Super handy too, if you happen to have a paper shredder at home. The only other essential is your messy tray or another suitable large container.
- Have two sets of toys to hand, for example, a bundle of dinosaurs and a bundle of Duplo bricks.
- Then, hide the toys amongst the paper, and your toddler will love playing hide and seek with the objects.
- Once all of the items have been found, sorting them into sets provides many opportunities to develop vocabulary. For example, ‘same,’ ‘identical,’ ‘pairs,’ ‘different’ etc…
Hand and eye coordination are developing rapidly at 1 and 2 years old so this type of activity is therefore incredibly valuable.
#8 Egg tray messy play
A simple egg box can facilitate lots of fun and is great for both fine and gross motor development as well as offering the chance to practice other skills like color and letter recognition for older toddlers, preschoolers even.
Add pompoms and giant tweezers
With a giant pile of pompoms and some toddler-friendly tools, sorting and moving each pompom into it’s own compartment can keep a 1 or 2 year old busy for quite some time.
Further the challenge by using pens to decorate each egg compartment, and set your toddler on a mission to correctly sort the pompoms by color. Then count all the reds, all the yellows and so on.
Add cocktail sticks and toddler hammer
For the 2-year-olds, why not stick a cocktail stick in each compartment and then hammer it in? In my experience, older toddlers really enjoy hammering in cocktail sticks.
Draw on letters
This is a bit of a stretch for a 2-year-old but for older toddlers starting on letter recognition, write a letter on each pokey-up bit of the egg box (where the cocktail stick is in the photo above) draw letters. Then call out the sound and have your toddler search and hit it with their little hammer.
#9 Magazine or newspaper ripping
A pile of newspapers and/or magazines is all you need to prepare for this dry messy play idea for toddlers – perfect for the destructive 2-year-old! (That’s probably all of them…) If you’re using magazines, remove the staples, then just let them get ripping and tearing – the noise is where the pleasure lies.
Just be careful with little ones keen on stuffing everything in their mouth as the ink won’t be the healthiest snack. In this case kitchen towels would be a good replacement.
The ripped-up pieces are then perfect for dump trucks, diggers and rubbish trucks to play in (yup, even the rubbish gets reused in our house).
#10 Sound tubes
This is very engaging, as your little one will delight in creating their own musical instrument toys and in hearing the different noises they can produce.
To create a sound tube for your little one and help them connect with the auditory world around them, you’ll only need a few simple supplies:
- First, save a few empty paper towel rolls or you could re-use a plastic bottle.
- Next, collect a variety of different materials to go inside each tube e.g. like uncooked rice, dried beans, or beads.
- Then, fill each tube with a different material and safely secure the ends of the tubes (duct tape can work for this).
- Finally, decorate with pens and/or stickers. My children always love painting their creations…
#11 Moon sand
Moon sand is a little like kinetic sand in that it holds it’s shape quite well so this dry messy play idea is pretty much the same as #6 above. But moon sand is quite a different sensory experience – it’s so soft and fluffy. Very touchable and completely irresistible to toddlers making it the ideal dry messy play idea for your 1 or 2-year-old.
You just need flour and oil, any types will do, and mix together in a ratio of 8:1.
Then let your toddlers scoop with it, smush it through their fingers and just play. Add small toys and they’ll be in seventh heaven!
How can I encourage messy play?
That’s simple – get involved. If your little one witnesses you getting stuck in with a tray of unknown delights, they will quickly follow suit. Allow them this opportunity as much as possible.
If your toddler is always interested in the tupperware draw, give them some of their own to play with. If they can’t help but put their fingers in the soil in the garden, provide them a sand tray. You’ll quickly learn which type of sensory activities and messy play your 1 or 2 year olds just loves to get stuck into.
Messy play uses the hands and fingers, which promotes fine motor skill development. You’ll also see your toddler’s gross motor skills improve. As a result, the foundations of their body balance and spatial awareness have been laid. It really is worth the effort.
What are some additional sensory activities?
It’s true that nothing beats sensory play for young children. There are lots of additional activities that you can explore, the world is your oyster when it comes to dry messy play. Hopefully, this article has given you loads of dry messy play ideas from which you can build.
You can also venture into messy play of the WET variety. Even wet messy play for toddlers does not have to be particularly messy, as a plastic sheet retained specifically for the purpose can easily be hosed off.
The most simple opportunity for sensory experience is meal times. In particular, your young toddler will naturally want to investigate food, which is a highly valuable learning experience. It therefore makes very good sense to encourage this (and not worry about the mess). Messy play ideas for 1-year-olds can involve such easy-to-hand household items, and facilitate so much fun, you honestly won’t look back.
So start collecting and hoarding those random supplies for your sensory adventures, and while your stock builds, simply use what you have to hand.
Embrace messy play and let it become a regular part of your toddlers every day
We love messy play and all messy tray ideas! It’s fun and super easy to facilitate. Knowing how important messy sensory experiences are for your toddler’s early development means it’s SO worth digging out a baking tray, and starting the process of hoarding kitchen rolls.
The use of sensory material creates hands-on, self-directed and self-centred play, and it encourages discovery and development. Sensory play helps to build nerve connections in the brain and encourages the development of language and motor skills.
Messy play supports your little one’s cognitive development – the ways they think, explore and figure things out. It offers your child a chance to figure things out for themselves. Every time they solve a problem, they reinforce that ability and build self-confidence. Isn’t it amazing to think that sensory play actually helps your toddler’s developing brain build nerve connections?
Remember, messy play has no end goal. The whole point is to let children explore the materials in front of them in whichever way they wish. Whether you choose to join in, or allow independent play to unfold, your toddler will love the freedom that this style of play affords.
Enabling your little one to explore their interests will reap benefits later in life. I am learning to embrace the slogan: