You may think that your toddler is just a walking mess generator, but in fact, he’s an intrepid sensory explorer. Toddlers learn to use all five of their senses by exploring their world. And yes, their exploration may end with a mess, but tactile activities will enhance your toddler’s touch perception and assist in developing his motor skills.
Your toddler may not be able to hold a brush effectively yet, but she can certainly use her fingers to spread paint across paper. If you don’t want to use traditional — washable — finger paints, you can seek out some eco-friendly brands. Or let your toddler “paint” with shaving cream or pudding. Finger painting paper is a good idea, though, as it’s slightly water-resistant and won’t soak through.
Sand and Water
A big, square plastic bin filled with sand makes for a makeshift texture table right in your own home. Add a few cups, shovels and other containers to scoop and pour. You can even throw in some “buried treasure” such as fake plastic coins, pretty rocks or over-sized beads. Wet the sand down for a different tactile experience.
You can experiment with alternatives to sand, as well. Anything from beans, rice and popcorn to fuzzy pompoms can make for a fun texture bin experience. Pay attention to possible choking hazards, though, and supervise your child’s play.
Water play provides a plethora of sensory exploration opportunities, although it can be messy, so you might want to play these games outside. Give your toddler a basin of sudsy water and a sponge, and let him “wash” his plastic toys. Or give him a wooden spoon to stir with and a selection of containers to pour with.
Throw in a handful of corks to float. Don’t neglect your kitchen sink and bathroom tub as sites for creative water play either. There are all sorts of bath crayons and paints to experiment with, not to mention bubble bath. On hot summer days, a shallow plastic wading pool is also a good site for tactile water play.
Clay and Dough
You can use commercial modeling dough or clay or make your own batch. Add plastic knives, spoons and cookie cutters. Child-safe scissors and certain artist’s clay tools are also good choices to play with. Let your toddler develop hand strength and fine motor control while molding, rolling, squeezing and smashing the dough.
If you have a bit of the DIY bug, you can construct a texture book for your child. Simply collect sheets of interestingly textured material — aluminum foil, burlap, fun fur, felt and so on — and either paste them into the pages of a blank book or construct the book yourself using construction paper with masking tape as binding.
Make a batch of extra-thick flavored gelatin, and use cookie cutters to cut out interesting shapes for your toddler to manipulate. Let her squeeze, pull and perhaps eventually eat it. You can also cut the gelatin into squares and pile it into a plastic bin with some colored marshmallows, small cups and even those cookie cutters. This sort of play can get very messy, so make sure your toddler is wearing a smock or play clothes, and set up a tarp.
You can combine sensory play and exercise by collecting leaves, acorns, sticks, pine cones and stones on a “nature walk.” Bring them home and pour them into a bin for another session, or label a jar with their name and let your child begin a collection. Ask your child to stop and feel the unique textures of each item she brings home. Scratchy or smooth? Soft or hard? You can even have your toddler sort them into piles according to tactile experience.