Zen and the Art of Messy Play - DuPage Children's Museum

Transportation Zoo | Saturday, July 20, 9–1

Get Tickets!
Close button

Zen and the Art of Messy Play

February 23, 2015

Childhood is often loud and messy, and while it may seem that this is the case merely to test our patience, it actually has developmental significance. Children learn best and retain the most information when they are actively exploring their environments as well as the materials in them in ways that engage their senses.

The Sensory Stage By providing children with open-ended sensory play activities, you are helping to develop and refine their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional language and creative expression skills.

The Sensory Stage of Learning: Sensory activities are appealing to young children because they are fun and answer the important questions, “What is this?” and “What does this do?” For example, children learn that they cannot hold a lot of water in their hands without it running through their fingertips and down their shirts.

As children get a little older, they may have a better idea of what can be done with objects but continue to need to use their senses to help them test their theories and better answer questions like, “What happens if…?” A three-year-old child might learn, “If I hit this drum hard, it makes a louder noise.” A five-year-old may mix two or three paint colors together to learn what other colors he can create.

So what is sensory play? I am an advocate for mess making. Cornstarch, flour, water, shaving cream—bring it on! Not ready to fully embrace the mess? That’s ok, but it doesn’t mean that you need to give up on the idea of sensory play altogether! Sensory play includes any activity that engages any of your child’s senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing.

Here’s something you can try at home virtually mess-free—explore new foods and recipes with your child by creating your own healthful treat to try. Watch your child’s reaction to the new food (facial expression or movements). Don’t forget to ask your child, “How does it taste?” Cooking experiences give children the opportunity to explore their world using all of their senses.

Ready for a little mess? Try making scented play dough. (See the recipe below.) The process of measuring the ingredients is an excellent opportunity to include math language, and while mixing the ingredients you can build scientific inquiry skills by talking about the ways the ingredients are changing!

Want to Learn More? This is just the first of a series of posts in which we will discuss the benefits of providing experiences that integrate all the senses.


    • Scented Playdough
      • 1 Cup Flour
      • ½ Cup Salt
      • 2 Teaspoons Cream of Tartar
      • 1 Tablespoon Cooking Oil
      • 2 Tablespoons Cocoa Powder
      • 1 Cup Boiling Water
    • Directions
      • Mix together flour, salt, oil, and cocoa powder; add the cup of boiling water.
      • Mix well with a wooden spoon.
      • When it begins to form into dough, continue to knead with your hands.
      • Store in a sealed container or zip lock bag.