Children's Mental Health

The Benefits of Messy Play for Autism

Great messy play ideas for sensory-seeking children

Engaging children with autism in the right messy play can stimulate their brain, creating neural pathways and improving their sensory processing systems. It can improve social skills such as communication and cooperation and improve coordination including hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills/gross motor skills.

Messy play for autism can help children or adults remain calm, de-stress and divert or engage their focus, as well as provide the sensory experience they need. This will help them engage with their senses, provide feedback to their sensory systems, and regulate their sensory needs.

Choose a time to play where you are able to join in because playing together with your child means you can watch for ways to enhance or extend their play.

The benefits of sensory activities are naturally important for all children, not just those that have been diagnosed or display indications of autism. If sensory play is not provided, you may find your child in the sink playing with the water, digging in their mud kitchen, splashing in puddles, squeezing and smearing paint, banging toys, shredding paper, cards etc – so, it’s great to have some messy play ideas ready to go.

Messy play ideas

Preparation is key for messy sensory play activities; choose a place in the garden or home for your messy play activity – ideally somewhere easy to clear up! You’ll need a surface to play and here at Edx Education we have many trays that are perfect like our Fun2 Play Activity Tray or our Circular Sand and Water Tray.

At first, try an activity for just one of the five senses – touch, smell, taste, sight or hearing. Go gently and evaluate what sensory stimulation works well, and what should be avoided. Then add in more experiences as you go.

Be mindful that all children are drawn to putting things into their mouths, so you need to make sure all objects they are given are non-toxic and safe.

TOUCH: Feeling different textures is good for stimulating brain development as well as helping children get used to different sensations. Try slime with our Translucent Counters, sand with our Dinosaur Counters, rice with our Vegetable Counters or play dough with our Farm Animal Counters; all great for those that are intrigued by different experiences. If it is water your child loves, get them car washing a toy in the garden, or why not try our Sensory Ocean idea using Aquatic Counters and water beads, it is a great sensory play activity for all ages.

SMELL: With scented shaving cream the possibilities are endless – make a rainbow with cut coloured straws, add water beads and some rubber cupcake cases and make muffins (not edible!), or add different coloured paints and make some messy pictures.

TASTE: One of our favourite messy play activities for kids is as simple as cereal in a bowl with some of our counters to discover. Or you can engage their creative side and make necklaces or bracelets out of hoop cereal. Messy play idea and snack sorted!

SIGHT: A great way to provide sensory sight play is to get some push-button battery lights from a pound store. First, tape up the back so the batteries cannot be removed, then simply cut a few squares of thin coloured paper and tape to the top of the lights. Shut the curtains and play! Plus, you add glow sticks and a blanket to enhance the fun.

HEARING: Homemade musical instruments are a great addition to any home and are fun to make. Ideas include making shakers from filled plastic bottles with rice or dried beans, rattles from thread buttons or beads onto some string, drums from plastic tubs and wooden spoons to bash, and chimes where you hang up some bottle tops or shells.

For more information on play ideas for sensory-seeking children, read our article: How do fidget toys help autism?

Messy play for autism, without the mess!

It is well documented that autistic children who are hypersensitive to different textures may find it hard to enjoy getting messy. If this is the case, you can offer support by demonstrating the activity first so the child can see how the play “works” before deciding whether to touch it or not.

While we want to encourage children, they should never be forced into an activity they feel distressed about. Keep wipes, water and/or a towel close by so if they do engage, they can clean their hands as soon as they want or need to. Edx Education’s tactile shells are a ‘clean’ outlet for creative expression allowing them to exercise their creativity and imaginations.

All children love a frozen toy activity for stimulating the senses. You will need to prepare this activity a day ahead. Find a large plastic box, quarter fill it with water, put some toys in and freeze. Simple. Or you can add more layers with some food coloring if you wish. The children then have to get the toys out of the ice, using a selection of tools or use spray bottles with warm water in which will reduce the messy element, but maximise the fun!

For kids learning toys for different, abilities and developmental stages, view our full range here: or

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