There comes a moment that every parent, daycare teacher, and early childhood educator encounters when feeding an infant. The bib is secured, the spoon stirring the mush is handled steadily to ensure it gets directly into his mouth, and the wet washcloth is ready in hand to instantly wipe away any spillage. As I place the first spoonful into his mouth, I have the same reaction every grown up innately does– the spoon swipe. You know the motion, wiping upward with the spoon pushing that extra little bit of mush back into the little one’s mouth. With all of these attempts to keep clean, it is a common response that infants will gleefully squeal as their fists fall directly into mush. I am prepared with my wet washcloth to instantly clean up any sign of the substance and I watch him smile and cackle as he dodges my attempts to clean the grey mush off of his eyebrows. It is then that I had an epiphany. This high chair is his very first sensory table. I can’t help but cringe at my attempts to hinder these imperative early learning experiences.
As guardians, it is easy to fall into the cleanliness trap. In order to protect our sanity, we take every precaution to keep our lives tidy, you know, KonMari. We all know that paint stains on your new couch do NOT spark joy. However, I urge guardians to take a step back and allow children to explore the depths of sensory play. Every time a child’s hands and face are cleaned, are erasing an organic experience that allows him to feel and find new meaning in materials.
It is important to note that sensory exploration is more than just textured balls and sand. It is experiencing the world through your fingertips in everyday activities. Through these experiences, children develop skills and build muscles that prepare them to reach future developmental milestones. Let’s take a deeper look at one of the most divisive sensory materials—play dough.
Play dough is a childhood staple that children love and many guardians dread. We’ve all scoured pinterest in search of that secret concoction that gets play dough out of the rug, but the benefits to this sensory stimulating material outweigh the risk. First, the experience of making the play dough itself stimulates the senses positively. The feeling of soft flour mixed with course salt combined with slippery oil allows children’s little hands to experience new textures individually and then watch it all change once it is cooked. To promote extra sensory stimulation, adding a few drops of essential oil increases depth to their experience. Once it is cooked and cooled slightly, allow the children to mold and mix their new creation and feel the difference in temperatures. The fine motor benefits of play dough are especially vital to developing children’s hand strength. While it may seem like merely messy play, each doughy worm made is developing their finger muscles to aid in pencil grip and improve pre writing skills in the years to come. Each play dough pancake flattened engages a child’s core and invites him to use his shoulder muscles. So while, this messy sensory material may just seem like a nuisance, please take a step back and consider what exactly this child is experiencing through their play.
Play dough also invites children to express their ideas and create using their imaginations while using their finger muscles to manipulate the small pieces of dough to add buttons to their snowman’s coat or pepperoni to their yummy pizza. This open ended material allows children to create without inhibitions and express their ideas positively. Who would have thought flour, salt, oil, and a little bit of cream of tartar could provide endless learning opportunities? Through my experience in the classroom, I urge you to find a play dough recipe and get cooking!
Do I regret this philosophy as I try to scrub the caked on mush from the eyebrows of an infant? Absolutely, but with some knowledge about the benefits and uses of sensory materials like play dough I have come to grips with the fact that it is worth the mess.