Saying Yes to Messy Sensory Play
If you’ve followed my instagram for any length of time, you’d notice my kids are almost always covered in mud, sand, water, or some other messy play. Some of the time it’s because someone didn’t follow directions and ran into the puddle even when I begged and redirected them not to. The majority of my motherhood, I veer a bit on the permissive side of sensory seeking behaviors and learning from natural consequences. It’s not so much that my kids ask me (they don’t) if they can play in the mud, it’s what they’re naturally drawn to. I’m raising little lady sensory seekers and I have learned to accept it. If you have kiddos who love messy play, you’re in good company and we can schedule a play date.
Here’s the deal, I know allowing your kids to play messy is not for everyone. Some of my favorite friends visibly cringe when I allow my girls to explore a puddle at the playground. Some of my other mom friends love the outdoors, encourage natural play, and we’ve even gone camping together. I’d like to think I have a good variety and balance of voices of reason on my team. One thing to note is for those who can't do messes, the best response to give us mommas who have mud covered children is "more power to you, friend". I have dealt with the sympathetic onlookers at the park as well as the wide eyed bewilderment. I know those looks well, I'm level expert of saying my opinion with my eyes (and face). The response that always makes me chuckle (uncomfortably) is "I need to be more like you" in reference to my children sitting in a puddle in their front yard.
One thing that works in my favor is my personality. While I’m a recovering perfectionist, I’m mastering the art of realistic expectations of my girls and myself. Setting my expectations to match their ages and developmental abilities has made a huge difference. I feel like motherhood is one giant balancing act of managing expectations and giving and receiving grace. What does expectations and grace have to do with letting my kids play in sand and water? In my non-expert parenting opinion- EVERYTHING. Here’s a typical Cardoza Gals scenario: we go to a park and I expect to be able to sit, drink coffee, watch my girls blissfully play on the swings/slides/sandbox, and I relax. (Find unrealistic version of motherhood gif) What actually happens is, I scan the park to make sure there are no puddles, open gates, or large mud pits available. When I realize the inevitable, I take a deep breath and remind myself that they are my kids and they will get messy. This is when my expectations are managed and I allow grace for them to get mud on their clothes.
I'm not a superior human. I have my days when the last thing I want to do is a mid morning bath due to outdoor play. Those are days that we find different activities to do that doesn’t involve being a hot mess. I don’t allow messy play all the time. There are times when it’s not appropriate or we have some place to arrive clean to. But, on days when my self gets in the way and I have limited excuses I reach deep and ask myself these questions,
- Why not?
- Are they safely playing, not harming others or other's property?
- What's the rush?
- What are they learning?
- Can it be washed? The answer is almost always YES. (laundry hint: everything can soak in oxi clean for a few days and recover)
Those questions might seem overly simplistic, but they are my go to when I encounter a situation where theres an unexpected puddle at the nature center and I just can't mentally handle continually redirecting them away. One thing to note, safety of self and others is priority. If what they're playing in or around isn't safe- momma is firm on the No and redirection is consistent. Sometimes we allow for natural consequences, within reason of course. One example I can think of is our trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. My eldest was almost 3 and just growing into her love of all things sensory. We had hiked out to a lake and she wanted to touch the water. It was freezing cold water for sure. I knew my no wasn't going to be good enough, so I took off most of her clothes and allowed her to explore and learn. She fell in, and quickly realized it was cold and not what she wanted after all. In this case, I allowed for the mess even though it wasn't super safe. What are they learning? In this case, she learned the water was cold and she definitely did NOT want to fall in. hah.
Practical Tips on Allowing for Messy Sensory Play:
Keep Towels, diapers, change of clothes, and baby wash handy for a quick outdoor clean off. I can't tell you how often outdoor showers are the best way to clean off. I used to carry them up to the bath, but honestly that got tired FAST.
Create an area they can safely play, explore, and learn outside. While we have filled in their mud pit, we have a few other areas of the yard they can dig and "mess" up.
Sink play is probably the hardest for me to say yes to. It means I have to be overly on top of no dishes in the sink. I have walked up to find my middle wielding our sharp knife.
Set a timer, have towels and wipes available, and realize that if you walk away the mess will be bigger than if you stay and "play" with them.
On the Go:
Pack changes of clothes. Even if you don't think you'll need them, have a spare set of clothes for all ages of kids in your car. I can't tell you how often my kids end up being in a diaper in their car seat.
Keep a towel, water bottle, extra baby wipes, and plastic bags in the trunk of your car.
Mentally prepare to abort the park and don't expect to be able to stop anywhere without a drive-thru after.
The exploratory ages of under 5 is messy and inevitable. Not all kiddos are as attracted to dirt and mess as mine are (count yourself blessed). For my mommas who tend to live life a bit more anxious and prone to feeling overwhelmed- *both hands raised*. Everyone of us has our strengths in this parenting journey. My strength happens to be exterior chillness with my kiddos (inside I am anything but chill). What works for me, might not work for you. Your strengths might be the ability to keep their bedrooms categorically organized, walking through the library quietly, or letting them wear white with zero trepidation. What are some ways you can introduce messy sensory play to your littles? Are you a naturally chill momma? Would LOVE to hear if my kids are the only ones that roll in mud... hah.