Messy Play is Ideal for SEN Learners

Messy Play for children with Special Educational Needs

We reveal exactly why messy play is ideal for children with Special Educational Needs and also share some great hints, tips and ideas for messy play and outdoor lessons


Messy Play is a huge part of the Early Years Foundation Stage, and with all the opportunities for fun that it provides, it is ever so popular with children. While they may think that they are just having a lot of fun, they are actually working really hard at building essential skills for their bodies and developing better neurological systems. So it really is turning work into play! This is one reason why messy play has become an important ongoing tool for teachers of children with Special Educational Needs and Specific Learning Difficulties.

Messy play offers all children many different opportunities for learning, developing, and improving their sensory perception. For children with Special Educational Needs and/or Specific Learning Difficulties, occupational therapists often refer to sensory processing or sensory integration activities as a necessary part of their development, whether they have a sensory processing disorder or not, to help them learn to foster appropriate responses to sensation and to achieve normal sensory development. Perhaps even more importantly, messy play is a very inclusive form of play and learning which every child can join in.      

How does messy play really help children with Special Educational Needs?


There are many professionals out there, occupational therapists, teachers and other practitioners, who have studied and researched, have hands on experience of and have written academic articles and opinions on the benefits of sensory processing activities for children with Special Educational Needs. Messy play is just one such (very broad!) activity and there is so much that can be said for it! So we will aim to summarise the benefits, and then give you some great ideas as to how you can incorporate messy play into your daily lesson plan.

It can help overcome regular day to day challenges     


SEN playground equipment - Messy Play

As a sensory processing activity, messy play is a brilliant way of providing and achieving some of the regular challenges in day to day functioning that a child with Special Educational Needs can face. Some children have difficulty with motor skills (fine or motor), such as walking, balancing, riding a bike, writing, and holding and controlling objects. Some children need more frequent and varied stimulation to stay happy and engaged. Some also need more help just to keep themselves calm and controlled and to understand the world around them and how they fit into it. You can use messy play activities every day, incorporating them into a child’s routine to help them to engage their minds and bodies ready for learning and to help them achieve normal developmental milestones.

Improve children’s physical development, personal and social skills


Messy play can help to improve a child’s physical development while allowing them to develop their personal and social skills and explore and better understand their emotions. It can help children to foster positive new experiences and build on their self-esteem and confidence, as the great thing about messy play, is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. Children can practice fine motor skills and coordination with activities involving pouring, pinching, scooping, stacking, blocking, spooning, sprinkling, rubbing, scraping, lifting; the list goes on!

Overcome Handwriting Problems


Many children with sensory processing difficulties have handwriting problems. Their writing may be messy, they can’t grip the pen properly or they press too hard or not hard enough, and their hands quickly become tired and sore. If their messages are not understood correctly, then handwriting along with other fine motor skills can become a stressful and frustrating task for them which they will want to avoid. Through messy play, children can work on the skills needed for handwriting without even knowing they are doing it. And such hands on tasks allow children to experience different textures that are rough, wet, shiny, slippy, soft, hard and smooth, all the time encouraging their imagination and natural curiosity. They can talk about what they are experiencing, how it makes them feel, what they do and don’t like and how they can respond to it. They will learn to read social cues and how to respond to their peers. Children will learn to respect each other’s personal space and develop an understanding of their own space and boundaries, taking turns and sharing resources.

Language, communication and mathematical skills


These skills are also encouraged as children are given plenty of opportunity to communicate throughout the activities. They can discuss what they are doing, responding to and talking about what they can see, hear, feel and smell. They can listen to others, ask questions and find their own words to describe what they are doing. They can plan and solve problems, count, measure and fill objects and play around with patterns, colours and shapes. And no two activities need to be the same as there are so many resources out there to get you going. There are no limits other than our own imagination and creativity!

Messy Play Ideas for your SEN Learners


So with all that in mind, it’s time to get started! Here are some useful ideas for learning through getting messy:


Natural Play Ideas to get you started


Natural Play Equipment for children with special educational needs

Sometimes just a pair of wellies, a bucket and spade, a muddy garden and a little imagination will do! There is so much that children can learn from nature and the world around us, and who doesn’t know a little person that loves digging for worms and mini beasts! A little time outside getting mud on their hands and engaging with nature can have a wonderfully calming effect on many children including those who find it hard to concentrate and remain engaged.

Why not check out our Natural Play Equipment that includes a Bug Hotel, Recycled Composter, Wildlife Area and Planter Benches.

Creative Mark-Making ideas


mark Making for children with special educational needs

You can get messy and creative with household items and scraps or materials that are no longer needed. Aluminium foil, paper plates, cotton wool, a few bendy straws and some paint, glue and glitter are good starting point for making greetings cards, collages and decorations. Cutting and sticking is great for encouraging creativity and imagination, developing concentration levels and improving manual dexterity. Or why not take some chalk or washable paints and large brushes outside and let the children make patterns and designs on the ground or a designated wall? It will always wash away in the rain or they can have fun trying to mop it up themselves!

Check out our Outdoor Activity Play Panels which are ideal for mark-making whilst getting inspired by the natural surroundings you find outside.

MUST READ: Ways To Facilitate and Promote Inclusive Play for Children With Special Educational Needs


Lots of messy ideas for your Tuff Spot Table


Tuff Spot Table for Children with special educational needs

A Tuff Spot Table is a fantastic multi-purpose tool to manipulate messy materials on. A number of children can stand around the Tuff Spot Table at one time and the surface can be covered in pretty much anything you like. The raised edges help to contain the “mess”. Cover it in dry materials like sand, grains of rice, lentils, pasta shapes, bits of polystyrene packaging, sawdust and wood shavings, hay, straw, shredded paper or flour. Ask the children to make marks and patterns in the dry materials with different instruments such as their own fingers, twigs, chopsticks, or feathers.

Can they pick anything up with the chopsticks? How about gripping something with a pair of tweezers? Change the textures by putting wet materials and “goo” on the Tuff Spot Table such as baked beans, cooked noodles, shaving foam, squirty cream, cornflour mixed with water (you can add some food colouring too), or coloured paints. Splat paint all over the table and drive toy tractors through it to make tracks! Encourage the children to talk about what they are doing and what they can feel. When do they need to press hard and which materials are easy to manipulate? They can take it in turns to mark out their patterns and talk about them together.

Some mud-filled ideas for your Mud Kitchen


Mud Kitchen for children with special educational needs! SEN play equipment

A Mud Kitchen in your outdoor play area is a wonderful tool to encourage children to get outside into the fresh air all year round. It’s not just for making mud pies! It has large stainless containers which can be filled with all sorts of materials and used in a similar way to a Tuff Spot Table.

If any children are fearful of new experiences or just don’t like the feel of some of the materials, you can start off using smaller vessels like yogurt pots, with smaller amounts in them, to give them a chance to get used to the different textures. They can just put a spoon or a finger in first before going the whole stretch! Starting off with smaller areas and fewer different materials, then working up to a larger area and more varied textures will help. If a child really does not enjoy playing with messy things or getting in a mess, it is even more important that you find fun, interesting and creative ways to introduce them to these items and to help them overcome their fears. Playdoh is usually popular and wonderfully familiar so it’s a good place to start. It can be rolled out and cut or manipulated into all sorts of different shapes on top of the Tuff Spot Table. It’s easy and cheaper to make your own too. Here’s our favourite recipe:

* In a saucepan mix together 1 cup of plain flour, ½ a cup of salt, 1 cup of water, 1 tablespoon of cooking oil and 2 tablespoons of cream of tartar. Add a few drops of any colour of liquid food colouring that you fancy and stir together over a gentle heat until the dough is malleable. Once the dough has cooled it is ready to be played with. You can store it in a sealed plastic bag or airtight container. *

Fun-filled play ideas with sand and water


Sand play for children with special educational needs - playground equipment

Playing in sand or water provides essential but fun ways for children to experience tactile input, their ability to sense the world around them through touch. A Covered Sand Box or Sand Table, and a Covered Water Table can be filled with any of the substances we have already mentioned. And if you are using sand or water, why not add some glitter to it for a touch of magic sparkle!

You can hide toys or buried treasure in the sand for children to discover and explore. X marks the spot! Count how many coins they have found. Use spoons to fill up old gloves and socks with the sand and make a sand man. This is great for their motor skills. Add some water to it and you can mould sand pies or build a giant’s castle.

Bring the seaside to your classroom and take them “fishing”! You can fill the Water Table with water and put toys, sand, shells, anything you like in it to discover what sinks and what floats. Transfer water between containers using different measurements. You can use warm or cold water, and even add ice cubes to it for different sensations. In the spring and summer time children love to make smelly “perfume” gathering lavender, flowers, petals and grass and adding it to the water table.

If you have an Outdoor Dig Pit you can enjoy all of these experiences outside on a larger scale, whether digging in the soil for “worms” or letting them create their own “beach”.

How to build core skills with a Rope and Pulley System


Rope and Pulley System for SEN learners - play equipment

A Rope and Pulley System with a suspended bucket for transferring messy materials is another great playground resource. Ask the children to fill the bucket with jelly for a bit of fun and get them to do a team exercise transferring the jelly to each other and then to another messy work station without spilling any. They can use other containers but nothing should hit the floor. Easier said than done! As well as building their strength and motor skills as they load up the bucket and pull on the rope, children will be encouraged to co-operate with each other and to learn social skills as they work out what needs to go where and how each child has a role to play.

These are just a few ideas as to how messy play can be used in your school, but we would love to hear how you have been getting messy! Please send us your thoughts and ideas to our Twitter and Facebook page.

We are specialists in creating innovative SEN Playground Equipment and have developed the outdoor learning environment of huge Special Schools including Fox Wood School and Green Lane Community Special School. Simply Contact Us through the website to see how we can help develop your outdoor play environment.


You May Also Like Our Other SEN Focused Blogs:

Inclusive Outdoor Gomes For Deaf Children

Sensory Play Ideas For Children With Special Educational Needs

Heavy Work Activities For Children With Special Needs