Messy and Sensory Play Tips: The Best Time, Places, Activities, & Equipment

Child plays with spaghetti to practice sensory play.

As a parent, teacher, or caregiver, messy play facilitation can be so fun, as well as challenging. Sometimes people want to find the “right” way to promote messy or sensory play. First, I want to reassure you that there are so so many ways to do it! You don't have to find the one “perfect” way. Second, I want to share some tips for making your first sensory play experience a good one for you and the children in your life! So here are a few ideas to get you started to ensure messy or sensory play success. 

 Do you want messy and sensory play products sent right to your doorstep? Check out all of our in stock Messy Play Activities.

Determine the Best Sensory Play Time

Mom and child play with markers and tape.


When IS the best time for messy and sensory play? There's a little part of me that wants to say,  “Any time!” But the truth is that some times are definitely better suited to messy play than others. While the specific time and date will vary depending on your unique situation, I do have several tips for how you can pick the best time for you and your kiddo!

Choose a time when you have messy time

Don't schedule sensory play shortly before you need to rush to another activity. Plan plenty of time for you and your child to set up the materials, play and explore, as well as clean up. 

Choose a time when you can stay engaged

Often during playtime, grownups keep one eye on their child and the other eye on a chore, a screen, or another person. For messy and sensory play, you need to be fully present with your child, particularly when you're new to this type of play. This means a time when you're not obligated to do chores or answer emails, and when you can set aside other distractions.

Choose a time shortly after a meal or snack

Messy and sensory play activities are best to do when your child isn’t hungry. A hungry kiddo is not only more likely to get cranky, but also to eat the materials! So plan to play shortly after eating a meal or snacks.

Choose a time that fits well with your plans for the day

Consider doing it right after breakfast while still in pajamas, or right before bath time. For some, that means playing first thing in the morning, while you're still in jammies. For others, it might mean playing in the evening, right before bath time, to make the most of that already scheduled cleanup. 

So in a way, the little voice in my head is right: any time CAN be the right time for messy play. It all depends on your life and your schedule! With the tips above, you can choose the most ideal time for you and your little one!

Decide Your Sensory Play Setting

Kids play together in an appropriate messy play settings.

Keep the mess within its designated space! Whether it's a tub, a bin, or a special tablecloth that you put down just for messy play, having a well defined area will help keep the mess contained and ALSO help your kids to understand when and where messy play is okay in the future. 

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The bathtub 

This allows you to wash the little ones off right in the same space after the session is over. 

A tarp or drop cloth

These are readily available from your local hardware store or from big box stores. Many varieties are both economical and reusable. Messy Play Kits sells our very own Washable Drop Cloth for fun and easy play.

An empty kiddie pool

If you have the outdoor space and cooperative weather, a kiddie pool can be the perfect place for messy play! The sides are excellent at keeping the contents contained, and the material is usually simple to rinse and wipe down afterward. 

Outside messy play

Nature is a great place for sensory play! From sand, to dirt, to grass, to water, to rocks, to plants, to flowers, to trees, there are so many textures that exist naturally for your kiddo to enjoy.

Sensory table play

A sensory play table can be a fun and easy way to define a specific play for messy play. There are a number of different types of tables depending on play preferences.

Choose the Best Sensory Play Activities

Kids messy play activity.

There are several ways to help your child have a great messy or sensory play experience! The best messy play activities will depend on your child and your family’s preferences. Here are some tips to choosing which ones are best for you: 


Age-appropriate messy play is imperative to keep kid’s safe. From choking hazards to mouthing toxic materials, it’s important to engage your child with messy play activities that are aligned with their age and development.


Every child develops at a different pace. So age doesn’t always determine ability. Be sure to observe your child’s patterns to ensure they’re ready for the next activity phase. While food and water play is suitable for mouthing babies, activities that teach basic math and science concepts will be more suitable to older children.


Your home and neighborhood may or may not provide environments to engage in sensory play activities. Do you have a backyard or live near a pool? Can you explore a local park, lake, river, or ocean?


All children have different interests and are able to focus their attention for shorter or longer periods of time. Understanding your child’s interests and choosing activities that will engage their attention will help them to stay engaged and learn along the way! Communicate with your kiddo about what kind of messy and sensory play they might like before deciding on an activity.  Allowing your child to help choose the type of play will also be empowering for them! 

Set Up Sensory Play Tools and Equipment 

Kid holding messy play materials including a plastic bin and measuring cup.

Here is some helpful messy play equipment to have on hand: 

A plastic sensory play tray

For small scale activities, order a sensory play tray to contain the mess to a smaller space.

A plastic bin

You can find plastic bins in an array of sizes from many retailers. One advantage of a plastic bin is that when play is done, you can pop the lid on and move the bin to a more convenient cleanup location.

A cardboard box

Try using an old shoe box or a shipping box to contain the messy play. You can even use the shipping box from your Messy Play™ order!

Safe sensory materials

Check out the Messy Play Kits safe and unsafe sensory materials list for the base of your sensory bin! You can also download my 32 Household Items for Your Sensory Bin Guide by signing up for my email newsletter.

Non-toxic alternatives

All materials in our Messy Play Kits are nontoxic, but not edible. If your child is still mouthing or tasting materials extensively, find food-safe materials to play with instead like dough made from flour and oil, whipped cream instead of shaving cream, food coloring instead of liquid watercolors, etc.

Keep Messy Play Contained for Easy Cleanup

The biggest barrier that I encounter to messy play is…well, the mess. Every day I hear from parents, teachers, and caregivers who love the idea of sensory play for their kids, but who feel apprehensive about the messiness. After all, for many people “messy" is almost a dirty word! But there are ways to keep the mess contained without losing any of the fun or enrichment! 

I understand that the messiness of messy play can seem a little threatening. But with a little planning and a few precautions, you'll be able to contain the mess while expanding your child's horizons! Having a plan and the right messy play tools in place will save you time and stress both for accidental spillover during playtime and for cleanup when you're done. Here are some tips for less messy messy play or easy cleanup after messy play!

Wear messy play clothes

Bring back the concept of play clothes! Have a set or two of clothes for yourself and your kiddos that are especially intended for getting messy. Some good options include: 

  • The Mess Maker Apron: Wear this over any outfit for some mess free sensory play!
  • A sensory suit: Sensory suits are designed to be their very own sensory experience! They wrap around a child and stretch so your kiddo can practice balance and develop strength!
  • A messy play suit: Pull over a full body, waterproof suit whenever your child is ready to make a mess. When playtime is over, remove the suit and throw it in the wash.
  • Messy play overalls: Getting some rain overalls and using them for messy play is a great way to pull this waterproof layer over clothes, then easily wash it off right afterward!
  • Old clothes: Use ones that are stained or otherwise too worn for regular use. 
  • Tee shirts and sweatpants: Consider using hand-me-downs or checking your local thrift store.
  • None at all: For some bathtub-based play, your child could wear their birthday suit. No clothes to get dirty in this case!

Choose an easy clean up area

The bathtub is a great messy area, as you can easily just turn on the water and let the play materials wash down the drain.

Contain the play space

Try containing your messy play to a defined space by laying down our Messy Play Kits’ washable dropcloth, a blanket, a tarp, a tray, or letting them play in a large plastic tub!

Bring a bucket of water

Small buckets are inexpensive and can often be found near the cleaning supplies in a store. Or use a large mixing bowl as a bucket stand-in. Keep this nearby for quick hand washing or cleaning up any spills that may occur!

Prepare lots of towels

Most of us have plenty of towels, but if not, they can be another great thrift store find! Or check your hardware or auto store for shop towels, which are small, reusable towels that come in big multi-packs, or stock up on hand towels or washcloths.Use wipes For smaller messes (like hands and faces), baby wipes can be so easy! 

Be sure to involve children in setup and cleanup

This gives them a sense of responsibility over the play, as well as empowering them and building self-confidence. Not to mention self-help skills and fine motor control (and it saves you from cleaning up the entire activity)!Invite your child to clean upAsk help from your child for the pick up process. Including your kiddo in the cleanup builds a sense of responsibility and pride in them. And with direction, they can be a big help!

All of these suggestions work best when you communicate the boundaries clearly and consistently. Your child may never realize how helpful these boundaries are, but you are sure to appreciate the way they free you to focus on the fun of the messy play without the stress of cleanup.

Enjoy Sensory Play Time

Kids enjoy messy play time.


Most importantly, have fun! Enjoy this adventure and appreciate that children learn best from this type of hands-on experience. If you’re still worried about the mess, check out my blogs about keeping messy play contained, as well as Mess-Free Sensory Play Activities! If you have other concerns, you can receive more sensory and messy play reassurance by reading, Answering Your Concerns About Messy Play.

I hope the ideas above have helped you! Messy and sensory play can provide so much fun and enrichment for your child, and can offer you a wonderful chance to connect with them – I hope you'll give it a try! It can be so very rewarding to watch your child discover the world of textures, colors, tools, and scientific concepts right in front of your eyes. I’m confident the tips above will promote a successful first messy play experience. I hope you love it as much as your kiddo does.