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How Sensory Play Works, Even When It Doesn't

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

I did it again, friends. I saw a fun little activity for my son, thought "that seems easy enough!", gave it a go, and...

Pinterest-Failed like my true soul intends, of course!


It was messy. It didn't turn out as planned. I could easily clean up the aftermath and pretend it never happened, but that wouldn't be very fair of me because despite all those potentially negative things it was, it was also still fun and beneficial. I'm encouraging you, fellow mamas, to always remember that every little attempt you make to offer something to your child counts and you should never question if you're doing the right thing.


So what was it that we attempted? A simple and fun themed water activity. It's almost shark week (or maybe it is already - I can't keep up between my work schedule, my husband's new work schedule, a side project I've been putting a lot of time into, and my tornado toddler) so I thought it was perfect when I found an ocean set up. Mind you, the inspiration was a clean and pristine activity table with removable trays and everything looked picture perfect. Mine, on the other hand, was a towel on my kitchen floor with an assortment of measuring spoons, plastic cups and bowls, and a glass baking pan. You work with what you've got!

I instructed my son to go collect some ocean toys - he's got a handful of small sharks, fish, and Spongebob figurines that would be perfect for an ocean themed water activity. He returned with some Imaginext superheroes and villains. "Sure," I agreed. "Superheroes have to protect the oceans, too." He was happy with it either way. I set him up on the towel and present him with the glass baking pan full of water - bright blue water. He was immediately pumped. "It's BLUE!" I tell him I made it special for him to play his ocean water game and hide the food coloring back in the cabinet before he sees that there are 3 more colors that I didn't use. He immediately dove in and was in heaven - water is one of his favorite things - so I busied myself with prepping dinner. PS: I consider this a pro mom tip to use water play in the kitchen floor to keep kids busy and safe while you're cooking. I can cook a full meal AND clean up without having to worry for a second about what my kid is getting into. I turn to check on him after a few minutes and he's moved his figurines into the baking pan and is scooping water into the bowl, then pouring it between cups. "I'm doing an 'speriment," he told me confidently. I smiled and returned to my task at hand.


Once dinner was fully going and needed a few minutes to simmer before serving, I fully turned to my boy and ask him to wrap up his experiments so we could get ready to eat. He looks up at me to say "okay" and I see it. His hands, droplets on his legs that have run down in streaks, and encircling his adorable little mouth - BRIGHT BLUE. That's right, apparently I do not have the appropriate food coloring to create a sensory bin that doesn't result in a Smurphy toddler. But did I let this ruin the whole experience? Maybe 2 years ago it would have, but I could only laugh now. I told Jhonen he was blue, and he responded with a concerned, "oh no..." but I assured him it was no big deal and would wash off and fade after a day or two. At that point, he laughed, too. When he resumed playing by attempting to climb into the baking pan with the blue water, I did stop him and explain that we needed new clear water to finish out his game. He was fine with that, we changed out his water, he played for another 5 minutes while dinner finished and cooled, and after a couple of baths I had my normal little boy back with no blue.


Moral of the story is - almost everything is fixable. Was it as planned? Was it pretty? No. And no. But my son was still able to practice imagination, creativity, motor skills, the basis of scientific exploration, cognitive development, and independent play despite those facts. Kids are messy. Parenting is messy. Life is messy. It's okay if learning and play are, too.


And as a special treat, if you're interested in my first attempt at a sensory bin all the way back in February 2021, one of the initial times that I realized "I ain't this kind of mama", enjoy this Facebook live I did to recap the disaster! Further evidence to show that I didn't give up, I just adjusted my mindset and kept going - and you can, too.


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