Summer fun
‘Messy play’ and its many benefits

By Macaile Hutt

Summer is now here after what felt like an endless cold season, so I thought it would be fitting to share some fun and easy summer activities to get outside, promote messy play, and stimulate the sensory systems of our kiddos. It’s important to encourage messy play anytime we can to help children learn cause and effect, desensitize tactile insecurities (avoidance to touching certain textures, temperatures, or new things) and allow for imaginative and abstract play to occur. Most people have a ton of activities right at their fingertips and don’t even realize it! I’ve broken the activities into smaller categories to address specific skills.
Oral Motor: There are lots of fun ways to address oral motor skills at home. Oral motor skill development can be impacted by high or low muscle tone, sensory concerns leading to picky eating, excess drooling, and aversion to being touched in or near the child’s mouth. I’ve listed a few fun ways to address oral motor skill development and encourage sensory exploration below:
• Bubble mountain: Create big bubble mountains with dish soap, water, and a straw. Add food coloring for colored mountains and make the task more challenging by completing it on all fours, racing to create the biggest tower, or adding it as part of a larger obstacle course. This task should only be completed by children who are able to “blow” and will not suck the soapy water into their mouths.
• Mouth races: Create a path or track and race one another by blowing an item up the path while crawling on all fours or lying on your tummy and wiggling forward.
• Create a path with Cheerios or another small food item and crawl on all fours while picking up and eating each piece.
• Bring Saran Wrap, a cookie sheet, or another viable surface outside and use yogurt, whipped cream, and other food items to “paint” with. Cereal, crackers, pretzel sticks, and other food items can also be used to stick to the “paint” or draw within the slimy textures if the child avoids touching them directly. Playing with non-preferred food items can decrease sensory aversion and often results in the child interacting with the food orally over time. If the child does not have aversions to the food or wants to “paint” with his or her mouth or tongue, it can be a silly and fun way to engage oral motor muscles and promote increased coordination.
Visual Motor: Visual motor skills play a crucial role in daily task completion and also come into play for pre-writing skills, handwriting, tracing, and being able to copy from the board or engage in scholastic tasks. There are many fun ways to disguise visual motor tasks into play:
• Go on a scavenger hunt outside and try to find specific colors, numbers, letters, or items that are similar or different from one another. This task can also be graded up by placing items outside, sort of like an Easter egg hunt, and encouraging children to find the items in a specific order, by following a list, or writing down the items they find to promote writing practice.
• Play “I spy” to promote visual tracking and scanning.
• Bring the outdoors inside by filling a bucket with grass clippings and hiding small items in the box for a seek and find task.
• Play a memory game by sitting outside and giving the child a list of items to remember or an order in which they can run and touch certain objects (example: tree, chair, back door, table). Have the child name or run and touch the objects in order and add a new item to the list each time to make it harder.
• Lay on your backs in the grass and find pictures or shapes within the clouds.
• Pop bubbles from a bubble machine or wand and practice motor planning by popping the bubbles with specific body parts such as foot, knee, or elbow.
Gross Motor: Create balance beams, hopscotch, and other activities using chalk.
• Set up obstacle courses using everyday items from the backyard.
• Practice moving up and down a pathway as different animals (crab walk, bear crawl, dog, dinosaur, quiet as a mouse, bunny hop, etc.).
• Run through the sprinklers or play with water balloons to promote new sensory experiences with wet grass.
• Play balloon volleyball and try to get a certain amount of touches before the balloon hits the grass. Promote increased motor planning by encouraging the child to hit the balloon with a specific body part (foot, knee, elbow, etc.).
Fine Motor: Practice writing letters in wet textures such as mud, shaving cream, or food-based mediums.
• Make mud pies and set up a mud pie restaurant to promote pretend play.
• Create a mural on the driveway or sidewalk with chalk.
• “Mow the lawn” with your hands or have a race to fill a bowl or bucket with grass to promote intrinsic hand strength and pincer grasp (ability to hold something between the thumb and first finger).
• Have a “spray bottle race” by using a spray/squirt bottle to propel small toys or objects forward to promote intrinsic hand strength and endurance.
• Spell words and create pictures with sticks and stones.
• Allow the kids to help with gardening, landscaping, and other outdoor tasks they can complete safely to promote confidence and teach life skills.
There are so many ways to address motor skills while outdoors and make it fun for the whole family. It’s also often easier to allow messy play in an outdoor environment. Here’s to a safe, fun, and adventurous summer filled with lots sensory exploration, messy play, and memories made.

Macaile Hutt is the Director of Occupational Therapy for Star Speech and Occupational Therapy located in Star, Idaho. Her therapy style takes a holistic and child-directed approach, with the goal of children succeeding across multiple environments. She holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy from A.T. Still University and has received continuing education as a Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional for Children and Adolescents (CCATP-CA), Handwriting Without Tears, pediatric kinesiotaping, Interactive Metronome, and Beckman Oral Motor. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing, backpacking, and traveling.

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