Trouble with Textures and Messy Play
Are you one of those people who find themselves getting stressed out by mess? You're definitely not alone! Based on laundry detergent commercials, you might assume that all kids like to roll around in dirt and see how many grass stains they can collect. But the reality is that many children actually struggle with messy experiences and exposure to different types of materials. Whether it's the feeling of dirt on their hands, the texture of certain foods, or even the sensation of a tag on a shirt, these sensory experiences can be overwhelming.
For some children, the avoidance of these experiences is more like a mild preference and doesn’t really interfere with their daily lives. For others, these struggles are rooted in a condition called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD is a condition where the brain has difficulty receiving, processing, and responding to sensory information from the environment.
Alongside taste, sight, hearing, smell, and even balance, the tactile sense is essential. By interacting with different textures, shapes, and objects, children learn to understand and identify hot vs. cold, soft vs. hard, itchiness, pain, and other tactile qualities. This helps them to develop their sense of discrimination, allowing them to differentiate between various objects even when their eyes are closed. As parents, we often see our children exploring and playing with different textures, but it's important to remember that it's not just for fun - it's an essential step in their cognitive and motor development. A mature tactile sense helps kids do things like picking up small objects, buttoning their shirts and knowing to pull their hand away from something too hot.
So when should I step in to help if my child is presenting with tactile sensitivities?
Some children may display mild discomfort with textures and it’s ok for children to have preferences in the same way we do as adults. Some of us prefer crunchy snacks like pretzels and chips while others prefer yogurt and soft ice cream (that’s me!). As long as these preferences aren’t significantly impacting your child’s day on a regular basis, accommodating these choices is totally fine without any additional interventions necessary.
However, for other children, this isn’t just a phase or a mild preference. The discomfort these kids feel is so upsetting to them and affecting how they function at home, at daycare, on playdates, on vacation and beyond. If you are noticing consistent avoidances or tantrums related to messes, materials, and textures, there may be a deeper cause leading to these behaviors and additional support can help your child better handle day to day activities.
Here’s what you can do to help:
Seeking out guidance from a pediatric OT can be a good idea, but there are also many things you can do on your home to help decrease your child’s negative responses:
Understand your Child’s Feelings. “Stop whining, it’s just paint on your fingers”, “All the other kids are having fun, why don’t you just get in the sandbox and play with them”, “This yogurt is yummy, you’ll like it if you just try it again”. We may think we can convince our kids out of this discomfort, but it’s just not so simple. Acknowledging that your child’s feelings are real will help you relate to your child and come up with solutions together.
Exposure. Exposing a child to textures and mess without pushing them to touch, interact, or eat them can decrease the anxiety around them. Going for walks down a dirt path, placing a new food on the table, or laying art materials out for the taking can allow a child to observe without the stress of touching them directly.
Adaptations and Accommodations. A great next step towards interacting with textures is using a tool. A shovel, spoon, fork, or cup can be a great way for your child to interact with materials or foods without having to touch them directly. Small steps are big wins!
What are good messy play ideas to try out?
- Take it outside - Nature is really the best playground! There is so much to explore and see outdoors. Spend your days outside with your child gardening, crunching leaves, drawing in the snow, or jumping in muddy puddles. The Great Outdoors provides so many different sensory experiences for kids of all ages.
- Take it to the tub - If your child hates getting messy, start with some textured play in the bathtub! Shaving cream or bath paints can make this time more fun, plus your child can clean off right away!
- One New Texture. If textures are tough, try giving your child a choice of one new material- play doh, hard spaghetti, marshmallows, water & ice, or anything else around your house. Taking control of the choice and dealing with only one new medium at a time may minimize the stress just a little.
- Meal Prep Together. Kids love to participate in meal preparation and allowing them to join the process of how a meal is prepared not only gets their hands messy, but may entice them to try the foods they are preparing.
The Tactile Sense is one of our eight senses and helps us pull our hand away from something too hot or cold. It allows us to determine if something is soft, comfy, sharp or scratchy. When you reach into your purse and feel around for your house key without looking, that’s your tactile sense working! Some children may feel extreme responses to certain textures that go beyond a mild preference or avoidance. Their days are significantly impacted by tactile aversions and additional support is called for. Acknowledging these feelings is an important first step. Exposure to new textures without forcing your child to touch them is a good next step, then allowing them the opportunity to use a tool like a fork or shovel can help your child bridge into that next stage of engaging with materials like sand, glue, or dirt without directly touching them. Have additional questions on this topic? Check out the Tots On Target Membership for exclusive content to support your child’s development!