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Get Outside and Get Messy – 4 Ideas for Outdoor Sensory Play for Kids

If you are a neat freak like me, you hate messes in your kitchen. The slime, the goo, the crumbly Playdoh – the mess makes me cringe! Yet, in the summer? I welcome the mess because it’s outside — I can just hose everyone down after. Outdoor sensory play is my favorite way to have fun with my kids. As a pediatric occupational therapist, I know how important being tactile is for kids. I’ve got some great summer outdoor play ideas to help you enjoy the coming months with your children.

Just Take the Party Outside: Summer Outdoor Play Ideas

I urge you as parents to get outside and make a mess! Pull out that recipe from Pinterest, empty your baking cupboards, grab accessories like cookie cutters and measuring cups. Use up the rest of that old paint you’re holding onto. Use a tarp if you’re worried about the deck or the grass, keep a bucket of water and an old towel on hand.

Here are 4 summer outdoor play ideas that are sure to engage the little ones and maybe even give you an extra few minutes to breathe deep and sun yourself!

1. Sand Dough

outdoor sensory play - sand dough

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups play sand
  • 3.4 cup warm water
  • 1 TBS oil
  • tray/cookie sheet to contain things

Combine dry, then add wet. Mix well, and add more sand or flour to reach desired consistency. Enhance play with small sand toys, seashells or gems, dinosaurs or other figurines. 

My OT input: this tactile play is great for sensory and motor work as using tools and molds helps to develop the muscles of hands. The consistency of this dough will allow forms to keep their shape easier than the beach sand will! My sons love to drag out their trucks for these types of activity – mini excavators to load up their dump trucks. For kids that struggle with the sensory aspects of the beach – this is contained and less of an assault on the tactile system, they have more control over a “dough” than the beach sand. 

2. Goop

  • equal parts Elmer’s glue and liquid starch                                              
  • bowl and spoon

Combine ingredients into a bowl and mix/knead well. If the mixture is too lumpy, add starch – if its too thin, add glue. Food coloring or paint can color clear or white glue and glitter is a nice addition as well. If you add dinosaurs or small objects in the mixing stage, kids can “hunt” (think goggles and outdoor sensory play ideas - goopmagnifying glasses) for expanded activity.

My OT input: I honestly think slime is gross (when did slime ever become a “thing” anyway?), but the tactile components are vast. Pulling, stretching, rolling and molding are good finger work. Tactile input from goop is calming. Playing with goop is perfect as a wind-down activity after a busy school/camp day, or for quiet time when mom needs a minute to get dinner organized. 

3. Watercolor Chalk Spray

  • 1 TBS flour
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 10-15 drops food coloring
  • spray bottle

Add ingredients to an empty spray bottle (a small “salon” quality/size is great) and shake. Prepare to double/triple your  recipe depending on the size of the bottle, and have multiples for different colors! Spray the pavement/driveway, stonework, concrete walls, cinder blocks and sidewalks. WARNING: since this has food coloring, it can stain clothing/fabric. For kids who aren’t excited about painting or chalk, have them fill in forms that you create. With older kids – invite friends to a “white party” and have a color war! For tiny ones that aren’t ready for the paint part, a bottle of water is fun too – they can water plants or “paint” the house/shed for you. 

My OT input: I love spray bottles. They are engaging for all kids, even if they are small enough to need both hands to operate, and spray themselves in the face. Spray bottles are great hand strengtheners, and the movement helps to separate the sides of the hands into skill/power, which will carryover to refined movements for scissor/tool use. 

4. Outdoor Paint Exploration

  • Tempura paint
  • Paper plates
  • Canvas surface – old sheets or butcher paper can work took
  • cars, balls, marbles – anything that rolls
  • sticks, pool noodles, kitchen utensils (potato masher, whisk, bottle brush)
outdoor sensory play ideas - playing with paint

You can see I even do this in the winter!

Place your canvas on a hard flat surface such as the deck, patio or driveway. Prepare the cleanup efforts – have a bucket of warm soapy water and a towel on hand. Pour paint onto paper plates, and let them use painted cars to roll or balls to bounce across the paper. Tie an old bed sheet or drop cloth in between trees and use branches, pool noodles, or kitchen utensils as paintbrushes. Maybe they want to paint their hands/feet and make prints that way? Or maybe they’ll just roll in it. Be ready for a run through the sprinkler afterwards. 

My OT input: I love that children can ditch the paintbrush and small paper and use their WHOLE BODIES to paint. They engage so much more of their muscles and get so much more input as they reach, bend, and twist to paint a large surface. With friends or siblings it can become social, collaborative and playful. 

Takeaways

Just get outside. There is so much sensory work to be done in the summer and so much growth can happen before they go back to school in the fall. Capitalize on the environment and let them get messy. Focus on process, not product. A hose and a bucket can make cleanup a snap, and the memories they make are the most important.

In my next life, I will build an outdoor shower.

If you’re looking for more ideas for outdoor sensory play, read this older post of mine. 

What are your summer outdoor play ideas? How do you get your kids outside? 

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