Nobody likes a mess. That’s for sure. But what’s also certain: sensory play (aka messy play, like finger painting and digging in dirt) boosts your child’s creativity and brain power, says Elizabeth Williams, an early childhood quality coach at Denver’s Early Childhood Council.
“Exposing kids to various textures helps develop their fine and gross motor skills,” says Williams. Plus, the tactile experience of feeling sticky paint or smooth mud activates their senses and revs up their neurons. On board? Give these six outdoor ideas a whirl, and, for cleanup, just hose down everything and everyone.
Paint With Sidewalk Chalk
Use old or broken pieces of sidewalk chalk to make a fun, washable paint for hopscotch boards and other artsy creations.
How: Mix 2 tablespoons cornstarch and 2 to 3 tablespoons water in a cup. Place broken pieces of chalk in a sealed bag and roll them with a rolling pin to break them up. Add ½ tablespoon of the grated chalk to the water mixture and stir. Repeat all the steps with other colors of chalk. Let kids paint with their fingers or a brush.
Why: Kids will discover that mixing colors together will create new hues.
For Faster Cleanup: Keep paint neat by placing it in an old or inexpensive six-cup muffin tin.
Launch a Soda Bottle Rocket
This chemistry lesson has major wow factor, according to Kate Biberdorf, Ph.D., author of Kate the Chemist: The Big Book of Experiments. Most kids can do it pretty much independently around age eight, she says—you’ll need to help younger ones. Don’t forget safety goggles.
How: Fold a piece of printer paper in half horizontally. Roll it into a tube and tape it closed. Poke four holes about ½ inch above the bottom. The holes should be just big enough to thread two toothpicks that can be positioned to form a cross (lowercase “t”) shape. Place eight Mentos candies inside the tube. Gently place the tube inside the neck of an open and full two-liter soda bottle. (The toothpicks should rest on the top of the bottle.) When the kids are ready, have them remove one of the toothpicks and the paper tube. The candy will fall into the bottle causing an explosion that could be five feet high or more.
Why: It’s science in action. Before you put the Mentos in the soda, ask your kids to look closely at the surface of the candy and tell you what they see. The small holes are key. They attract carbon dioxide, a gas that makes soda have bubbles. The carbon dioxide molecules slam into each other, building up pressure and causing the explosion.
For Faster Cleanup: Use diet soda rather than regular. Because it doesn’t contain sugar, it will be easier to rinse off. You can also dress your kids in raincoats or ponchos to protect them from the spray.
Dig for Fossils in Edible Sand
Combine the thrill of a treasure hunt with a safer alternative to real sand. If your toddler decides to put their hand in their mouth, it won’t be a big deal.
How: Working in batches, grind a large box of cereal in the blender. Pour some in a clean bucket or sand table. Place your child’s mini dinosaurs or other figures on top and cover with more cereal-based sand. Give your child a small shovel or other kid-safe tools to find the treasure.
Why: It’s good practice for fine motor skills, notes Williams. For young toddlers, it reinforces object permanence—the concept that an item exists even if they can’t see it.
For Faster Cleanup: Put a blanket or mat under where your child is playing. That way, you can easily pour extra “sand crumbs” back into the bucket or table.
Splash In A Mud Bath
It’s the kiddie version of a high-end spa treatment.
How: Scoop several shovels full of dirt into one side of a kiddie pool. Fill the pool with a few inches of water. Throw in a couple items like a paintbrush or a plastic bulldozer for inspo.
Why: It’s the perfect environment for kids to experiment through trial and error: How can they get the mud to stick better? What does adding more water do?
For Faster Cleanup: Dress the kids in old swimsuits so it’s easy for them to rinse off with a hose.
Play Silly String Tag
Level up this classic childhood game with a few simple twists.
How: Buy Silly String and a squirt bottle. Fill the squirt bottle with water. The person holding the bottle and string is “it.” When players get sprayed with water or string, they’re tagged out. Take turns letting the kids be “it.”
Why: It’s a fun backdrop for critical thinking. For instance, ask kids to predict whether the string or water will squirt further. After everyone has a turn, have the kids reflect on whether their prediction was correct.
For Faster Cleanup: Have the kids wear cotton play clothes. Stay within the range of the hose to rinse off the area and dissolve the Silly String.
Host an Art Potluck
Invite neighbor kids for a fun outdoor crafternoon.
How: Pull out a box of leftover art supplies and place it on a picnic table. Ask other families to bring their extras too. You might have paper towel tubes, ribbon, fabric, paints, markers, glue, poster board, construction paper, and pompoms. “Don’t worry about organizing the items,” says Joanna Cagan, executive director at WOW! Children’s Museum in Lafayette. “Sorting through lots of textures and shapes is part of the fun and creativity.” Once everything is set out, announce that there are no rules. Tell kids to make whatever they want!
Why: “This is early STEAM,” says Cagan. “It encourages little ones to be engineers, designers, and artists.”
For Faster Cleanup: Cover your picnic table with newspaper or an old tablecloth. Keep a few buckets of water outside for kids to rinse off paintbrushes and sticky hands.