As adults we need to wipe our mouths, use utensils, and not play with our food. But for babies and toddlers, those rules go out the window. I’m sure that some parents think I’m crazy when I tell them that their child should participate in messy play with their food. But it’s a good thing. Your child will get messy and luckily – they are washable! So let them go crazy – stick their hands in the food, swirl it around the tray, and lick their fingers. In feeding therapy, we will often target this as a therapy goal for children who have sensory aversions. It allows them to explore a variety of textures without the expectation to always eat what is in front of them.
I promise that I’m not telling you all this to make more clean-up work for yourself. Who needs that?! There are a number of reasons why messy play (food and non-food) is beneficial*:
-Allows for great sensory play and experiences
-Teaches beginning skills for self-feeding. Everything goes in the mouth – so it begins to teach that hand-to-mouth coordination they will need down the road for using utensils.
-Prevents tactile defensiveness: If they are not exposed to a variety of textures, children can become overly sensitive to it later. Consistently wiping their face with a spoon or napkin can also become uncomfortable, so let them keep that sweet potato mustache/beard for a few minutes longer.
-Creates positive experiences. Allowing your young child to get messy at mealtime helps keep the routine laid back and positive (manners come later!).
As a new mom with an almost-6-month-old at home (pictured below), I’m letting my baby start to play with food that I put on her highchair tray. I’ll tell you, the mess drives me crazy! But if I tell others to do it in feeding therapy, I should abide by the same rules at my house. I admit – pureed peas and sweet potatoes go everywhere! Hair, ears, belly button…you name it; I find food in it. I let her wear just her diaper in the highchair, then take her straight to the bathtub after she eats. Like I said, she’s washable!
And we’ll get messy again tomorrow!