Originally published on Dec. 10, 2017.

As a Speech Therapist working with children's eating, I spend a lot of time doing messy play. What's that got to do with supporting children to eat?

Your hands and your mouth are closely related. It is very common for children who have an aversion to eating to also find it very difficult to tolerate sensory experiences through their hands (see previous post). This is because the highest concentration of tactile receptors in the body are in and around your mouth, and on your hands. This makes sense given the fine discrimination we need our hands to do. And from a feeding perspective, exploring food with our hands before we put it in our mouth makes sense from a safety perspective (would you let someone put a mystery food in your mouth without a chance to get some more information about it?), and from the perspective of learning to self-feed.

In fact, using our hands in messy play is such an important stage of development (for play and language development as well as eating), that if a child has missed it, for example, because they have spent significant periods of their life in hospital, we may well need to find age-appropriate ways to try to fill this gap in their development.

For children with significant aversion to eating, supporting them to self-feed is often the best choice, as it puts them in control of when and how much they eat. So we need to help them to tolerate using their hands more.

So, how do we start? As a rule, I tend to try to get an idea of a baseline for what your child can tolerate, so you can pitch the sensory experiences you are presenting accordingly. Ideally we are aiming to introduce sensory experiences that are just at the edge of a child's comfort zone.

So, I will often start with dry messy, sensory and exploratory play (three similar overlapping types of play) first. Many of the children I work with find dry play easier to tolerate.

Some ideas:

  • shredded paper
  • bubble wrap
  • packing peanuts
  • Everyday things with interesting textures- sponges, loofahs, small hair and nail brushes, pine cones, fabric remants.
  • dry foods-oats,rice, breakfast cereals
  • 'Bite and dissolve' foods (be careful- sometimes the smell of these will be off-putting to some children)

If your child has significant aversions, you often do not need to worry too much about them putting things in their mouth at this early stage, but always be around your child when they are exploring their items. Your child may be able to explore these things by themselves, but more likely, if they have sensory difficuties, they will need you to modelhow to explore these items.

The important thing to remember is that this type of therapeutic messy play is about modelling, not telling your child what to do or making them do anything. I have learned to be careful about praising children too- drawing attention to progress can make a child realise what a big thing they just did, and lead them to stop doing it. You can do the silent eyebrow rasise of the Parent and Therapist who are inwardly dancing with joy instead!

In our next post, we will explore introducing slightly messier things to your child, and using a desensitisation hierarchy to support them and help you to identify progress. But, for now, why not post your favourite dry messy play item below?

Posts from 'Find the Key Speech Therapy' are intended for information. They should not and cannot replace advice from a qualified Speech and Language Therapist who knows your child. 'Find the Key Speech and Language Therapy' always advises you to seek appropriate professional support.