Some toddlers and young children have a very strong dislike of touching soft and squishy substances and really dislike getting their hands dirty.
This dislike or even fear of "dirt" is probably linked to having an overactive disgust emotion. Watch your toddlers face when he/she is faced with getting something soft and sticky on the hands. The chances are that the child will raise the upper lip, stick out the tongue slightly and even make a retching sort of sound. An older child may say Yuk! or Gross!.
Disgust is a very primitive and visceral emotion and is present in infants from a young age. The core function of disgust is protecting individuals against contamination by facilitating avoidance of toxins and pathogens. In other words disgust is a disease-avoidance mechanism (Bosman 2016). An overactive disgust emotion is linked to an overactive fear system and having an anxious nature.
Some ideas for helping your child get a little dirty
The way to help a toddler overcome a strong dislike of touching disgust provoking, soft and sticky, or "dirty" substances and of getting the hands "dirty" is to start slowly and build tolerance (called desensitizing) in small incremental stages while at the same time helping the child to understand that it is quite safe to touch the substance and that it is not poisonous or sick making (called reframing).
Below I have described a couple of activities that I have used with young children. I always start slowly with small amount of well known substances: yogurt, hand cream, soap bubbles. If the your child becomes distressed I back off, help the child to calm down and try another activity.
I often used fun and excitement to get a child into a go-for-it mood, rather than a fearful one.
Activities for Milly
Milly is 2 1/2, an anxious little girl who hates getting her hands messy, refuses to play with play dough or in the sand pit. She is a fussy eater and will only each food that is dry and crisp or crunchy like bread, apples and carrots. She will not baby cereal, but not yogurt, will eat chocolate spread but pulls her nose up at peanut butter
Hand or face cream activities
Milly and I started started our messy play session with a pot of mom's favorite hand cream. Millie liked the idea because it smelled like mummy's hands.
Before we started we spent some time smelling the hand cream, a small pot of fragrance free aqueous cream and a small amount of ammonia based cleaner on a saucer, as well as some plain yogurt in a cup.
Together we decided that the hand cream smelled good but that we did not want to eat it, but it was good for our skin. The cleaner smelled very strong and we decided we would put that away. The yogurt smelled OK and was safe to eat and maybe we could add some food coloring and turn the food into paint.
Next we turned to the hand cream. I started by putting a very small blob of cream on my finger tip and Milly allowed me to rub the cream on the back of her arm. Milly then was brave enough to take a tiny bit of cream from the jar on her finger tip and she wiped it onto the back of my hand.
Now it was my turn. I put a small blob of cream on the palm and rubbed my hands together making a big fuss about smearing it all over my palms and fingers. Now it was Millie's turn. She allowed me to put a little bit of cream on her palm and she experimented with rubbing her palms together.
Millie's mommy also wanted some cream on her hands, and Millie obliged. But mommy was quite greedy and needed more than just a little bit of cream, and then wanted some on her arm as well. Millie got very absorbed in smearing cream onto mommy's arm before she realized that her hands were quite sticky as well.
Finger paint in very small quantities.
At play group the children had been making hand prints with finger paint. Millie refused to participate.
To get Millie to tolerate the messy finger paints I persuaded her to try finger tip painting. I put out 3 small blobs of paint on a saucer and showed Millie how to put a little bit on the tip of her forefinger and then make several paint dots on the paper. After a few very tentative trials making dots with paint on the finger tip Millie got adventurous and wanted to make dots with three finger, each with a different color.
She also made some paint dots on her arm and then she copied me and put a little bit of blue paint on her palm. We rubbed our palms together so that we had scary blue hands and ran around being scary monsters.
Then it was time to wash our hands. At the hand basin I rubbed the soap with a cloth and made lots and lots of bubbles. We covered out hands in bubbles before rinsing off the soap.
More messy games to try
Painting with yogurt
Once you have finished painting with yogurt, let your toddler clean the play or tray with a wet cloth or sponge.
Finger licking good
Encourage your child to eat the delicious sticky food by dipping a finger tip into the food and then licking it off.
Another fun idea is to put a little bit of sticky food onto the tip of the finger and then use the sticky finger to pick up a piece of dry cereal.
Bath time fun
Play catching the soap in the bath. You can also make lots of bubbles by rubbing the soap on a cloth. The use the clothe to clean the bath.
Face paint fun
If your child does not like the idea of face paint on the palms, start by painting a face on the back of the forearm or the back of the hand. Or let your child pain your palms first.
Dig a shallow hole in a patch of earth and pour some water into the hole. Encourage your child to get into the hole with bare feet and feel the mud with his toes. Maybe he will even try a little bit of stomping.
If getting into a muddy puddle with bare feet is not an option for your child, let him stomp in the mud in a pair of boot. Do some good hard stomping that cause lots of splashes.
If getting close to dirty mud is just too disgusting, you may need to try clean sand in a large flat bowl. Start by standing on the dry sand, then add some water and do some stomping.