Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Sydney Moninger, COTA/L

Kids love to make a mess. So much so that even the most painstakingly arranged craft can quickly turn into demolition time! Sometimes, the best way to hold their attention is to use the mess productively. This simple and free tactile letter activity lets kids make a controlled mess while learning essential reading and writing skills. The key is using a multisensory approach.

A multisensory activity uses a combination of the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. Activating multiple senses gets kids more involved in learning and jump-starts the learning process. A classic example of a multisensory learning activity is simply following along on the page while someone reads aloud. Engaging the eyes as they read and the ears when they hear the sound of the spoken word combines these two sensory systems to make them more powerful.  It works so well that we use this kind of learning without even realizing it! Multisensory activities are especially fun for kids, and they’re also extra effective: Research shows that using this kind of approach better engages young learners. 

As an occupational therapy practitioner, I try to incorporate multisensory learning every chance I get. I’ve found that such projects improve kids’ motivation, attention, and memory of what they learn. This easy tactile letters activity gets kids to use their senses of hearing, touch, and sight all at once. That way, the lessons they learn will really stick.
(Related: For another tactile letter-learning activity, try these Sand Paper Letters!)

baking sheet, salt, food color, shaving cream, bottle of shampoo


  • Baking sheet
  • Salt
  • Shaving cream
  • Shampoo
  • Food coloring (optional)

Cost: Free if you have these common household items. (Or replace them with other materials you have on hand, from flour to rice to paint to whatever!)

Pour one of your materials onto your baking sheet (this keeps the mess under control). Add food coloring, if desired. Demonstrate writing the letter of your choice on one side of the tray, using your index finger. Say the name of the letter while writing it, then practice the sound that letter makes. Have your child imitate you on the other side of the baking sheet. 

Tip: Have them write the letter several times and encourage them to make the sound while they write.

Next, empty the baking sheet and repeat the process with the other materials. (You can also have multiple baking sheets going at once.) The greater variety between the textures, the better! Feel free to add more materials that you find around the house: Finger paint, dried rice, hair gel, flour or cornstarch, and dish soap can all provide unique sensations to write in.

Note: All kids have different preferences for sensory experiences. If your child is very uncomfortable with one particular texture, don’t force it. Instead, let them wipe off their hands whenever they need to. If they are especially nervous, let them use a pencil or paintbrush to write in the medium, so they can ease into the sensation.

For older kids: Move on from writing simple letters to writing whole words. Then take turns practicing spelling or reading.

For an extra boost: Include movement in the activity! For example, have your child sit on a yoga ball or dance while writing. The more senses that you activate, the better—and more fun!

Kids love getting messy in this activity, and we love the opportunity to teach them letter skills.