Messy Play – Importance + 20 Fun Ideas!

Children learn by investigating, exploring and getting messy with materials. So what is messy play, why is it so important for a child’s development and what are some messy play activities? Read on..

Introduction

During play, children instinctively use their senses to explore. Messy play is often undervalued because it is easy to get caught up in thinking that children need to stay clean or they need to be kept away from germs. However, Messy play should be an essential part of every child’s upbringing as it supports the development of the senses to learn about the world and allows them to push boundaries so they can build their self-awareness. The easy and open-ended nature of sensory messy play nurtures children’s creativity and imagination.

messy play
Mud, mud, glorious mud!

What is Messy Play?

To put it simply, messy play is any type of play in which children can get messy without any restrictions! More formally, messy play refers to hands-on, multi-sensory and open-ended opportunities to explore diverse materials without any end product. Being able to hold, feel and touch various textures stimulates all their different senses, which will help children make their own discoveries and therefore make better sense of the world around them. 

Why is Messy Play so important to a child’s development?

Children learn through play and messy play has several benefits to young children’s development. The unstructured and open-ended nature of sensory messy play is fundamental in early childhood as it allows children to take control of the play and make meaning in their own way. It supports learning through creativity and hands-on methods. Children are eager to learn and should be encouraged to be naturally curious and follow their instincts to make discoveries themselves.

 The Early Childhood Development Associates list the following benefits of Messy Play in the following areas:

  • Physical development (fine motor, gross motor skills and hand eye coordination)
  • Language and speech skills (building vocabulary)
  • Creative development (learning to express themselves)
  • Emotional development (helping gain confidence)
  • Social development (promotes interaction with others)
  • Mathematical development (learning about measurement, trial and error, counting and learning to problem-solve)

“Messy Play allows children to build, imagine, experience, investigate, explore, create, observe, predict and use the senses”

Bedayati Nursery (Twitter)

20 Messy Play Ideas:

1)     Shaving Foam

The Foamy, fluffy, and squishy texture of shaving foam provides the perfect sensory experience during childhood! Shaving foam is readily available and will stimulate the senses. Make sure there is full supervision to ensure they don’t consume any of the shaving foam – only suitable for ages 3+.

 2)     Sand Play

Sand play is a fun and valued experience which should be encouraged in the early years. The texture of sand can be quite therapeutic, supporting children’s tactical responses. Additionally, there are so many creative possibilities when manipulating sand that children can create all sorts of wonders! Add some moulds or containers and make some different shapes! Add water to make it even messier (and more fun).

messy play
Sand/water messy play is a classic sensory experience most kids will love. Best thing is, you can leave most of the mess at the beach!

 3)     Rice Play

Rice is an excellent alternative for sand play as children can develop similar skills. The grainy texture of sand can be exciting for children to explore.

 4)     Water Play

Water play is an extremely simple way to allow children to experiment with cause and effect. Some quick ideas include; adding dish soap to the water to observe bubbles or creating a scented water play station to stimulate children’s sense of smell! You can check out my entire article on water play and water play ideas here.

 5)     Finger Painting

Painting with fingers is a fun sensory experience with a cool and squishy texture. Making prints on paper is a great way to support creative expression, colour concepts as well as a child’s fine motor skills.

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Finger painting is colourful, messy fun!

 6)     Jelly Play

The squishy texture of jelly is exciting to explore. Adding some small toys for the children to dig out can make it a little more challenging. The best part is that it’s edible!

 7)     Gardening

As children feel the texture of soil and learn about nature, they develop a range of new skills. Read more about the benefits of gardening for children by The Better Health Channel Victoria.

messy play
Get gardening! Kids can learn so much from a simple gardening experience. It’s a great way to get messy too.

 8)     Paper Mache (Papier-mâché)

Recommended for children above 3, Paper Mache is a creative sculpting process using recycled paper and glue.

sharesight

 9)     Ice Play

Watching ice cubes melt can be a great introduction to teaching children scientific concepts such as hot and cold, solid and liquid. Freeze different items inside the ice cubes and let children explore in their own way!

 10) Cooking

Cooking allows children to mix, taste, smell and feel a variety of different elements. Basic mathematical skills and vocabulary can be picked up without children even realising they are learning.

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Cooking is a great way to learn new skills and get messy! You could even let the kids pick the recipe!

 11) Play-dough

This should be a staple sensory play experience in every home or childcare! Play- dough helps build essential fine motor skills in fingers as children model, roll, knead, manipulate and pull the play-dough to create different things!

 12) Slime

You can easily make homemade slime with just a few ingredients. Children’s craft glue, some bicarb soda, water, contact lens solution and some glitter (optional) will produce some simple slime in just a few minutes. There’s an easy recipe here.

 13) Mud Play/ Mud Kitchens/ Mud Pies

An article posted in The National Association for the Education of Young Children indicates muddy play is a valuable experience that fosters rich play through sensorial experimentation. Learning by getting messy is an integral part of making new discoveries. 

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Messy Mud Play! Who didn’t enjoy making mud pies as a kid?

 14) Sensory Tables

A sensory bin refers to a tub or container filled with different materials to help build fine motor skills. Simply add funnels, cups, scoops, or other resources to create a hands-on exploration experience. I have an entire article on Sensory Table Ideas here. Contents might include raw rice, pasta, shredded paper, or any messy play substance.

 15) Dyed Pasta 

This is another valuable experience to build children’s fine motor skills. Also, a great informal way of learning about colours and patterning!

 16) DIY Volcano

If you’re looking for hands-on science experiments for preschoolers and primary school children, creating a volcano and watching it erupt can be an exciting and practical way to learn. You’ll just need bicarb soda and some vinegar in a bottle. Kids are sure to have a great time with this!

 17) Clay

Clay is a wonderful sensory experience. Add a little water and some simple tools such as pop sticks, spoons and rolling pins and kids can mould the clay and experiment with mouldability based on the amount of water added.

 18) Goop

Goop is simply cornflour and water – you can mix them together and experiment with the consistency. Adding some food colouring makes it a bit more fun. Add some cups, some spoons, or other plastic containers for some pouring and emptying action.

 19) Chalk

Coloured chalk on the pavement! Yes, they will get coloured chalk on their arms, on their clothes, but that’s half the fun and it can easily be brushed off/washed off. If they do it on some exposed pavement or walkway, the rain will wash it away for you! You can give them some containers of water too and thicker chalk for some wet chalk drawing/painting.

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Chalk drawing/painting. You can add water to make it messier/more fun!

 20) Food Play

As babies and toddlers learn to eat independently, messy eating and playing with food are great ways to introduce new solids. This way, children can have fun and develop their taste buds in a more child-friendly way. Some examples include: beans, spaghetti, oats and cereal. You can read my article on Starting Solids here.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

Maya Angelou

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) about Messy Play:

What age is best for messy play?

Messy play can be introduced once children are interested in touching and feeling objects. Although children engage in sensory experiences daily in the early months, they are more observers as they settle into the new environment. At around 5-6 months, babies are more active and curious to hold things themselves. There is no age limit for messy play. Even older children can enjoy messy play as they play independently and as their investigation and curiosity develop in complexity! Messy play can also be used in the later years as a great calming strategy to relieve any stress or strong emotions! 

What does messy play do for children?

Messy play provides a safe space for self-expression and creativity through play-based learning. It fosters natural curiosity and gives children the freedom to explore, problem-solve and investigate themselves. Engaging in sensory activities and messy play builds fine-motor skills as children manipulate and feel different materials and textures. The development of hand-eye coordination at an early age will help children to navigate the skill of writing which is an important part of School Readiness.

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Messy Play sessions can also allow experimentation with Schema Play such as Transforming and Trajectory schema. You can read more about Schema Play in my article here.

How can you encourage children to engage in messy play?

It’s important to create an inviting set-up for children to spark and foster their curiosity. Messy play doesn’t need to be elaborate! Keep it simple to nurture their sense of inquiry. Ensure the activity is based on the children’s interests. Remember, children learn through play so promoting open-ended play where there is no end product allows for them to make meaning in their own way and is highly beneficial for children to take control of the play, follow their imagination and make their own discoveries. The Queensland Government Early Childhood and Care encourages parents and carers to use open-ended questioning to support deeper thinking.

What are the safety considerations?

Whilst engaging in messy play, children must be supervised at all times. Check all the materials and resources for any potential danger or hazards. Young children love exploring by placing things in their mouth. It’s important to ensure the resources do not contain any toxic materials that may harm the child. If using food for messy play, ensure you check for any allergies before the activity. It can also be beneficial to encourage children to wash their hands before and after all activities to ensure good hygiene.

kids first aid

Summary

Life is meant to be messy! No matter how you feel about messy play, it’s essential to let go and allow children to have a little fun! Through the exploration of resources, children engage in deep thinking and creativity. There are a few safety factors that must be considered before planning any activities. However, Messy play doesn’t need to be anything elaborate. Many of the materials suggested are easily accessible and quick to put together to foster children’s curiosity.

So try not to worry about all the mess, there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy sensory experiences and messy play. A messy play activity is the perfect way to foster play-based learning and to ensure your child is having a great time while developing important skills and building knowledge in many different learning areas. Don’t forget, messy play can be fun for all ages! It’s also a great way to reduce screen time and promote active play as well as sensory play, and the building of important Fundamental Movement Skills.

Have your little ones or your family enjoyed some messy play? There’s no right or wrong way! Do you have some great messy play ideas? Share them with us in the comments!

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