The Best Way to Play- Making Messes to Learn


Messy Play for Early Childhood

What is Messy Play?

Messy play is just what it sounds like-learning with messy activities. However, messy does not mean dirty (and does not always mean paint). Messy play is hands-on activities that allow children to explore materials through their own curiosity. This means your child is going to make a mess in a fun and controlled way, but remember: your child is learning through the mess. Don’t let the word ‘messy’ scare you.

What are the benefits of messy play?

Messy play is not only fun but also educational. This type of play helps children practice and master age-appropriate activities in an exciting and engaging way. As the child develops, messy play helps children build on learned skills to achieve the next level of development. One of the best aspects is you don’t have to be a teacher to do this with your child. 

Here are some of the benefits:

  1. Vocabulary and language development. Help expand your child’s vocabulary by talking about the different objects and mediums used. They may never have been exposed to objects or words during regular play time.
  2. Fine motor development. Through pouring, scooping, squishing, and the like, messy play develops the small muscles of the hand needed for things like writing skills. 
  3. Math skills. During any messy play activity you can count objects being used. You can also use math words like “add”, “take away”, and “half”.
  4. Cognitive development. It may just seem like a mess, but children are learning through observation and exploration. They’re constantly taking in and organizing information while playing.
  5. Develops critical thinking. It may seem hard to believe, but critical thinking starts this young. While playing, they’re comparing objects and actions, making things smaller or larger, or encountering new activities. The goal is exploration at their own pace.
  6. Responsibility in setup and clean up. Have your kids help with the setup and clean up to share that responsibility and practice following directions.
  7. Can be done at home. Almost anywhere can be used for messy play, and you don’t need a whole classroom of supplies to do it.
  8. As inexpensive as you want. This type of play does not need any special toys, tools, or expenses. Messy play is best when you use everyday objects your kids can see around the house.
  9. Anyone can do it. You don’t need a degree to try messy play at home with your kids, you just need a little time and prep. There’s lots of ideas out there for all kinds of messy play you can try.
  10.  It’s fun! Not only is it educational, kids love it! Learning doesn’t have to be boring or stagnant, especially for young kids.

What age should I start messy play?

As soon as your baby is interested in play! Starting messy play is less about age and more about activities that are developmentally appropriate. You may have to test out activities and reassess every so often. Common play activities include using materials such as paint or shaving cream, but that may not be developmentally appropriate for a child that still puts everything in their mouth. While it may look very different and much simpler than preschoolers, even babies just a few months old can engage in messy play. Water is an easy place to start messy play and can simply begin with a baby splashing in water.

Should I start messy play with my child?

The short answer is yes! As long as your child is showing interest in the activities, you can start with them. When beginning messy play activities, watch your child to see where their interests are and how they play with their toys. You can also watch what activities they like to see you do or help you with around the house. Messy play activities involve things such as pouring, mixing, squishing, feeling-all of the above and more!

How do I start?

Once you have an activity set up for your child, demonstrate what they can do with the objects. Encourage them to try touching all the tools and objects. Be sure to narrate what you’re doing and name the objects being used. Try asking questions to engage a conversation.

You can even use your child’s favorite toys within the activities like figurines, cars, or blocks-anything that you can easily wash. Your child will reach a point where they will enjoy this play on their own, and, at that point, you can participate as much or as little as you want. This may be an opportunity to keep them occupied while you get other things done or an opportunity to play with your child. Once you try messy play, you may be surprised how much you like it, too! You can also involve your child in the setup and clean-up. 

The level of direction and intervention a child needs during play is heavily dependent on the child’s development level and the activity at hand. Most likely, the younger the child the more direction they need. Younger children also have a shorter attention span, and may need several opportunities to engage in the play. Of course you should always intervene when there’s a safety concern or if the paint brush is headed for your couch. 

Here are some tips for starting: 

  • Start off small– Begin with something small and easy like a small container of water with a few cups for pouring
  • Gradually add to the activity– If you started with the small container of water, next add spoons or a whisk for stirring the water
  • Pick an area that’s easy to clean- Try the kitchen floor or outside if possible for easier clean up
  • Have a ‘messy’ shirt- Dress for the mess-no pants required

What toys do I need to start?

You don’t need any toys! One of the beauties of messy play is that no special toys or materials are required. It uses materials commonly found around your home (or grandmas!) and everyday objects to engage a child’s curiosity.

You can make the activities as simple or extravagant as you want-it’s all up to you and what keeps your child’s interest.  You have everything you need within your home already, just look at the tools and materials in a new light. For example, a measuring cup becomes a pouring cup, a coffee stopper becomes a paint stir stick, and a plastic bottle becomes a noisemaker. 

This also does not need to be a scheduled activity. This type of play can be impromptu and spur of the moment. You may even notice your child starting these activities on their own. For example, if you see your child pretending to pour, set up a small container with water and cups for pouring. It’s really that easy! And the more you encourage it, the more your child will instigate it on their own.

What are some examples of messy play?

You can start today! For are some examples of easy play around the house:

  • A container with objects for pouring water
  • Playing with shaving cream 
  • A tub of rice with small cups and whisks 
  • Painting with kitchen utensils
  • A pot of dirt or sand with measuring spoons 
  • Painting with pudding or jello 

For even more resources check these out:

Designing messy play for infants and toddlers

Messy Play & Childhood Development

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