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The Importance of Messy Play + 10 Ideas

What is messy play and why do kids love it so much?

As the name suggests, children get the freedom to explore and play with messy materials. Not only is this sensory activity heaps of fun, but it is also one of the types of play that is crucial for a child’s development.

What is Messy Play?

Messy play, or sensory play, is a form of creative play that happens when children explore the senses with a range of materials in a safe and generally controlled way.

Children get to explore the materials freely, usually with no specific “product” in mind.

Child holding a bucket with flowers in it

Why is Messy Play Important?

Messy play is about more than just having fun.

Here are just a few of the many benefits of messy play.:

Tactile/Sensory Experiences

Using various types of messy play equipment, kids’ little fingers and possibly toes will explore the world through messy play. They can use all their senses, sometimes even taste, becoming even more mindful of everything around them.

Creativity

Because you present children with materials and only basic suggestions for use, they must use their imaginations to decide what actions to take.

They will also reflect on their experiences and base future use on the outcomes of those encounters.  

Physical Development

Messy play is very hands-on. It offers children plenty of opportunities to enhance fine and gross motors skills, strengthen their muscles, practice balance and body control, and improve eye-hand coordination.

Child playing at messy play table.

Language Development

Parents and teachers should ask questions about what the children are experiencing through messy play. How do the materials feel, smell, sound, look, and (when fitting) taste?

We can also talk about the experience as a process while the children play. Kids will often communicate with each other verbally during messy play.

Social and Emotional Skills

Because messy play is less structured than other types of activity, kids need to practise showing respect for the space of others, pay attention to boundaries, and take turns.

They also practise problem solving through this type of play and experience the freedom of no “right” or “wrong” results.

Mathematical/Science Development

You can easily build early maths skills by incorporating concepts like counting, measuring, sorting, colour identification, and shape differentiation into messy play activities.

Kids could also explore science concepts such as cause and effect, observation, prediction, and gravity.

10 Messy Play Activities and Ideas for Preschoolers

Here are 10 activity suggestions for messy play for kids that all fit into one or more of the areas listed above.

You might already have some of the necessary equipment in your home or classroom. On the other hand, you may need to make or buy some other materials.

1. Messy Play Tray

For tabletop or floor, you can find large plastic trays sold just for messy play. You could also find containers at the second-hand store to suit the purpose.

Materials to use in the trays include sand, soil, flour, cornmeal, rice, salt, pastas (coloured and plain), small Legos, dry cereal, buttons, bottle caps, or any small manipulatives.

Messy play tray with bottle tops and water.

Add tools such as sifters, small shovels, spoons, small cars/trucks, and measuring cups, for use as the children explore.

2. Water Table/Kiddie Pool

Indoors, children can use a kiddie pool much like a water table, but they will kneel for use instead of standing, as they would typically for a water table.

Make water play fun by offering materials to make play boats, in addition to various floating and non-floating toys to experience “sink or float” predictions and observations.

To the water, add sprinkling cans, measuring cups, and other types of plastic containers for dipping, comparing and pouring.

3. Shaving Cream Play

Kids love to play with regular or menthol shaving cream in its plain form or coloured with washable paint/food colouring.

Squirt it onto the tabletop, on the pavement, in a messy play tray, or in a small, dry water table. A little bit goes a long way.

Messy play - playing with shaving cream and food colouring on the paving.

Your children will draw, write, design, and smell. They can also predict, mix colours, and see their resulting hues. Try whipped cream on clean surfaces, for a tasting possibility.

Here are some fun shaving cream activities for kids.

4. Pudding Finger Painting

On finger painting paper or in clean trays, add dollops of pudding. With their fingers, kids can draw, design, write, smell and taste. You could try canned pudding in various flavours.

To extend this activity into a messy kitchen project, first, have the children make instant pudding with shakers or hand beaters. They can add food colouring for more variety.

5. Painting on Paper with Unusual Tools

Messy play with paints is a great sensory experience. Offer kids marbles to dip in washable paint and drop into boxes onto paper to roll for designs.

They can also use cut fruit and vegetables as stampers in paint. This would not involve tasting, but the children could smell the various foods.

New plastic fly swatters, wheels on small trucks and cars, flicked rubber bands, bubble wrap on a rolling pin, and bare feet also make fun tools for painting on individual or group-sized papers.

Remember, we want to stress the sensory experience for these crafts, rather than a specific product at the end.

6. Rainy/Muddy Day Play

So often, it seems we are trying to keep our children dry. Depending on the climate, kids often play in the snow, so why not frolic outdoors after a rainstorm? They are sure to enjoy outdoor puddle play, in boots or bare feet.

Splash, hop, count, and pretend to be frogs or toads. You could also take toy cars and trucks outdoors for driving in the mud.

Messy play - boy splashing in wet puddles with boots on.

7. Homemade Playdough, Oobleck, and Slime

You can find many messy play recipes online to make your own slime, homemade playdough (without cream of tartar) or any of these popular tactile materials.

Kids could help you make them by stirring and kneading and then continue to play with them on tables or trays.

Some versions are even edible, such as peanut butter playdough, which the children could help make as a messy kitchen activity.

8. Dinosaur Mud Stomp

Children love the idea of dinosaurs. Using clean plastic dinosaur miniatures and water tables or messy play trays filled with chocolate “mud,” these creatures can stomp to their hearts’ content.

You will find various recipes for the “mud” online, or you can use regular chocolate pudding (canned or made by the children). Depending on the type used, children might lick their fingers to see how “prehistoric mud” tastes.

9. Experience Nature, Indoors or Out

For indoor messy nature play, place collected materials such as sand, soil, bark, moss, twigs, leaves, flowers, acorns, chestnuts, pine needles, pinecones, and small branches in a box or on a tray for children to manipulate and smell.

Outdoors, challenge kids to find many of these materials to collect and explore. Add plastic bugs or find a few of the real things to check out with magnifying glasses.

10. Smelly Stone “Soup”

If you present this activity outdoors, your children should use safety scissors to cut their own herbs from the garden. You can also use dried or packaged herbs. Model for kids how to smell each type and verbalize what you notice.

Children scoop or measure water into their pots or pans, along with their choices of herbs, stones, acorns, flowers, shells, pinecones, and grasses.

They can pretend to cook, stir, and then spoon the soup into plastic bowls for further pretend play.

I hope you will enjoy trying these ideas. And throughout the day at home or in the classroom, keep your eyes open for other naturally occurring sensory play opportunities:

  • Sweeping the floors
  • Cleaning the fish tank
  • Watering houseplants
  • Feeding or brushing pets
  • Washing dishes
  • Gardening outdoors

To you, these may seem like jobs. To your children, they might feel more like fun and messy play!

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Priscilla Commey

Thursday 9th of July 2020

Just to say thank you for your help. I run a pre-school in ghana and am gaining alot of knowledge and insight from reading your articles.

Tanja Mcilroy

Friday 10th of July 2020

Thanks for your feedback Priscilla! I'm glad you're finding the content useful. Tanja

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