What a Mess! Why on earth do we do Messy Play?

posted in: Suffolk Babies, Toddler | 0

The words “messy play” can bring fear or joy to your heart. Some of us relish the thought of having a good squish about in some slime or paint, whereas for others just the thought of it can trigger a mini panic attack. But if you ignore the idea of mess for a bit, and think about the enjoyment of feeling different textures, you’ll start to appreciate what messy play is for. For example, do you enjoy a lovely bubbly bath – with bubbles covering every exposed part of your body? Or if you’re making bread or scones (maybe not often, but I’m sure you can remember) the lovely feeling of soft, cool, flour pouring between your fingers? How about being barefoot on a sandy beach, really sinking your toes into the sand and wiggling them around?

For us adults, allowing ourselves to get fully involved in a sensory experience like mixing flour with our hands can be an incredibly relaxing experience – we’re back to good old mindfulness and directing your attention entirely on the present moment, letting thoughts and worries disappear well into the background. However, messy play with a toddler is anything but a relaxing experience! Toddlers well and truly live in the moment. They also have absolutely no consideration for how the mess is going to be cleaned up, or why that’s even necessary! This is why many of us shy away from the messy stuff at home – after all, it can take ages to prepare, they play with it for a bit, manage to get it all over the house, and then somehow you’ve got to get everything cleaned again and minimise the destruction. So, should you do it anyway? And does it have to be messy?

What are the benefits of messy play?

The Early Years Foundation Stage Framework, to which we map all our courses, describes several areas of learning which can be benefited by engaging your child in messy play, including:

  • Playing and learning
  • Active Learning
  • Creating and thinking critically

This type of play allows children to explore and be curious, and engage in an open-ended activity, which is great for encouraging creativity and developing their ability to concentrate on something for longer amounts of time. Sometimes in our messy play sessions I see a toddler spend nearly the whole session playing with one activity, completely absorbed.

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Many of the messy play activities we run are science experiments, encouraging toddlers to think about: What happens if I mix this substance with this other substance? What happens when I pour this liquid onto this solid? It’s setting them up to be interested in the world around them and encourages their natural curiosity in a safe environment. If you read last week’s blog on Schemas, you’ll see many of the schemas getting used during messy play, which is hugely important in their development.

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Making a volcano = science

A huge benefit to children is the opportunity to play completely freely, with no interference from anyone else. Having lots of free play is hugely beneficial for a child’s confidence, as they are working independently, and in a basic way they are able to problem solve and plan their own projects and see them through.

Another thing we focus on is the physical development messy play supports. There’s a lot of fine motor control work going on, pinching small things between their fingers, using a brush, doing accurate pouring. Balance and coordination is also important when walking on unusual surfaces!

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There’s a huge amount more I could write on the benefits of this type of play, but you get the idea!

If I’m going to do this at home, does it have to be that messy?

No, it really doesn’t. And you don’t have to provide a whole load of different materials all at once. I’d recommend getting outside in the garden or the park as much as possible – suit them up in head-to-toe waterproofs and let them splash in puddles or give them a small trowel, a couple of flower pots and some compost. Once they are past the stage of eating handfuls of sand, a trip to the beach provides loads of amazing play, especially Felixstowe where we have a mix of sand and stones (and cafes to warm up in afterwards). A bucket of sea water and a spade is all they need. Take a thermos of coffee and a friend and let the toddlers get on with it!

My son as a toddler loving the muddy puddles in the park

At home you can use dry materials like cereals or uncooked rice for scooping and pouring. Making your own playdough is really easy and there are a range of different recipes for different textures. It won’t keep that long, but just mixing some flour and some oil is really cheap and is still perfectly good for playing with. If you have some knocking about in the back of the cupboard, add some food colouring to make it look pretty.

When you look at the benefits you can see that it doesn’t have to involve an enormous mess – what you are looking for is open ended play, that allows them to get stuck in with their hands (and feet). You can come to us, or any of the many other messy play providers, to do the really painty messy stuff. And if they go to preschool or nursery, that’s exactly what they are set up to do! What’s important to do at home is plenty of free play which is not limited to toys. Your toddler will show you what they want to do anyway. Follow their lead. If they are constantly tipping their drink out, or throwing things around, or trying to scribble on everything, they are telling you how they want to play. Encourage this! Stick them in the bath with some cups and jugs; take them outside with a ball; sit them inside a big cardboard box and give them some crayons or pens.

People often ask me what age our messy play sessions are suitable for. Our sessions are designed for toddlers, e.g. children that can walk, but there’s no lower limit to open ended play – just work with the age of your child, what they are interested in and what’s safe to give them. There’s no upper age limit either – we’ve seen fully grown parents smearing paint on their faces at our messy play sessions!

Our messy play sessions are on Wednesday afternoons at the centre during term time from 1:30-3pm. We run these completely for free, out of the goodness of Jo’s heart – she does a huge amount of preparation for each session and a massive clean up afterwards. All we ask is that if you have any spare change to help us out with the cost of the materials. There’s no need to book in advance, just turn up.

You can always check our timetable to see if the group is running.


The Before and After pictures from this week’s spectacular “Colour and Paint” session:

Doesn’t it look nice?

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Just look what they did to it!

Not every week is this messy, I promise!

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