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The importance of messy play

As a children’s Occupational Therapist (OT) I’m a big believer in providing a wide range of play opportunities for children of all abilities and messy play is a winner on so many levels, not the least because the majority (albeit not all, but that is a conversation for another day) of children absolutely love it!

Having said that I know all too well that the word “messy” makes a lot of parents cringe and it conjures up thoughts of chaos, ruined furniture and extra washing up! But messy, sensory play doesn’t have to be about plonking your child in a bath of baked beans and it is so crucial that I urge any neat freaks (and I put myself in this bracket) out there to give it ago.


Most parents don’t realise that what they see as a ‘mess’ is actually their child’s learning process. From birth, children rely on their 7 senses, that’s right 7 and not just 5 (Touch, Taste, Sight, Smell, Hearing, Proprioception (being able to correctly plan movement and know where and what your limbs are doing without looking) and vestibular (inner ear balance and knowing when your body is moving, swinging, spinning, hanging upside down etc.) to develop and learn about the world around them. Messy play is essentially how children stimulate and engage their 7 senses, which in turn strengthens neural pathways important for all types of learning. In other words something as simple and as fun, as messy, sensory play can have a huge positive impact onto your childs development. Here are just some of the benefits:


  • Physical: Messy play helps children build body awareness, build fine motor skills, finger and hand strength and dexterity and improve hand-eye co-ordination. To build on this use of lots of tools within the sensory play, such as utensils, filling and pouring from cups, and ‘writing’ or mark making with tools or fingers.


  • Communication: Messy play offers lots of opportunities to talk to your child about how the activity feels, talk about the sensations they’re experiencing, the colours they see and the actions they carry out.


  • Creative play: Creative play is another area where lots of children struggle and messy play is the perfect medium for creating vivid, unexpected play stories. For example, if you add a few mini trucks to a stack of shaving foam it instantly transforms into a blizzard, if we add a few plastic frogs to a pile of goop and it becomes a swamp. This all helps spark their little imaginations.


  • Emotional and social: There’s no rules in messy play, there’s no right or wrong way of doing it, so children get a great sense of freedom to explore and experiment without the pressure of ‘getting it right’ which can build confidence.


  • Intellectual: Messy play can help with early foundational academic skills such as counting, measuring, mixing colours, sorting shapes and sizes, making patterns and understanding cause and effect.


So now that you know the benefits you might be thinking of giving messy play a try. In recent years I’ve seen a surge in messy play activities provided at baby and toddler groups which is great especially if you don’t have the time or space to do it yourself. However, if your local area doesn’t have any groups like this or you’re unable to fit these groups in around your busy working week then you could give some of the following activities a try at home. For most of these I’d recommend a large tray or something similar like a baby bath or small paddling pool to contain the mess. That way it’s easily washable afterwards but if you don’t want to sit your child in the mess you can always put it in baking trays or similar and let them just put their hands in or even use their high chair trays.




  • Bath time: Baths are a good opportunity to play with water so leave enough time for your child to splash about after washing. You don’t need expensive bath toys, plastic cups or washed up yoghurt pots are just as good and bath crayons are great if you’re feeling brave enough.


  • Finger painting: Make your own paint by using fruit purees, yoghurts or icing and add lots of other sensory items, both for the actual painting e.g. different sponges, squirty bottles, cotton balls, and also sensory items to add to the paint mixture, e.g. glitter, sand or sequins.




  • Play dough and slime: You don’t have to make anything in particular with play dough. It’s just as important to explore it by squeezing, rolling, splatting, stretching and squelching it. Slime (usually cornflour and water), is a great tactile substance both for touching and watching as it slides off little fingers.


  • Rainbow rice or Spaghetti: An old favorite - cook as normal and a few drops of food colouring to each portion. Chuck it all in your container, paddling pool or bath and let the fun commence.


  • Sandpits: Digging in sand, feeling it run through their fingers and making sandcastles is all about exploring. Provide a few utensils such as plastic trowels, buckets etc. and add water for extra mess.



  • Cream: Cover a smooth surface with shaving foam or whipped cream and let your child explore the texture with their hands. They might want to create patterns, write letters or shapes, draw pictures, move their hands through the foam in random movements, or pile the foam into big mounds. You can use a table covered with a plastic table cloth, or use shaving cream on different surfaces – a great option is to use a large window or sliding glass door; the vertical surface helps to build upper body strength and core strength at the same time.



  • Shredded paper: Empty different coloured paper shreddings in to a large tub or box. You can hide your child in and let them dig their way out or you can hide some of their toys and let them search for them or even just let them crawl through it.


  • Jelly: Mix up jelly and put some of your child’s small toys in the mix. Get them to dig them out using little fingers, tongs or giant tweezers often found in childrens games.


  • Food: Have you got a big pack of uncooked rice, split peas or pasta shells, these are all good for messy, sensory play. Dye them with food colouring and pop a few tiny objects in the tub and have your children try to find them using their hands. Other dried foods such as cereals can be scrunched. Jelly, mashed potato and angel delight can all provide interesting sensory experiences.


  • Oobleck: Take equal measures of cornflour and water. Slowly add water to the cornflour and mix to the desired consistency. It should be solid when patted but liquid when just touched. If you grab a handful and squeeze it hard it will go solid in your hand for a second before seeping through your fingers. Such a bizarre substance but one that keeps children intrigued and playing.


  • Cloud dough: Add together shaving foam and flour and mix in some glitter for sparkly, fluffy clouds.


  • Ice: Freeze water in different shaped/sized containers and add some of your child’s toys. They will have great fun trying to free their toys as the ice melts. This can be done in the bath tub or paddling pool too.


  • Outdoors: Jumping in muddy puddles, water and sand, running through fallen leaves or digging in the garden are all great natural resources and are free!


  • Cooking: Try and involve your child in any cooking or baking which allows them to use their hands, such as kneading dough for pizzas, pouring sprinkles onto cupcakes or squishing tomatoes etc.




As you can see not all activities will make a big mess in your house, although some could!!! In my experience preparation is key and of course, there are safety considerations; playing with water obviously carries risks and using certain foods might present a choking hazard or allergic reaction so close supervision is always needed.


Before you get going you might want to cover surfaces, make sure you have a flannel or towel ready to wipe their hands before your child touches your walls or furniture, and allow plenty of time for the activity and the clean up afterwards.

I hope this has given you some good ideas and reasons to let your little one get messy!


Embrace it and most importantly have fun!










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