If you’ve been wondering, “what is messy play?” you’re not alone. You’ve probably heard the phrase thrown around over and over again. It’s a term that has gained popularity over the last few years. Whether you’ve seen it on Pinterest, on your favorite facebook page, or on an inspirational instagram meme, the phrase has been bandied about by positive parenting groups for a while now. It’s also referred to as “sensory play,” which references its use of the five senses.
So what is messy play? Messy play is basically exactly what it sounds like – allowing your children to make a controlled mess so they can use their senses in a logical and educational way. And while the idea of making a huge mess often puts parents off, the benefits of messy play are huge and totally worth the minimal inconvenience.
What IS messy play?
Messy play, or sensory play, is the term for any activities allowing children to work with their hands to create a controlled mess. Often involving traditionally messy ingredients such as paint, sand, slime, water, clay or mud, it is geared toward exploring feelings and imagination.
The idea is to use different materials to explore various textures, getting used to different sensations using their hands and fingers or even toes and feet! Some children will be sensitive to different sensations, and messy play is a great way to ease them into new experiences without overwhelming them.
What’s the difference between messy play and sensory play?
Messy play and sensory play are two terms that mean the same thing. They can be used interchangeably. Both are referencing the fact that children are making messes and using their bodies to feel tactile sensations.
What are the benefits?
Messy play fosters creativity and imagination, encourages language and communication skills, practices concentration, and promotes physical development.
Creativity and Imagination
Messy play has no end goal. The point of it is to let children explore the materials in front of them in whichever way they wish. They can touch, smell, taste (if appropriate), listen and see each item in whichever way pleases them the most. Allowing them to interact with their surroundings fosters their creativity and brings them joy. It can stimulate their curiosity and allow them to ask questions and look for their own answers as they make discoveries about each new object.
Language and Communication
Even babies or nonverbal children can learn valuable communication skills through messy play. Using gestures, facial expressions or even laughter or other noises, they can communicate thoughts and information about what they are thinking or feeling throughout their play time. The use of items such as plastic letters or scrabble tiles can allow for spelling practice. Asking open ended questions about what is happening can offer opportunities for conversation. Even the act of playing together is allowing for social skills to grow.
Messy play can seem inherently chaotic, but in reality it often requires high doses of concentration from children. As they ponder each new discovery, they are concentrating on each sensation and working through their feelings. Do I enjoy this wet paint on my arm? Am I annoyed by the sound of this bell? Do I like splashing water? Does sand feel good in between my toes? These thoughts are giving them valuable assessment skills.
Messy play is great for practicing controlled movements requiring good hand-eye coordination. Pouring water from one container into another, shoveling sand, drawing or painting inside a given area – all are great occupational therapy techniques and will help develop physical skills.
What skills can messy play teach children?
Messy play uses the hands and fingers, which promotes fine motor skill development. It encourages finger dexterity, hand and shoulder strength – skills all necessary for handwriting in the future. Messy play also helps with body balance and spatial awareness, enhancing gross motor skills. It’s also great for working on hand-eye coordination, which will come in very handy as the child gets older.
Messy play is a great tool for developing new vocabulary words. Asking questions about how materials look or feel requires the child to think of new descriptions. Is the item hot, cold, large, small, scratchy, smooth, hard, soft?
It’s also a wonderful way to teach symbolism through imaginative play. Turn play dough into a mountain or a sand box into a vast desert. Give children the chance to use more complex language using descriptive adjectives.
Messy play is the basis for early STEM learning. Using hands-on play, children get a feel for experimentation by seeing for themselves how things work. They learn valuable science skills like cause and effect, problem-solving and the scientific method. They can also learn basic math skills like classification, sorting, matching and more.
Social and Emotional Skills
Messy play can make for a great solo activity, but it works really well as a group activity, too. It can teach children how to work together on a project, how to understand others ideas and views, and how to express their own. It helps with learning about personal boundaries and about body awareness, as well.
It’s also really great for emotional awareness, as messy play can sometimes be overwhelming, and children will often need to calm or remove themselves from the situation. When this happens, it is a great opportunity to talk things through and help them recognize and name their emotions and figure out how to avoid getting upset in the future.
What can I use for messy play?
You don’t need a ton of special toys for successful messy play. You probably have tons of stuff at home that would work perfectly. In fact, you can integrate messy play into regular everyday activities such as baths, meal time, cooking and gardening!
Depending on the ages of your children, there are tons of easy ways to create opportunities for messy play into your everyday life. From activities for young toddlers to games and lessons for older kids, there is something for everyone.
Take it outside: Nature is a playground of textures, smells, and new sensations. Let your kids jump in puddles, make a mud pie, dig a hole or jump in some leaves. Take a leaf rubbing, draw with chalk, or even look for edible plants.
Make Mealtime Messy: This is more for very young children, but hey, I won’t judge anyone for joining in. Let them make a mess with their food. Let them feel, smell, and taste their food however makes sense to them. Let them feel it between their fingers or in their hair. Let them step in it. They’re going to do it anyway, so at least this way you can make it seem intentional. Interact with them as they go and offer up new words and explanations for their experience.
Bath time fun: Water is the most natural form of messy play there is. Give them a chance to play and explore in a contained environment where cleanup is a breeze. Plastic cups, sponges, squirt bottles, bath crayons, or anything else they may enjoy. Set a timer and let them play. Be sure they are safe and never left alone. Ask them questions about what they’re doing and thinking. It’s the perfect time for messy play.
Get a sand table: You can buy a sand table pretty inexpensively, and sand is an amazing natural material. It offers some great messy play opportunities, both dry and wet. Kids can dig, pour or build with it.
Make Your Own Dough: You can make two ingredient play dough in the time it takes to brew a cup of coffee, and it’s a great way to keep kids happy. Or, create your own “magic snow” for your kids to play with. The point is, you can use regular household items to create messy play opportunities.
Food is fun: Food is a great source of sensory stimulation. Aside from mealtime fun, look in your pantry for anything you can crunch, mash up or manipulate in a fun way. Rice, cereal, pasta, or dried beans are great. If you’re extra brave, go for Jello or jelly and hide some toys inside!
What are some activities I can do with my child?
Now that you know everything you need to know about messy play, you’re totally prepared for your next adventure. Just remember to keep calm and enjoy the experience. Just remember to keep yourself calm, keep your kids safe and remember that everything can be cleaned. Messes are inevitable when you have kids, but the benefits of messy play are so huge that it’s a totally worthwhile endeavor.
Katie Reed is a passionate writer and mother of four vivacious boys from Salt Lake City, Utah. Drawing from her own journey through TTC, pregnancy, and the joys of raising children, she offers a wealth of insight into the world of motherhood. Beyond her heartfelt tales, Katie delights her readers with family-friendly recipes, engaging crafts, and a curated library of printables for both kids and adults. When she’s not penning her experiences, you’ll find her crafting memories with her husband and sons—Dexter, Daniel, Chester, and Wilder.