‘Messy’ Play – What is it and why is it important?

‘Messy’ Play – What is it and why is it important?

Those moments when you stop and look at the room and there is stuff EVERYWHERE, your child has painted their entire body and the dog, the play dough that began in five separate colours is now one big rainbow mess, the paint colours that also began in separate areas are now one big blob of brown, and their sitting in the sensory bin throwing beans like confetti on New Year’s – those are the moments to be proud of! Deeper thought process has occurred, a lot of fun has probably also taken place, and you know what?… The mess can be cleaned up! People have a vacuum for a reason, there is a hose outside if the bathtub is too “clean”, clothes can go in the wash, and best of all kids love to help clean up with brooms and dusting mitts (they’re so good at it too right?).

The art of ‘Messy’ and ‘Free Play’ was becoming a distant memory in this day and age, however, increasing awareness of the situation seems to be bringing it back to life. When you go to the store for activities for kids, are you drawn to the paint, brushes, and glue, or are you drawn to that “mess-free” zone that is growing exponentially each year? Drawn to the latter- why is that? These are my guesses:

  • We are trying too hard to mould our children to fit our “before kids” lifestyles vs. adjusting to a new lifestyle with children. It’s convenient.
  • We are too busy juggling life that play that involves getting dirty just adds stress.
  • We are doing too much. We are trying to do it all and don’t accept the fact that we just can’t. If we put less pressure on ourselves to be the perfect parent with the cleanest house and the smallest pile of laundry, could we spend more time getting messy and watching our children discover life? We just might become less of that aspiring superhero parent in our minds but become the best superhero parents in our children’s minds.
  • We are living in houses that are possibly not our own and in areas with smaller yards and less green spaces. Maybe there just isn’t an ideal space for messy play at this point in life.
  • Our parents harped on us to keep our greasy fingers off the walls, there was no eating allowed in the vehicles, and heaven help us if we spilled our milk let alone played with a sensory bin, so now it’s so ingrained in our entire being that we can’t escape the fear of a mess. My sister sarcastically imitates mom saying “Feet! Why do you have feet! They walk on my floors!” because to this day my mom is paranoid that a spec of dirt might land on her dining room chairs or hardwood floors and there are towels upon towels and layers of rug upon layers of rug to protect furniture and flooring. BUT… in all fairness to people who are like that… could it be that they are so proud of their homes and belongings because they worked so hard to achieve what they have that they protect it in ways that may seem unreasonable to others? For some people “stuff” is replaceable, but for others, they know true value of what it took to have what they have and messy play has no place being there.

Don’t get me wrong; there are situations that call for “mess-free” activities and play, however, in my opinion, things are out of hand. To support this, I was recently told by a Kindergarten and grade 1 teacher that the amount of students entering school who have sensory issues due to a lack of exposure to different textures and free play is increasing. Kids are entering into the early years of education “hating printing because they were pushed too young” and “with sensory issues or who(m) you can tell have not touched different textures or anything that may have been messy.” This teacher continued to describe that this “also comes into play with fine motor. Some haven’t been “allowed” scissors or glue.” It’s time to go back to the basics and get messy!

What does Messy Play look like?

  • Playing outside
    • Get outside and talk about what you see, touch, hear, and feel. Offer magnifying glasses for greater observation.
    • Allow your child(ren) to collect things in their pockets, touch bugs (respectfully), build things with sticks, etc.
    • Appreciate dirty knees, dirt moustaches, and grass stains,
    • Jump in puddles 
  • Playing with play dough
    • Play dough, Living Sands, Kinetic Sand, Mad Mattr, etc. is so much more than cool coloured dough and I’m guilty of underestimating it’s powers.
    • You can take it even further by offering “small parts” such as feathers, beads, sequins, Mr. Potato Head parts, stickers, muffin tins, small cars, lego, etc. along with the play dough as a fancy invitation to create.     
  • Playing with sensory bins
    • Texture is very important to the development of a child. Just like the rest of us, there will be textures that are preferred and ones that are not. Sensory bins offer excellent opportunities to explore textures. Water, sand, rice, beans, salt, foam, wood, pasta, flour, shaving cream, water beads, etc. are all examples of textures that can be included in sensory bins.
    • Excellent way to incorporate fine motor skills development activities through play with tongs, scoops, sorting trays, spoons, etc.
    • Explore different educational topics through play such as shape and space, volume, buoyancy, density, alphabet learning and letter recognition, spelling, etc.
    • Never underestimate the power of a sensory bin for older children as well. Even late elementary to junior high years would appreciate creating a bin of Oobleck to play with. “I Spy” bins are also great bins for older children and are similar to a scavenger hunt but in a bin. You could even include riddles or codes.

      Foam blocks and shaving cream sensory bin.


      Salt and liquid watercolours play. 


      Sand and water play.

  • Painting
    • Finger painting, painting with feet, and painting with different tools (sponges, lego, cutlery, etc.) are all examples of exploring paint to it’s fullest.

      Painting with bubble wrap on feet.

      Lego Painting

  • Process art
    • Creating art through a process of steps is one of my favourite things to do. It’s as if there is a “middle man” between the paint and end result. That “middle man” is where the fun happens! The learning that takes place while playing with process art is incredible.
    • Marble painting, Shaving cream art, Bleeding art tissue paper art, and Salad spinner art are just some of the examples of process art.

      Bleeding Art Tissue Paper Painting Process Art

  • Baking
    • Allowing your child to participate in the baking process is a super way to incorporate messy play into your day where all five senses are being used.

      Baking helpers.


      Baking helpers.

  • STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) activities
    • Science related experiments aren’t just for school aged children.
    • Offer your child small or large parts and invite them to build something. Examples of parts to offer could include toothpicks and marshmallows, popsicle sticks and plastic cups, or pillows and blankets.
    • Homemade lava lamps, Shaving Cream Rain Clouds, Mentos and Diet Coke Reaction, colour mixing, Rube Goldberg Machines, etc are all examples of STEM activities that you can incorporate from early preschool age and on.

      Homemade Lava Lamps

      Rainbow foam eruptions!

Messy play and sensory play are an integral part to a child’s development from birth. Yes birth. From birth, babies are exposed to skin-to-skin contact and we now know the benefits to that are huge. As they grow, sensory development happens in different ways, however it’s no less important. It is through messy play that children explore and absorb the world around them while using all 5 senses. They learn to create without instruction, troubleshoot, and learn from their mistakes to recreate and improve. They learn to communicate and socialize while building self-esteem with very little parental guidance. Allowing a child to get messy and investigate their surroundings freely using all senses is giving them an invaluable gift. The leftover mess can be cleaned up, but the effects of ignoring messy and sensory play cannot be (or it’s harder to overcome).

There is so much to consider when discussing messy play, however, there is much at stake when it’s not offered during childhood. We are so busy trying to raise our children according to what expectations we think others have of us that we forget to just be ourselves and allow learning to happen through play. We are also busy focusing on milestones and result in hopes that our child is the best or first at something that we forget how important the process is along the way. It might be messy, but it’s worth it.


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