The Benefits of Messy Play And How To Make it Slightly Less Messy

The Benefits of Messy Play And How To Make it Slightly Less Messy

Messy play gives children an opportunity to tap into their creativity, explore all sorts of possibilities, enhance and experience their senses, practice cooperation and of course…get messy.

Glitter, play dough, paint, slime, goop, glue, mud, muck, water and more…

Children just love it and well, some parents really just don’t like it all that much. It’s just so messy. There is good reason to create opportunities for messy play for young children.

  1. Messy play promotes coordination, fine motor skills, planning, self regulation and more
  2. Open ended, non structured play encourages creativity and learning
  3. Provides sensory stimulation vital to brain development
  4. Messy play is a great way for young children to channel their energy
  5. Provides an opportunity for parents to work together and foster cooperation

Messy play is important for a child’s development, it’s really not just about the mess but much more than that.  Messy (sensory) play for toddlers and preschoolers at its finest is an open-ended endeavor that promotes learning.  Especially in the first five years of life, a child’s brain is developing rapidly and sensory play is vital stimulation for this development.

So what can parents do to offer messy play opportunities and not feel completely frustrated, disgusted, overwhelmed or otherwise annoyed with the mess?

Here are many ideas to make messy play just a little less messy and more enjoyable:

Plan ahead: 

You know it’s going to get messy…but it’s also going to be fun, so dive right in with a positive, can do attitude and it will feel easier.

Scout out a good location: 

Where ever you decide to start messy play, be sure the area doesn’t have a lot of breakables, valuables, or important papers nearby.  By choosing a safe location you can reduce some anxiety about keeping important things clean and just focus on play.

Some great locations for messy play are the kitchen floor, a playroom, the bath tub, the driveway, back yard and the playground or local park.

Dress it up and  Cover it up: 

Making sure children wear old clothes or smocks is a great way to take some stress out of messy play.   Additionally, covering and containing the mess is important too.

One thing we like to do is use a vinyl shower curtain and place it on the ground. It can be hosed off and hung to dry after a messy activity and makes clean up much faster.  The curtain can be used just for protection or as the actual canvas for many messy projects!

Another inexpensive way to cover up work areas are newspapers, giant paper rolls or purchasing plastic table coverings from the clearance bin after any big holiday.

An eco-friendly version is to use giant beach towels, old bed sheets or painting drop cloth and wash or just let dry when finished, over time they will become stained with all sorts of  messy play memories!

An old picnic blanket that has the vynil backing also works well.

Taping sheets of paper to a glass door for water color painting or finger painting is great.

Other ways to contain the mess: Old metal baking sheets, deep plastic bins, take away containers and foil pans, repurposing a water/sand table and using a kiddy pool.

When working indoors with really messy projects, I have even lined a “walkway” from the table to the sink with towels and masking tape to avoid getting the floor dirty. (Trash bags or plastic foil work too but not so earth friendly…)

Free Play can still have boundaries: 

Although messy play is all about free exploration, it’s really ok and even important to contain or set up boudaries. Make it clear as you set up the activity where materials may and may not be used.

Whenever we do messy play, we designate the area specifically and create a playful rule around it. For example: “Everything around the shower curtain is hot lava, so please stay on the lava proof carpet” or “this is the magical painting carpet, the paint stays on here only. ”  “No playdough on the carpet.”

For outdoors, using a safety cone for example to mark the end of a driveway is a great way to keep the children safe.

Avoid the sticky stuff…or not

You can always start out with materials that are less messy if you are not so comfortable with big messes. Containing the mess is also helpful.  Using buckets, water and paint brushes (no paint) for example to paint the sidewalks, driveway etc…is low on the sticky factor, but is still loads of fun.

Check finger paints and tempera paints carefully, some brands are more washable than others.  Shaving foam is great fun, but it dries into a really glue like mess, so clean up before it dries up!

Mud has a bad reputation but it’s really washable! Making mudpies and rock soup are messy but clean up and set up are pretty easy in the back yard.

Flour, sand and glitter tend to stick to everything. Baby powder is great at un-sticking them from little fingers and little toes!

Clean up only once Or minimaly in between

When we start a messy play activity, I try not to interrupt the children’s creative processes by bothering them with cleaning their faces or hands or clothes that may have bits of paint or mud. If they are uncomfortable, I trust that they will ask when they need or want to be cleaned up.  So try to resist the urge to direct the mess or mid play clean up and clean up just once at the end. If there is a very large spill or something that needs to be cleaned up, try to do so without interrupting the creative play process.

Have fun cleaning up

When clean up time does come around, we like to find jobs where everyone can pitch in. My two year old washes brushes, my four year old loves to scrub things with goopy sponges. My six year old likes to carry anything that might be heavy. The clean-up ends up just being an extension of the play time and everyone is happy to help. This also promotes cooperation and capability.

Enjoy the present moment

The sweet laughter of a toddler dumping water, the mischievous grin of a preschooler squishing paint are unbelievable. Temporarily put the thought of all that clean up on hold and truly enjoy watching or even joining your children as they explore, create, investigate and live messy play.

Still not feeling like you want to deal with messy play at home? Offer to bring supplies to another parents house who is happy to host the mess.

On the blog Learn, Play, Imagine you can find 200 Ideas for Messy Play – this is a great collection of ideas to get you started!

Do you have any tips on how to handle messy play or make it more manageable?

What is your favorite source for messy play ideas?

Peace & Be Well,


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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a Masters in Psychology and is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, and one cuddly dog.

7 Responses to The Benefits of Messy Play And How To Make it Slightly Less Messy

  1. Keller Williams has a great song on his “Kids” album called “Keep It On the Paper.” We usually sing the chorus (title of song) when we are setting up as a reminder to keep the art materials in the proper place. Of course, if the canvas isn’t paper, we just substitute the appropriate word in place of paper… 🙂

  2. Great article! I’m a mom who has inhibitions venturing into messy play 🙂
    When my mom was young (during the war) they couldn’t get a lot of supplies so they did the bucket of water and paint brush idea. When I was young she introduced me to it – hours of fun! I had totally forgotten about it until you mentioned it. So, I’m off to fill a bucket for my toddler. Who knows…maybe she’ll pass it on some day!

  3. Ah, this article is so what I need! I get very anxious about messy play, but I know little ones crave that sort of exploration and disinhibition. These ideas are making it seem so much more manageable to me. It’s hard for us, because we live in a small carpeted apartment with no outdoor space, but I think the idea of lining the floor will work great. Thanks for this post!

  4. Lauren,
    lining the floor is my go to thing, especially on rainy days. so glad that it may be helpful!

  5. I definitely have an aversion to craft style messes and actually loathe glitter. (I hate getting cards, etc. that have glitter on them!) We used to have a canvas shower curtain that made a great drop cloth, but I’ve decided we just need to do messes outside. Thanks for the inspiration!

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