Messy Play

Messy play — good for children!

Felicity Barclay


What do we mean when we refer to messy play?


Bark, dirt, leaves, sand, water, puddles, mud, shells, leaves sticks…..


Paint, clay, playdough, slime, cornflour goop, rice,…..

Use your imagination — perhaps you can add ideas of your own?

Why is it important?

Pleasure and Fun

The squish of paint between your fingers or mud between your toes, burying your feet under the sand, rolling playdough or sculpting clay. Raking the bark or making patterns in the dirt with fingers or a stick. There is no right or wrong way to do these things. Children can use their imaginations and “just be”.

It’s important for children to have time for play and fun. End of story. We adults like our leisure and fun times — so too do children. Not everything has to be a ‘learning opportunity’. Adults could do well to remember this and to prioritise time for children to play — without a specific outcome in mind.

A disposition for learning

We know that children learn best when they are happy and engaged. If we want children to take an interest in the world around them, to be active and involved learners, to think creatively, to solve problems, to persist when things get tough, to be resilient in the face of challenges — then it is imperative that we lay a foundation for a positive and healthy disposition for learning. Put simply — we want kids to want to learn.

Believe it or not — as your child jumps in a puddle or makes a messy squelchy mud pie she is being afforded all sorts of opportunities that will help her develop a healthy disposition for learning and a sense of curiosity about the world. What happens if I jump really hard and fast into that puddle? What does it feel like if I put my hands in the puddle? How much mud can I fit into that container? Maybe I need some more water in the mud to make it pour more easily. These types of questions arise naturally in the mind of a child as they are given space to play and explore.

Physical development

As children dig in the sand or scoop mud from one container to another, as they move their hands around in slime or roll and press playdough they are using their hands, fingers — their muscles and in the case of outdoor play, they may be using strength to lift and carry. Messy play can provide great opportunity for physical development. As they explore and have fun with messy materials children are developing hand-eye coordination and also developing proprioception skills (the perception of where one’s body is and what it’s doing).

Language, vocabulary, communication

‘Squelchy’ ‘sticky’ ‘scratchy’ ‘bumpy’ ‘warm’ ‘squishy’ ‘spongey’ ‘fluffy’ — messy play opens up all sorts of opportunities for exploring new vocabulary. As children play alongside each other with messy materials they may be chatting and listening with peers or using gestures to communicate their delight. Children might also be using language to negotiate the use of materials or space. For children whose second language is English — messy play offers a non threatening, potentially relaxing way to explore the use of language.

Creative and imaginative thinking

With no ‘rules’ or prescribed outcomes — messy play is a perfect medium for thinking imaginatively and creatively. Role playing or acting out real life activities is an excellent way for children to make sense of and to learn about their world. Mud pies in the pretend oven, a sandy, leaf filled bucket becomes a wonderful ‘soup for dinner’.

Paint on the hands and feet can be used to make prints on paper in all sorts of creative ways. Playdough is pushed, rolled and shaped into ‘biscuits’ or animals, cars, or jewels. Children need opportunities in early childhood to explore and muck about with messy materials in order to engage and harness creative thinking.

Emotional development

Many adults seek out sensory experiences as a way to relax or to wind down. A facial, a spa or bubble bath, a foot massage. Some find kneading pizza dough to be therapeutic or pursue their own artistic interests with paint, clay or other media. Others enjoy the sensation of the head massage at the hair dresser.

Messy play can, in the same way help children to relax and feel good. It can provide an outlet for frustration or angry feelings. It can soothe or calm when sad and distressed. Messy play can also help build a child’s confidence or develop a sense of agency. As children shape, mould and manipulate materials, they are exercising control over the medium and making decisions about what to do next. There are usually fewer constraints around use of the materials in messy play — this helps children to feel strong and positive about their own capacity to have a go and make their own decisions.

Forming relationships and friendships

Messy play can be a wonderful conduit for friendship building. As children pour, mix, sort, measure, squelch, squish and get wet and messy together — these shared experiences can be consolidating, affirming, bringing shared delight, shared fun.

Literacy and numeracy development

There is far more to early literacy and numeracy than writing your name and counting to 20. There are many foundational understandings that children need to have for future literacy and numeracy success. Messy play can be a wonderful way to give children the opportunity to develop the necessary foundations for future learning. For example — sorting, classifying and patterning — all important for future numeracy development. Similarly, measuring, estimating, balancing — all these involve mathematical thinking — and yet to the outside eye it may look like your child is simply putting leaves and sticks in jars or transferring sand and water from one bucket to another. “I’m making a chocolate cake!” says the child in the outdoor mud kitchen as he puts an old tin filled to the top with mud, sand and pebbles into the pretend outdoor oven. “What’s the recipe?” asks a nearby teacher. “Oh… sticks, leaves and chocolate…” Another group of children are chanting “Wombat Stew Wombat stew” — the words from a favourite story as they mix sand around in their buckets. Our outdoor educator is in the garden with some three year olds. She reads the label on each seed packet as they plant vegetables together. Others are practicing name writing in the dirt with sticks or exercising hand and finger muscles as they swirl their hands in paint on the surface of a table. Again, to the outside eye — it may not look like these children are engaging in literacy learning — but indeed they are.

Messy Play is important

So we can see — there are a number of benefits for children as they join in messy play. My early days of uni saw me learning about developmental theory and the Piagetian stages of cognitive development — the first stage being ‘sensorimotor development’ — where children learn about and experience the world through an interaction between movement and the senses. Piagetian development talks about sensory and object differentiation. We may have moved on a bit in terms of our understanding about developmental theory (eg we now know that development doesn’t necessarily occur in a linear fashion as Piaget posited) — however early experiences where children have the opportunity to feel, explore and identify differences between rough and smooth, hot and cold for example or simply have the opportunity to put their fingers in squishy paint or sit with their feet in some slime remain important and experience tells me that if a child has not experienced messy play and had the opportunity to ‘get their hands and feet into it’ that there’s inherent value in providing them with these opportunities.

What can parents do?

1. Please do not discourage your child from getting involved in messy play at preschool/daycare. I have met many children over the years who have anxiously or sadly told me “Mum doesn’t want me to get my hands/dress/clothes/shoes dirty”. If you are worried abou t clothes or shoes — dress them in old clothes — buy a cheaper set of “preschool clothes” and encourage your child to “go for it” and get involved. Watch your language — try to avoid saying things like “don’t get dirty” — instead try modelling acceptance and encouragement of messy play. “Wow — you sure look like you had a great time! Look at your lovely green hands!”.

2. Check your own anxiety or concerns about messy play and measure this against the benefits of engagement in messy play for your child. There seems to be increasing evidence (source 1, source 2) that exposure to dirt and outdoor play may be beneficial rather than harmful to the immune system. Remember also that minor scratches and scrapes are a normal part of childhood. Yes — your child might get a splinter, or scrape their foot on a rock — don’t be too concerned about this. While of course we want children to remain safe and healthy, these bumps and bruises actually help children learn to modify behaviour or take caution in the future and to develop a sense of resilience.

3. Be a role model — Let your children see you dealing with mess and dirt as a factual part of life. Children learn what they see. If mum and dad are relaxed about a bit of mess, this in turn will help your child to feel relaxed about getting involved in these sorts of experiences. If you are working the dough in the kitchen or walking along the beach — use some words that reinforce the positive feelings associated with the experience. “This dough feels so good!”, “Ahh — I love the feeling of sand between my toes”.

4. Be prepared — get yourself set up to allow for messy play in your child’s life. This may mean having a set of old clothes ready for preschool or childcare — or having raincoats ready for a walk on a rainy day. It may be designating a certain part of the house for paint and craft and messy play or setting aside a part of the garden for digging and mud pie making. It may mean reading up further about the benefits of messy play or checking out messy play ideas online.

5. Be intentional — Now you are prepared — make it happen! Take small steps — maybe starting off with some cooking or planting some seeds with your child might be a good first step.

6. Share your ideas — Talk with your friends and other parents about the messy play activities you have been enjoying with your child. This may help encourage other less enthusiastic parents to give it a go too. Let’s start a messy play revolution! Take some pictures, share them on social media or share them with your child’s preschool/childcare teachers. A great way to share ideas, and resources and reinforce the message.

7. Think sustainably and environmentally — reuse — reclaim and recycle. When it comes to messy art experiences — why not think about using resources in a sustainable way? Re-use envelopes and paper, make use of found objects, visit reverse garbage (or similar) for art and craft supplies . Get out and about in nature — visit the local park to find some puddles, take a drive to the beach, help your child get connected with his/her environment.

8. Have fun — pure and simple — enjoy seeing your child getting amongst it and getting messy. We all seem to grow up too fast. The window of childhood seems to be ever shrinking. Let your child freely enjoy the mess and better still — enjoy it with them. After all, it’s nothing that a bit of soap and water, a bath and some elbow grease won’t fix.


Click here for a 'Goop' recipe!

Felicity Barclay