Most of us know not to play with our food, but there's a good reason why so many children do it: it's fun.
When toddlers mush their hands into their mashed potatoes and smear spaghetti sauce across the table, they're not trying to make a mess. Or rather, the mess isn't the point. They're doing it because this sort of thing is a deeply enriching sensory experience, something that lights up their brain with all sorts of great stimuli that helps us learn and develop.
This sort of experience cuts to the core importance of messy play. Not every moment of play can (or should) be messy, but it's an important part of a balanced play diet during early childhood.
With this story, we’ll start with an overview of why messy play is so important, before we make a little note on children who are averse to it and what you need to watch out for. After that, we’ve got lots of tips and ideas on how to get uncertain parents onboard to make sure your children are free to play as messily as their little hearts desire.
Messy play is often called sensory play, and with good reason – messy play gives children the freedom to explore a huge range of experiences through touch, smell, hearing, seeing and sometimes a bit of taste.
Young children up to the age of two are particularly responsive to sensory experiences like this. At this age, they're using those five senses to explore their world. Older children can take their messy play further, using it to build complex pretend worlds, develop language and early mark-making skills, and explore their creativity.
Many children love messy play, and this shouldn’t be forgotten as part of why it’s so beneficial. Activities that engage children the most are often the ones where they are having the most fun, and open to all the learning opportunities available.
There are specific skills too, whether it’s the maths of counting, pouring, and size, the fine and gross motor control, or the scientific pursuit and exploration beautifully outlined in this Teacher Tom piece on puddles.
Messy play creates a supportive environment to explore those five senses to their fullest extent, without fear of getting in trouble for making a mess. Quite the opposite — making a mess is the point. You’re not just giving children valuable learning experiences. You’re giving them freedom.
Cognitive disquilibrium is a fancy term for a not-so-fancy idea. Piaget’s theory of cognitive disequilibrium can be boiled down to the idea that for our thinking to develop, we need our existing views or understandings to be challenged. And this is something that happens all the time in messy play. Take this great example from The Thomas Coram Centre:
“Three-year-olds experiencing cornflower for the first time… see what appears to be a solid surface and reach in to take a handful. At first, the cornflower stays solid but then it turns into a powder and falls through their fingers, causing them to rethink their understanding of materials.”
Children form new ideas and beliefs all the time, but unlike us stuck-in-our-ways adults, they’re also ready for those ideas to be challenged and changed, or moulded differently. This is one of the reasons why messy play can be so powerful.
Not every child is naturally attracted to messy play. You may find children averse to the idea, and it may or may not be something you can do anything about.
Tactile defensiveness is a sensory-processing disorder where the child’s nervous system literally feels textures and sensations much more intensely. This creates a fight or flight response that can be very stressful. Here’s a great article on what it means and why, but if you’re having any concerns the best thing to do is always to seek professional help.
On the other side, a child’s reluctance to get involved may simply be that the experience is new to them, or that they have taken on phobias from parents about dirt or mess. This is where it’s up to you to model how to play messily and provide activities that allow different children to begin their messy play exploration in a more gentle way.
The best approach with messy play is to make it available, but not mandatory. It's just not for everyone, and that's okay.
Getting parent partnerships right is important in establishing strong messy play practice at your setting. As recently as 2014, a study on parents of 7-11 year-olds found that two-thirds of parents discourage messy play at home.
For busy parents who already feel they spend their life cleaning up behind young children, it’s important to be patient and understand why they might be disinclined to encourage messy play with their children, especially at home.
In fact, that’s why your role is so important. You have the opportunity to help parents see the value in messy play, rather than just the clean-up operation. By providing opportunities to play messily at your setting and by educating parents, you’re giving your children valuable learning experiences that they might not otherwise be getting.
With that in mind, let's look at a selection of benefits to help parents understand, and after that a number of ideas to help you get parents onboard with messy play in your setting.
So how do you put all this in practice?
Let's go through seven keys to keep in mind, to help make messy play an easy, appealing and beneficial part of early childhood education.
One of the most effective ways to convince parents of any practice is to provide opportunities for them to see just how much the children love it.
If you run stay-and-messy-play sessions, or run workshops with parents and children exploring messy play, then parents will get an opportunity to see the joy on their child’s faces as they’re up to their elbows in mud or paint. This is as valuable an argument as anything else.
It’s important to set parent expectations from the beginning through your policies, or as part of the enquiries process. You have control over the pedagogy and activities that take place in your setting, and if you explain the process thoroughly from day one, parents will know not to send their children in their fanciest clothes, or complain at every paint splatter.
It’s also a chance to work with uncertain parents. Explain the benefits to those who are wary, and make it a non-negotiable part of your practice. If you come up against a parent who can’t be convinced at this early stage, then you might have to admit that your setting is not right for them.
Working together with parents and compromising now and then is part of running a successful setting. But at the same time there comes a point where you can’t let parental opposition weaken your pedagogical spirit and beliefs.
A lot of the problems with messy play come down to clothes. Whether they’re worried about a paint splatter on a special dress or an overflowing pile of washing, it’s important that you’re consistent and clear in your communication with parents that spare clothing is part and parcel of early years play.
You need to set parent expectations so that their children are dressed for play, not for the catwalk. Sending them in with a spare pair of clothes is good too, or even a number of spare outfits that stay at your setting.
Aprons are always one option, but they don’t always stop stains, spills, and wet sleeves. What’s more, as this piece from the Curiosity Approach blog argues, they can restrict a child’s play. “Imagine being a child turned away from an exciting activity,” the article questions, “because they have to stop what they are doing to put on a stiff, plastic, wet, paint-splattered apron!”
Sharing observations with parents is another great way to help them see the joy in their child’s messy play, and accompany them with explanations of the learning potential. With modern online learning journals like Famly, these observations can go straight to parent pockets, keeping them in the loop throughout the day.
You can also share theory with parents, either through a blog like this nursery has, or by sharing articles like the ones you’ll find at the bottom of this article.
Great messy play can take place when you have a wide variety of resources and you can get the conversation around messy play going by asking your families for donated resources. Equipment for mud kitchens, tables, boxes, plastic sheets, painting supplies, old crates or pouring jugs – the list is endless.
See if parents have any old resources lying around that they might be able to donate, and use the conversation as a chance to educate parents on the value and power of messy play.
One big fear that limits practitioners and parents alike is the fear that things are out of control.
Messy play doesn’t have to come without ground rules. You want children to feel free to express themselves, but they also need to know what not to put in their mouths, and that paint isn’t for throwing. Make this clear to all children before a new area is opened up.
If it makes your staff feel more comfortable, you can begin with very small groups, under tighter supervision. When they’re more comfortable and the children get used to the activities, expand the groups or drop one of the practitioners from the area.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.