Teaching and learning

8 messy play ideas for hands-on learning

Why we love messy play and hands on activities for early development
Two children engaging in messy play
June 20, 2024
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In a rush? Here's a quick breakdown:

  • Some parents show their concerns about mess and dirty clothes onto their children, or actively discourage messy play.
  • Helping them understand the benefits is part of the battle, so this article should give you the tools to easily explain why messy play is so valuable.
  • After that, you’ll find actionable ideas about spare clothes, workshops, and policy to help you get parents onboard.
  • Plus, 8 list messy play activities for Early Years that we know the little ones will love, and we think the adults will too!

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 is 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.

Below you will find an overview of why messy play in Early Years 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 and family members onboard to make sure the little ones are free to play as messily as their little hearts desire.

a girl baking and whisking

Messy play helps to grow happy and curious minds. Through messy play, children explore the world’s textures and sensations, and involve more of their senses in the learning process. These new sensations enable the brain to establish new synaptic-connections — This is why learning through play is so crucial to everything we do in the early years.

Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of messy play specifically.

Why is messy play so valuable?

Messy play is often called sensory play, which is also accurate. 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.

Most early year educators understand the benefits of sensory play and hands-on learning, and encourage many sensory activities into their lesson plans. So why isn’t messy play incorporated into those activities? Messy play activities are great for development skills like cognitive skills, motor skills, encouraging curiosity and imagination, and more.

Another important perk is that 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.

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.

Messy play in the early years: what skills does it actually develop?

When children are born, they need time for their brain pathways to develop. Their surroundings and experiences help create these pathways, which is why those first few years are so crucial to develop little minds. In fact, during those first few years, more than 1 million new neural connections form every single second.

Neural pathways are the foundations of a child’s learning journey, as they’re how the brain receives and processes information. They’re how the brain communicates with the rest of the body. If children aren’t stimulated enough in the Early Years, their neural pathways won’t develop and strengthen, and this can cause significant learning delays as they get older.

Language development:

Children have a heightened sensitivity to language during those first years, and sensory play is the perfect opportunity to get them talking and using new words. With all those new and interesting textures, smells and sounds, use this opportunity to describe what you’re doing with new vocabulary and phrases, such as ‘Why is the playdough soft and squishy?’ ‘Can you stretch it?’ ‘Why don’t we roll it out?’

Personal, social, and emotional development:

A shared activity, like a sensory box [see below] for several children to use at once, helps children build social skills as they start interacting with each other. They might talk and discuss the objects if they’re exploring the objects side by side, or they might join forces and start exploring together. Not only does this help them learn how to work together, but it lets them develop their communicative skills, too.

preschool students playing with play dough

Cognitive development and critical thinking skills:

Cognitive skills, or the skills we use when we start to solve problems, start with observation. When children really look at, and explore new objects, they’re piecing all that information their brains are processing together to understand the object in front of them.

If they’re given wooden blocks of different shapes and sizes, for example, it teaches them that some are heavier than others. Letting children understand early on that different objects feel different, taste different and smell different is crucial to later problem-solving tasks, as they’re creating those pathways that connect how they use reasoning. When they do get to solving real problems, realising that all the playdough wouldn’t fit into a tiny bucket will have been a massive help.

Cognitive disequilibrium: the driving force of messy play

Cognitive disequilibrium 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.

Children form new ideas and beliefs all the time, but unlike adults who are more stuck-in-our-ways, kids are more malleable and flexible - 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.

Fine and gross motor skills:

Motor skills are incredibly important in later life, as they’re vital for holding pens, pencils and paintbrushes. Developing those necessary muscles is easily done through sensory play, as can use fine motor tools, like pincers, to pick up dried beans. Even the simple act of pinching objects and pouring liquids gives children the opportunity to develop and hone their ability to control their hand movements. That’s why involving objects like pincers and small jugs lets children concentrate on grasping and controlling objects.

Creative development:

By giving children colourful, creative and new objects that they can explore any way they like helps them to become creative thinkers, as sensory play is completely open-ended. There is no goal apart from to explore – if they want to create an underwater scene out of the lentils and dolphin figurines you brought in, they can. It encourages their imaginative skills, as they can be as free as they like, the main goal is to engage the senses.

Ready to get your hands dirty? Roll up your sleeves — here are ten messy play ideas to get the creativity flowing.

But do all children love messy play?

Not every child is naturally attracted to messy play. You may find children who don’t like having “stuff” on their hands, or to have dirt get all over their clothes. Simply, they may be 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 hand, 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 their primary carers about dirt or mess. This is where it’s up to the educators to model how to play messily and provide fun messy play activities that allow the children to begin their messy play exploration in a more gentle way.

But also remember that there is nothing “wrong” with the child. It's just not for everyone, and that's okay. They can still develop all the skills to grow up and be successful in the world. The best approach with messy play is to make it available, but not mandatory. ‍

Parent partnerships and messy play

Getting parent partnerships right is important in establishing strong messy play practice at your setting. In 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 family members 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.

Also, even if the families do not want to encourage messy play at home, they can at least be aware of how they talk about mess, so that their child does not become averse to mess and messy play.

With that in mind, let's look at a selection of benefits of messy play in Early Years to help parents and carers understand, and after that a number of ideas to help you get parents onboard with messy play in your setting.

Here’s a quick list of benefits to share with families. We think that once they see this, it will be hard to discourage messy play.

  • Using their hands and fingers helps develop fine motor control
  • Using different tools provides opportunities for early mark-making
  • They’re developing crucial pre-writing skills with their pouring and grasping, as well as developing their hand-eye coordination
  • They’re focusing on the process, instead of the end product, helping to develop their creativity
  • They’re developing their creativity and expressiveness as they mix substances, colours, and textures
  • It can help them to feel more comfortable with unfamiliar textures they might see in food, encouraging a diverse diet
  • It’s a great opportunity for language development as you ask them questions about what they’re experiencing and what it feels like
  • They often build pretend worlds around their messy play, which is important for storytelling and problem-solving skills
  • They learn new body control skills, and develop their balance
  • They’re learning maths skills about timing, sorting, and counting
  • They’re internalising ideas about shapes and size
  • They’re learning scientific understanding, about gravity, problem-solving, and cause and effect
  • It helps their confidence to explore their natural curiosity and develop a positive attitude to new experiences
  • They’re making their own choices, and developing independence
  • They’re taking risks and experimenting in a safe environment, which helps to develop a huge range of skills
  • They learn how to share, cooperate, and play together with other children‍

Top tips for messy play in early education

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.

1. Offer workshops or stay-and-play sessions

One of the most effective ways to convince family members 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 families and children exploring messy play, then they 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.

2. Set the right expectations from the start

It’s important to set 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 and carers 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 those parents who are on the fence. 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 families 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.

3. Keep some spare clothes on hand

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!”

a preschool girl painting on her hand

4. Share the proof with parents

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.

5. Work with families to donate supplies

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.

6. Make sure things are under control

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.

8 fun messy play ideas for EYFS

Whether you need messy play EYFS ideas, or just some fun, messy activities to develop all of the skills above, these are great activities to get you started.

1. Dinosaurs in taste-safe mud

Dinosaurs in Taste-Safe Mud by My Bored Toddler

The messy play idea:

Realistically mushy squishy mud becomes the foundation for messy play. This game gives very young children and toddlers an opportunity to get messy, without the fear of too much real mud being consumed. Simply combine the corn flour and the cocoa powder in a bowl and add some toy dinosaurs or farm animals.

  • 2 cups of corn starch
  • Water
  • 1 cup of powdered hot chocolate mix or cocoa powder
  • Assorted dinosaur toys
  • Container
  • Spoon

2. Fizzy cloud dough experiment

Fizzy Cloud Dough Experiment by Powerful Mothering

The messy play idea:

This form of sensory and messy play will wire a whole bunch of new connections in the brain. It includes visual elements to stimulate awe followed by a sensory haven when little ones feel the fizzing on their skin. Start by creating sensory play dough (which is also safe for little ones who still put everything into their mouths). Then, add a bit of vinegar to the dough to bring the fizz out. The little ones will have a wonderful time grabbing the fizzing foam.

  • 1 cup of flour
  • 1 cup of baking soda
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • Oil-based or powder food colouring
  • Vinegar
  • A mixing bowl
  • A tub for playing in

3. Balloon painting

Balloon Painting by Mosswood Connections

The messy play idea:

This activity is a new and exciting spin on painting, as children squeeze and spin the balloons to release the paint. Start by filling the balloons with paint and tie them off. Next, use a safety pin to poke holes in the bottom of the balloon.

  • Balloons
  • Child-friendly paint
  • Cardboard or large sheets of paper (easel pads, for example)
  • Large safety pins
  • A funnel

4. Under the sea sensory jelly adventure

Under the Sea Jelly Sensory Adventure by Natural Beach Living

The messy play idea:

Follow the instructions to make the jelly, but instead of using a glass bowl, have the jelly set in the plastic container. After you pour the liquid into the container, add all the animals and the underwater creatures. Once the jelly is set and cool, let the messy play begin.

  • Jelly mix (blue is best)
  • Aquatic animal figurines
  • A large container

5. Colourful melting ice cubes

Colourful Ice Cube Melting Activity for Toddlers by Bambini Travel

The messy play idea:

This activity allows young children, especially toddlers, to explore the different material states of water. It’s perfect for a hot summer’s day, as it demonstrates the power of the sun and provides messy play fun that's lovely and cooling. Simply fill the ice cube trays with water and add a few drops of food colouring. Once that’s done, add the colourful cubes to the plastic container.

  • Ice cube trays
  • Food colouring, or other non-toxic dye
  • Water
  • A large plastic container, or outdoor area
  • Towels that can be stained

6. Window painting with shaving foam

Window Painting with Shaving Foam by Fun Learning For Kids

The messy play idea:

Use each indent in the muffin tray for a different shade of shaving foam. Create your palette by squeezing some shaving foam into each indent and mixing in some paint or food colouring. Keep adding paint or colouring until the colour is where you want it. Voila! Let children apply the paint with their fingers or a paintbrush to the outside of the windows. When you’re done, it simply rinses off.

  • Shaving cream
  • Food colouring or washable tempera paint
  • Muffin or cupcake tin
  • Paintbrushes (optional)

7. Painting with trucks and cars

Painting with cars by Super Simple

The messy play idea:

Children drive their toy vehicles over a paper roadway — As they pass through slicks of paint, they leave colourful streaks in their tyre tracks. A long strip of paper is your painting surface and roadway. Add blobs of paint in random areas on the paper and invite the young ones to use the trucks and cars to create tyre marks, spreading the paint into a vehicular masterpiece.

  • Toys with wheels
  • Large sheets of paper (butcher paper or easel pads are ideal)
  • Washable paints
  • Wipes

8. Sensory soup

Sensory soup

The messy play idea:

This outdoor activity can get messy and wet, as children explore the garden to make a pretend ‘soup’. Start by walking around the garden and introducing the young ones to the different edible herbs, rubbing them gently to smell their scent. Allow the children to choose the herbs they like the most. Tearing, breaking, cutting and crumbling different plants develops fine motor skills. Allow each child to dish their herbs into their own bowls and observe as they mix up their own creative concoctions.

  • Herbs from the garden, or dried herbs
  • Flowers, shells and stones
  • Ladles and spoons
  • Bowls
  • Cups or scoops
  • Scissors
  • A large pot of water

The big ideas

download pdf
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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

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.

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