Making a huge mess with paints or clay or mud in the backyard or the driveway is easy to do in the warm months. We encourage it at the Museum in our Mud Kitchen! But when the weather is not so delightful, the thought of making huge messes inside for the sake of play is a bit more difficult to wrap our heads around. For some caregivers, it’s downright intimidating. All the same, the benefits of messy play for young learners are extensive, and we strongly encourage you to incorporate some sensory fun into your routine with these tips.
Planning is the key to success with mess
- When? Ask yourself, “How many times do I want to bathe my 18-month-old today?” and go from there. Perhaps you are serving spaghetti for lunch; your children will already be messy after that, so go ahead and plan a messy after-lunch activity! Then a nice bath before naptime. Messy play takes time to set up, more time than you expect to enjoy, and time to clean up. Nothing quite causes stress like rushing, so messy play isn’t great before something else on the calendar.
- What? There are hundreds of options for messy activities and they all need a little something different. Make sure you have everything you need from the set-up to the clean-up before you start, because it’s likely you’ll want to get messy with the children, too. If you are mixing baking soda, food coloring, and vinegar at the kitchen table with a four-year-old, for example, you should probably have the paper towel roll nearby, so you don’t have to go running for it when the vinegar spills. Consider what clothing is appropriate, too. Paint shirts, play clothes, spares and back-ups can all be accounted for.
- Where? Different spaces are appropriate for different activities. Simple guidelines like “nothing sticky or mushy in areas with fabric or carpet” will serve your cleanliness goals well. Don’t fool yourself into thinking your eight-year-old is old enough to not drop clay on the carpet of the playroom. Your sixteen-year-old–and you–will probably drop it, too. Don’t set your children up for that. If you don’t want to clean spilled glitter out of the couch, don’t do activities with glitter on the couch.
- Who? The children, obviously, but consider if you’ll be enjoying the fun, too. Even if you’re just near the fun, your clothes should be reflective of the activity as well. Nothing will ruin the fun faster than you shouting, “Don’t touch me!” at your three-year-old when they have glue on their hands.
Contain the chaos
It won’t be chaos, actually, if you set good boundaries. Expect everything you put in front of your child to be spilled or otherwise dumped out. Messy is the point here. In addition to planning the space itself (see number one), you should also plan the containers you might need.
- Should you cover the floor?
- Should you cover the table?
- Should the whole thing take place in the bathtub?
- Should you include an enclosure like a baby pool?
- Should the science experiment be done on metal only? Plastic only?
- What ingredients/elements might stain surfaces?
If the children are young enough, strapping them into a high chair is a great way to make sure they don’t run off covered in slime, smearing it along the walls as they go. Not small enough? Maybe a gate at the kitchen door would have a similar effect. Not everyone has the same standards of “mess” and “clean” in their homes, and we understand that, but one of the main reasons reported for not engaging in sensory activities at home is the mess they create. We don’t want that to be a barrier for any child.
Seize opportunities as they come up
While planning and containing are almost always the first steps to messy play, sometimes things happen that just scream, “Play with me!” These are often mistakes turned opportunities. Some examples we’ve heard from members:
“My oldest child accidentally put the wrong soap in the dishwasher, and the whole room was overrun with bubbles. We couldn’t help but play in it before cleaning it up! It put smiles on all of our faces, and the guilt of the mistake was nearly diminished entirely.”
“I tripped on the kitchen rug with the strainer full of pasta, sending it flying across the room. Since we couldn’t eat it anymore, I scooped it up and let my toddlers squish their hands in it.”
“I bought those pretty labeled bottles for my spices and herbs and realized some of my dried spices were well beyond their expiration dates. I was going to pitch them, but I had the idea to let my three-year-old play chef with them first. I would NOT have eaten what she mixed together, but she had a blast!”
Child-led exploration always comes first
Like all play, it is most beneficial to let the children be in control. Give them the materials. Set up the space. Offer some getting-started guidance. But then let them do their thing! They very well could end up doing something completely different than what you intended, but as long as they are having fun, let them explore! Recipes and rules are a different lesson than messy play. They do not have to be learned at the same time.
Focus on the benefits to have fun
Caregivers often avoid sensory activities because of the work involved in set-up and clean-up. If you are feeling that toll, perhaps this list of benefits to the child’s mind and body will soften you up:
- Builds problem-solving skills
- Fosters foundational math concepts
- Teaches a variety of textures, materials, and properties
- Supports cognitive development
- Lays a foundation in science
- Encourages social development
- Creates a sense of responsibility
- Improves fine motor skills
- Promotes creativity
- Nurtures language skills
- And so much more!
Cleaning up becomes its own activity
Just like planning and containing get the activity going, cleaning up offers a perfect bookend to the playtime. While some aspects of the aftermath must be tended to by adults, children can do a lot to help. This continues to foster the benefits of the play.
Some things to keep in mind when cleaning with kids: ask them to do specific things–”pick up all the cereal bits off the floor” as opposed to “clean the floor;” show them/help them the first (or second or tenth) time; set a good example–stay positive and patient; share household organization–make sure they see where you are getting the towels, what to do with recycling, etc., so they become an integrated part of the home and its functions; make it fun with music; and show gratitude and appreciation. Thank you goes a long way for everyone.
Mindset matters: “Messy” does not equal “bad”
This concept can take some time to overcome for some people, but it must be mastered to fully immerse yourself and your children into the wonderful world of messy play. It can help to think in terms of permission. “My children and I are going to get messy now, and I give myself permission to enjoy it.
Children might struggle with new textures; let them have feelings about that. Sticky like honey is different from gloopy like mud. One is not better or worse than the other, just different. Powders such as flour feel differently than sand. Name the reactions children have out loud to help them process without negative connotation. “That’s a new feeling on your fingers; it feels smooth on the skin. Water will wash it off when we’re ready.”
Be open to their reactions to new things on both extremes, so no one is disappointed. You set up fingerpainting, but they refuse to touch the paint? See if they want a brush instead. Remember that play–of all kinds–is supposed to be fun.
When in doubt, come down to the Museum and check out our messy areas for ideas and support!