Let Them Play! Messy Play in Early Learning and Care

A toddler sits on the edge of a puddle, grinning as she digs her toes deep into the welcoming mud. Another child joins her and uses the damp soil to paint his arms and face, he is filthy and absolutely beaming with joy as he explores this wonderful stuff with his peer.

At the table not far away a pair of little ones are squeezing gobs of paint on to a log cookie and swirling the colors together with their hands.

“What color will it make?”

“I wonder what will happen if we add water?”

There is no right or wrong way to play in messy explorations.

One child might turn a mud puddle in to a paint palette while another may find a leaf and make a boat to sail across the surface of the water. Everyone can participate in messy play because there are no expectations; the materials are open ended allowing children to use and explore them in a variety of different ways which fosters creativity and innovation.

Take a step back and give the children the opportunity to get messy, discover new things, make mistakes and try again. According to author and early childhood expert Bev Bos, “Our flexibility and willingness to follow a child’s lead will allow remarkable things to happen, if we let them.”

As a fledgling early childhood educator messy sensory play used to make me flinch. The classroom would be a disaster! The horror! Yet, when I let go and began to really allow children to explore the process without focus on an outcome or a product I discovered their learning was much more rich and deep.

Children are naturally driven to learn through messy or sensory play. Though it can sometimes look destructive and, well, messy, allowing children the opportunity to discover new things in this hands on, concrete way is invaluable. Research shows that children build cognitive skills through play experiences in which they have the opportunity to use all of their senses (K. Butcher & J. Pletcher, 2016 – Cognitive development and sensory play).

In my program most of our messy play activities take place outside, especially during the warmer months. Nature provides so many sensory experiences, different materials, and space for exploring. The indoor environment takes a bit of preparation but messy play in the classroom can be just as engaging … just be sure to get the mop and wash cloths ready!

Some ways to support messy play for young children in the classroom learning space include:

  1. Tarps, lots of tarps. Lay them down where you will be allowing children to explore messy materials like paint or clay.
  2. Make sure you use art supplies that are easily washable. Putting a bit of dish soap in paint, for example, can make clothes easier to tidy after exploring with process art.
  3. If you’re worried about stains use smocks to help limit them.
  4. Give out materials in small amounts, allowing more as children request it. This way children get what they need and aren’t overwhelmed with stuff (and you aren’t overwhelmed by mess!)
  5. Seal the messy materials in bottles or Ziploc bags for tidier sensory play. For example, squeeze a little hair gel and sparkles in to a zippy and tape it shut! This can be really beneficial for children who aren’t fond of the icky-sticky stuff.

Whether inside or outside allowing children the opportunity to explore self-directed messy play is so important.

“One of the most valuable gifts educators and parents can bestow on children is messy play,” explains Lesley Cressman, RECE. “In messy play children are able to push the envelope on their own natural curiosity.”

Messy play allows children to learn concepts organically that we would struggle to teach using archaic methods such as teacher directed activities or worksheets. Through messy play experiences little ones discover the scientific process, mathematical concepts, learn to express themselves creatively, and practice social skills such as turn taking and communication.

As Neil Degrassi Tyson said, “Don’t get in the way of children who find it natural and obvious to explore the world around them – even if it means they make a mess of your kitchen or living room. It’s all about your perspective on these things. Let them play.”