June 5, 2012

Child's Play 101 - Messy Play

I can almost feel some of my readers cringing at the title.  It's no secret.  Many parents fear messes.  We already have to clean up dishes, toys, clothing, etc.  Why would we want to create more messes???  I chose this topic, because there are some very good reasons to encourage messy play in your home.

Messy play is educational.  In the first post of this series I touched on why sensory play is important.  Messy play is, of course, sensory play.  When children engage in messy play, their senses are stimulated.  When their senses are stimulated, they are learning.

Messy play fosters creativity and imagination.  I have many dreams for my sons.  None of them include specific jobs or achievements.  They get to choose what they want to be and do.  What I hope is that each of them are creative, unique and able to think for himself.

Messy play encourages boundaries.  Does that one seem a bit hard to believe?  People (adults and children alike) do not like to be told what to do.  When something is off limits, how much more does it make a child curious?  Suddenly the taboo item is enticing.  Instead of saying no to messy play I choose to set appropriate limits and guidelines for my boys to follow while still allowing them to dive in and explore.  

Deborah of Teach Preschool wrote this beautiful post about Helping Young Children Develop Self Control.  It is natural for children to want to make messes and to not know how to control those urges.  By setting up avenues for them to safely and appropriately explore messes, they are able to get those urges out.  Getting those urges out through play enables children to sit still and be careful when necessary.  The final thought of Deborah's post struck me the most, and I couldn't agree more.  "It is through activity that children develop self-control...Not through sitting still..."

Since preparing yourself for messy play can be intimidating, here are some tips.

1.  Set guidelines.
If you have visited my blog before, you probably know that my boys engage in messy play daily, and we have explored some extremely messy mediums.  However, they aren't allowed to just run around the house in a frenzy dumping cornstarch, smearing paint, pouring water, or writing on the walls.  When we begin an activity, we review the guidelines.  I keep the rules as simple and few as possible, but they are strictly enforced.  An easy way to set a guideline is to create a play space.  Sensory bins or tubs create the perfect work space for messy play.  A towel or blanket makes a larger play space while still setting clear boundaries.

Make sure the guidelines are age appropriate.  Don't set your child up to fail.

2.  Know your limits. 
It's fine and dandy for me to write about messy play when I honestly don't have an issue with it at all.  I don't mind messes. They don't stress me out.  What about those of you who shudder at the thought of a mess?  Please know what you can handle.  There is no value to messy play if you hover over your child shouting, "Be careful!", "Watch out!", or "Not so much!"  If even the thought of spills brings on a migraine, keep it simple.  I cannot stress this enough.  Messy play is messy play.  Your child does not need your entire house to be his playground in order to get the full benefit of messy play.  Choose supplies you can handle.  Keep it outside.  Have towels and a bucket of water nearby for easy clean up.

3.  Be aware of the project before you begin.  I recently had some deleted posts.  (Thankfully I figured out the problem, so hopefully I can avoid it from ever happening again.)  One of the posts that was deleted was about our first experience with making cloud dough.  I'm not going to rewrite the post as I have done with other posts that were deleted, but I'll give you a synopsis of what happened.

I saw a pin on Pinterest with a photo of a child holding a lump of cloud dough molded into a cupcake liner with the instructions to make cloud dough written in the comments.  Based on the photo I assumed cloud dough had a similar consistency to playdough, and that it would stay in a small work space.  Had I clicked through the link I would have seen that cloud dough doesn't form like other doughs.  (This is a great lesson in using Pinterest.  Always click through to read the full instructions!  As a pinner, don't include the instructions in the comment.  Leave a reason for fellow pinners to click through to the website.)

Anyway, here are a couple of photos of our first experience with cloud dough:

Now I look back and laugh at the cookie sheets I set out on the table for JZ and JM to play on.  I honestly thought the dough would be more solid and easily wipe off of the cookie sheet when we were done.

This is a memory we will cherish forever.  Thankfully we were working on tile, and it all cleaned up without too much hassle.  However, had I realized what a messy project it would be, I would have done this outside or at least in a tub to keep it all contained.

The point of sharing my cloud dough experience is to demonstrate the importance of knowing your project ahead of time.  Planning ahead is key for messy play.  Lots of fun happens on a whim, and I'm not suggesting you diffuse those requests.  What I am suggesting is that you go into activities knowing what you are up for.  I prefer to try new activities when I know we don't have anywhere to be.  That way if something takes longer than I anticipated, I'm not rushing to wrap it up.  Also, as was the case with cloud dough, if the play is much more messy than I imagined it would be, I have plenty of time to clean up afterwards.

4.  Know your child.
My boys are not impulsive.  As messy as the cloud dough was, it truly stayed in the area around the table.  Of course I couldn't expect young children to keep that mess on the table itself, but it did not get flung or dragged throughout the house.  While I'd love to claim responsibility for their mild manners and call it good parenting, I know the reality is that some children are more impulsive than others.  Genes, personality and environment all play a large part into the demeanor of children.  If your child is impulsive, I highly recommend keeping messy play outdoors.

The purpose of my Child's Play 101 series to to encourage parents from all backgrounds and situations to engage in simple, meaningful play with their children.  If you missed my first two posts in the series you can read about them here: Sensory Bins and Playdough Basics.

I hope after reading this post you are inspired to incorporate messy play into your weekly or even daily lives.  I hope to equip you with simple and realistic inspiration for messy play, thanks to some incredible blogs I enjoy reading.

Mama Smiles shares two ways to allow your children to engage in messy, sensory play using common household items, rice and cornmeal.  Her examples demonstrate how easy it is to set boundaries for messy play.  I love how she wrote that this is one of her favorite ways to help her children unwind after a busy day.

 cat made out of grains of rice
Emma draws hearts in corn meal flour

Over at Dirt and Boogers you can find a clever way to include toddlers and babies in messy play.  Use whipped cream!  A common question about sensory play is how do you let babies participate since they put everything in their mouths?  My answer?  Use edible materials.


Another great messy, edible suggestion is ketchup.  Who doesn't have ketchup?  This is a great idea for when you don't have anything planned.  Bring on the ketchup! Thanks Mama Pea Pod!

Clean Mud

The Ivory Soap Explosion Mom To 2 Posh Lil Divas made is a fantastic way to include science and "clean" messy fun.  This is definitely on my to do list.

Familylicious has a cool recipe for clean mud by just adding a simple ingredient to the Ivory soap explosion mentioned above.  (I can pretty much guarantee that you have the secret ingredient in your house.)

Take it one step further and make it sparkle like The Imagination Tree did!  I mean really, isn't everything more fun with a little sparkle???

Learn with Play @ Home had the idea to combine flour, water and food coloring.  How simple and yet satisfying for a young child!  I know my sons would be thrilled with this concoction.

What a lovely Winter Wonderland Creative Playhouse made using rice, flour and a little sugar.

I think it's BRILLIANT that the author of Taming the Goblin gave her son dried coffee grounds to play with, even though she regrets it.  It looks like too much fun!  I'm going to have to start saving ours instead of throwing them into the compost heap every afternoon.  Like she suggested, we will play with them outdoors.

I love the sticky element Mummy Musings and Mayhem added to this messy, sensory fun!  We'll be giving it a go for sure.

Mud Kitchens

This is something I have been wanting to set up in our backyard for quite awhile.  My husband keeps promising to section off an area for free mud exploration.  (I don't blame him-we have four young boys who don't leave a whole lot of time for projects!)  One day, hopefully sooner than later, we will have a mud kitchen in our backyard.

I love this set up at Imagination Tree.

The Golden Gleam also has a cool area dedicated to mud play.


They are one in the same.  Different people call them different names.  Regardless of what you prefer to call it, the combination of cornstarch and water is one that every child should have the opportunity to touch.  My oldest literally asks to make Oobleck every week, sometimes several times a week.

We've experimented with Color Mixing and Oobleck.

And we've also made it Glow!


The first time we made Oobleck was after reading Dr. Seuss' Bartholomew and the Oobleck, just like Mom to 2 Posh Lil Divas.

Putti Prapancha got the consistency just the way we like!

Give your little ones some props like Rainy Day Mum to get "stuck" in the Goop.

Exploring Gloop with animals getting stuck in it

My boys would love to spray the water into the cornstarch like 2 Big, 2 Little did!

To read about the Science behind Oobleck visit Inspiration Laboratories.  (And you can also check out the fun items she added for play!)

Growing a Jeweled Rose added ice to her Goop to add to the sensory experience.  (We recently tried this ourselves, and it was a huge hit!)

I am inspired to get out and PLAY looking at these photos from Familyicious.  What a funtastic way to combine some of my favorite messy play mediums!  We have a few empty strawberry baskets in our craft closet that I'll have to bring out.

Shaving Cream

Shaving cream is wonderful to play in, and the possibilities are endless.  The best part is that shaving cream is inexpensive and super easy to clean.  We've painted with it by adding school glue, rubbed our hands in it and all over, and we've painted with it in the shower by adding food coloring or liquid watercolors.  Our shaving cream post can be found HERE.

Squirt some on a tray and add some food coloring like Rainy Day Mum.

Shaving Foam Colour Exploration

I love the supplies Little Moments gave her son along with the shaving cream to allow him to creatively explore.

Cover a toy slide with shaving cream like Growing a Jeweled Rose, and watch your little one squeal with delight!

If you don't have a slide, make a shaving cream slip and slide like Play Create Explore.

HERE you can read about process art and messy creativity.

Be sure and check out this cool messy experience that ends with a craft from Mama Mia's Heart2Heart.

I mentioned our experience with cloud dough above.  Visit Dirt and Boogers to get the recipe and see how this activity should actually be contained properly.  ;)


Speaking of containing the mess, here are five fantasic suggestions for contained, messy play from Mommy with  Selective Memory.  I especially love the sensory letters.  Making those is one of JM's favorite past times.

fine motor practice for preschoolers,

If you love the idea of messy play but aren't a fan of tossing the remnants, try the Two Ingredient Silly Putty we made.  Two months later, we still have a small amount of the original batch left.  Mixing it involves messy, sensory play, but the finished product is a wonderful sensory tool that doesn't leave behind a mess.

While cooking dinner, give your kiddo some old ingredients to stir up and turn into art like The Good Long Road.

If you really want to make your little one's day (all while managing to keep the mess contained), throw him in a cardboard box with washable paint like Carrots are Orange:

IMG 3157 300x225 Paint in a Box   Sensory Madness

And finally, I know I suggested planning ahead, but sometimes you need to seize the moment.  This mud puddle was just begging for little boys to jump on in and splash.  Clean up was as simple as a bath, and it was worth every second.

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  1. Wow sme brilliant ideas here. Rally great. My twins are just two so we are embarking on this stage. Yay, it looks such fun.

    1. Such a great age for this type of play!

  2. Thanks, what a great post with so many ideas! I will definitely be pinning this.

  3. Some fabulous messy play ideas here! I am going to come back to try some out!

    Thanks for sharing on Science Sparks :)

  4. another great post in this series! i love it! going to pin it to a few boards! thanks for linking up to tip-toe thru tuesday!

  5. Thanks for all these ideas. With warm summer weather I'm ready to get outside with Baby O for some messy fun! (We just bought a play slide at a garage sale... thinking about borrowing Daddy's shaving cream...)

  6. I love the range of messy play experiences you shared in this post!


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