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February 14, 2013

Tips and Tricks for Messy Play

How to Embrace Messy Play

Great tips and tricks for enjoying messy play without losing your mind!  How to set boundaries and keep the mess contained while still allowing children to play, create, and imagine.

If you are familiar with my site you know that we love messy play and do some sort of painting or sensory play every single day.

The two most common questions I get asked:
  1. How do you keep your sanity?
  2. How do you keep your house from getting trashed?
To answer those questions and to offer support for anyone who is interested in doing more sensory activities but nervous about the mess I thought I’d write out my best tips and tricks.

This post contains affiliate links. Here is my full disclosure policy.

1.  Establish boundaries.  When we do messy play inside I put down a shower curtain (Dollar Tree) or blanket and instruct the boys to stay on the mat.  Bodies and supplies must remain on the mat until play has stopped.  My 19 month old twins still need constant direction on this one, but with consistency and patience I know they will get to where JZ (5) and J-Bug (3) are.  The older two know that all the play must stay within the boundaries, or they are done playing.  At any point they may choose to be done with an activity, of course.  They don’t have to stay on the shower curtain if their brothers are still playing.

Accidents happen.  Sometimes a ball of Oobleck or spoonful of cloud dough goes flying.  As long as it isn't an intentional action, these situations are met with a calm and gentle reminder to be careful to keep all the materials on the mat.  (If it is intentional then I give a warning.)

To help young toddlers learn boundaries, start simple.  We do a lot of messy play inside, and some of it involves lots of supplies and props.  When Tank and Peanut are going to join us for messy play indoors I set out less supplies.  I’m more lenient outdoors, of course.

Avoid phrases like, “Don’t throw,” or “Don’t walk away.”  Use directions like, “Keep the rice in the bin,” or “Stay on the blanket unless you are done playing.”  Tell them what TO do instead of what NOT to do.

My twins are slower to talk than my older two were.  Since they can’t always communicate with me yet I offer words for them such as, “Are you all done?” or “Would you like another spoon?”  After asking I wait and listen for a response and watch for body language.

When we paint indoors we use our toddler table.  I cover the table with butcher paper.  The same rules as above apply here.  I instruct my boys to keep all the paint on the table.  Again, of course accidents happen.  Accidents are always met with a gentle reminder to lean over the table a bit more.

I emphasize the importance of a gentle reminder, because I want these early creative explorations to be positive. 

2.  Teach children to clean after themselves.  JZ rinses all his own paint brushes, wipes down the table, and puts away his own supplies after painting.  J-Bug still needs some help and reminders, but he is getting there.  Sometimes during play there is a spill, and JZ is quick to grab a towel and mop it up himself then get right back to playing.  This photo was taken a few weeks ago during our Messy Car Wash.

3.  Choose a time of day that works for youYou may have noticed that my kids are often in their pajamas in our messy play posts.  This is intentional.  We are not stay in our jammies all day kind of people (not that there is anything wrong with that for those of you who are!)  We get out of the house more days than not, so we get dressed every morning.  I have found that after breakfast is an ideal time for messy play in our house.  After everyone is fed but still in pajamas I often set out an invitation to paint or explore a sensory material.

Morning works well for me for many reasons:

I have more energy and patience in the morning.  With twin toddlers I can’t yet set up messy play and leave them to play like I can with the older children.  I can sit and focus with them and work on teaching appropriate rules for messy play in the morning easier than when I’m trying to get out the door or get dinner on the table.

After a messy activity I strip the boys, and get them dressed for the day.  This way I’m not changing them multiple times each day.  The jammies are going to come off anyway, so doing messy play right before getting dressed for the day just makes good sense.  (If pajamas aren't dirty we wear ours several nights in a row.)

The other benefit to sensory play right after a meal is that my little guys have full tummies.  Peanut and Tank still taste just about everything they touch.  I find that when they are full they might get by with just a taste.  When they are hungry they will sit and eat homemade paint and cloud dough and other sensory mediums.  While I only expose them to edible recipes for now, I don’t actually want them eating an entire bowl of homemade paint.  Common ingredients in sensory recipes are cornstarch, flour, water, salt and food coloring.  While a taste won't hurt, I don’t particularly want them filling up on those things.  I’d rather fill their small bellies with fresh fruits and veggies.

4.  Have a clean up plan ready.  Have a towel (or two!) and/or wipes nearby for small spills or to wipes faces as needed.  I don’t wipe faces often, but if messes get close to eyes I wipe.  Sometimes the boys want their hands wiped mid play.  Ideally once messy play has started I do not leave the area.  With older children, of course you can leave for a few minutes, but we are at a stage where I have to be present constantly.  Before placing messy supplies within reach I am sure to have towels and wipes ready.

When the kids are done I have a routine.  I help them get undressed and remove all play materials from reach.  This is key.  Even when I can’t clean up right away I get anything I don’t want tracked through the house out of reach from little hands.  JZ and J-Bug wouldn't get into anything, but Tank and Peanut don’t yet understand.  Toddlers are curious little creatures, so I make it easier on myself by not tempting them.  This step often looks like this:

I put supplies that need to be rinsed in the sink and wrap anything left in the shower curtain or blanket and leave it on the counter.  Sometimes I don’t even separate anything to be rinsed in the sink yet and just leave it in the shower curtain.  This is to avoid one of the little guys running off before he is completely clean.  The photo below is from our Penguin Sensory Bin.  When it was time to clean up I set the whole bin in the sink and left it there while I helped the boys get cleanned up and dressed.

I wipe hands immediately, but often play is so messy that a quick wipe isn't going to be enough.  I taught J-Bug and JZ to brush their hands and squeeze off anything that could drip, then they fold their hands as they walk to the sink or bathtub for a good wash.

5.  Choose supplies wisely.  If you have an impulsive child you might want to avoid anything that might stain.  Red food coloring is the trickiest to get out of clothing.  A stained shirt isn't a huge deal, but stained carpet or furniture could be costly.  Know your kids and what they can handle.  Oobleck is just as fun white as it is with color.  Maybe reserve colored play for outdoors if your child is prone to throwing and flinging.

The age of your children as well as how many children will be participating also plays into choosing your supplies.  

6. Stock up on must have cleaning supplies.
  • Invest in a dustbuster.  Seriously, all moms need one.  This is a household staple in my opinion.  A few grains of rice fell off the blanket?  Cloud dough scattered from the table?  No problem.  While I strongly encourage all materials kept on the shower curtain or blanket spills are inevitable here and there.  JZ usually grabs the dustbuster and cleans small spills himself.  A dustbuster is also great to have around for the times mud gets tracked in from the bottom of shoes, crumbs from meal preparation, and other small messes.  It’s so convenient to not have to drag out the large vacuum every single time there is a small spill.
  • Not to be repetitive, but I think Dollar Tree shower curtains are worth mentioning again.  I bought two a year ago, and I still have both of them.  They are small and don’t take up a lot of storage space.  They can be machine washed (and hung to dry).  They are waterproof, so nothing gets past them during play.  They are surprisingly durable.  When I bought a couple last year I figured I’d buy a couple more after a few months, but our two are still going strong!  I definitely recommend having more than one, so you can put out a second if the first is still drying from play earlier in the day.  *UPDATE* Once my shower curtains finally bit the dust our local Dollar Tree didn't have any show curtains in stock.  They did, however, have matress covers, and those have been working well for us.
  • The next suggestion isn't necessarily a must have, because it isn't practical for every family.  I love my husband’s shop vac.  It can suck up any spill or mess.  It has a leaf blower which is awesome for blowing down the back patio after play.  It is so easy to use and not too pricey.  The only downside is that it is big.  Depending on your living space it might not be a good buy for your family.  If you have the room I highly recommend buying one!
  • Baby wipes are handy.  We use reusable cloths as much as possible and do our best to not waste.  For toddlers and babies, wipes are somewhat necessary, especially for little ones who don’t like their hands messy.  Tank loves sensory play, but he often wants me to wipe his hands several times during play.  When doing a project with just J-Bug and JZ I can usually get away with using old dish towels. 
  • Magic Erasers are appropriately name.  These can get crayon and markers off most surfaces.  Test a small area of your surface before using to be sure the magic eraser won’t strip.  PLEASE keep these out of the reach of children.  Magic Erasers should be stored where other cleaning supplies are kept.  They have chemicals in them and are not meant for little hands.  I've seen horrible photos of a child who had chemical burns from rubbing these over her arms.  Please please keep these out of reach.  They are a wonderful cleaning tool for when needed, but they should be treated like any other cleaner and not left for young ones.  They look like a sponge, so children don’t realize that there are harsh chemicals inside.
7.  Take messy play outside.  If the thought of cloud dough or a bin of oatmeal inside your house stresses you out, then by all means keep it outside!  Messy play should be fun and not stressful.  You know your play space the best.  We do most of our sensory bins on the kitchen floor, and painting is done at the toddler table which is on tile floor.

Erupting chocolate Oobleck

When the weather doesn't permit outdoor play, take messy play into the bath tub.  Here are JZ and J-Bug body painting in the tub when they were 3 and 22 months.  I was pregnant with the twins and didn't have the energy to clean up any big messes.  Painting in the tub keeps messes contained and the clean up is as simple as washing paint down the drain.

The photo below is from the first time we made Oobleck.  JZ asked if he could put his foot in the bin.  I moved the bin to the bath tub, so the boys could wiggly their toes in the gooey mixture.  I didn't have to fret about the potential mess, and they were able to enjoy themselves freely.  *Note* I wouldn't play with Oobleck in the tub without a bin.  A small amount would be fine getting washed down the drain if there was a small spill, but a large amount could clog your pipes.  When Oobleck sits for awhile it hardens.  

8.  Get into a good laundry routine.  I wrote a post with my best tips and tricks for keeping up with laundry and keeping clothes stain free.  With all the messy play we do would you believe that we never have stains?  Of course you could also use old clothes or smocks.  I am finicky and do not find cover ups comfortable, so I have never gotten in the habit of putting them on my children.  I figure I’m going to wash their clothes anyway, so who cares if they get dirty?

Pitfalls to avoid in messy play:

1.  Poor planning.  I do not set up a messy activity when I am tired, grumpy, or in a hurry.  If my stress levels are already a bit elevated I will likely get annoyed over spilled paint or flung pasta.  It is important that accidents are met with gentle reminders, so if I’m not in a good state to remain calm I set up less messy invitations to play with playdough, blocks, or puzzles.
2.  Avoid giving too many supplies to young children.  Their minds get overstimulated and don’t know where to start.  My five year old has no trouble choosing his own supplies and coming up with his own ways to play.  Children under three need a little more guidance.  If we are painting I offer four colors instead of a dozen different shades.  We own hundreds of crayons, but our crayon bin that is within reach only has roughly 20 crayons in it.  If setting up an invitation for JZ or J-Bug I might get creative and leave out many different supplies for them to explore and experiment with.  When setting up play for Tank and Peanut I keep it simple.  Like with our Valentine’s Rice Sensory Bin, all I included with the rice were four heart shaped measuring cups.

Limiting choices and supplies for toddlers helps their little minds to focus and carefully explore what is set before them.  Too many choices can overwhelm them and cause chaos in their heads which could cause them to start throwing or making messes.

3.  Setting the bar too high.  Sometimes I see amazing ideas on Pinterest and feel like I should recreate the same activity in my house.  Then I get frustrated when it isn't turning out just right or as cool as the photo I saw.  We moms are too hard on ourselves.  I do not have time to set up a sensory bin that takes three hours to prep.  I’m lucky when I have ten minutes to plan one.
My kids are equally excited about a cookie sheet with shaving cream as they are about more elaborate invitations to messy play such as Foam Dough Eruptions or Apple Pie DoughDo what YOU have time and energy for.  Fill up the sink with water and give your child a few measuring cups and a funnel, and your little one will be delighted.  Sensory play does not have to involve hours of planning, prep and expensive props.

For more tips and tricks for parents follow me on Pinterest.

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Tips and tricks for messy play from a busy mom of four young boys.  Letting kids get messy doesn't have to be chaotic!

Be sure and check out the ultimate list of messy play ideas!


  1. What a wonderful post! I will be thinking through your tips the next time to do a messy activity.

  2. We love messy play/learning time. These are excellent suggestions and ideas! Thank you!

  3. Thanks for linking up to the After School Party last week! I'm featuring your post on Parent Teach Play this week: http://www.parentteachplay.com/art-tips-for-after-school/ Please feel free to stop by and grab a featured button. Thanks again for linking up!!

  4. Hopping over from Kids Co-Op! I commented already I think on FB - great tips! Pinned and thank you for sharing!

  5. I love all of these ideas, I am big on messy play and my daughter is pretty good with it, but my husband is recently deployed and we have been staying with family who are not as fond of messy play as we are, and the bathtub and dollar tree shower curtains have became my best friend <3

  6. The dollar tree curtains are all vinyl at the store near us and say not to machine wash. Am I missing something, or do they hold up fine?

    1. They hold up well. I air dry them. I only replaced ours last month, so the two we had lasted well over a year.

  7. Wow! This blog is GREAT ADVICE! Will be very useful and practical for those who are afraid of mess and a good training of good habits for the kids to clean up after themselves! Am sharing this! Thank you!

  8. Great advice, and I agree magic erasers should be kept away from children and locked with other cleaners, however they are not chemical. They work by mechanical action, in other words, they are an abrasive. They are made from melamine foam, but the original ones have no chemicals (there are new ones, bathroom for example, that have been infused with cleansers). The so-called chemical burns that people get when they rub on their skin is really an abrasion. Just FYI.
    Thanks for the great tips and information

  9. Nice tips. It's just wow!


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