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In praise of messy play (and its importance)

creative play freeplay imagination messy play

Hand on heart who can say, as a parent or a teacher, that we give our children ample time and space for truly messy play experiences?

Understandably we usually don't due to time, space and clean up restrictions.

However as early years educators it is our duty to allow children to engage in this most vital element of play. Preschool is often the only opportunity that young children get to engage in this type of play - parents, for the most part, do not usually understand the importance or are too afraid of the mess.

Messy play is open and accessible to all children - regardless of ability, age or language. as each child plays and explores in his own way they adapt the materials to their own needs, there is no right way to play.

This type of play is so often overlooked and undervalued but it is natural, fun and very absorbing for children to play in this way and it is our absolute duty to give them the opportunity.

You may think that babies, toddlers and children engaging in messy play are only doing just that - making a mess, but here you would be mistaken. During messy types of open ended play children use all of their senses, particularly touch. They engage in exploration, discover new materials and new ways to use things that may already be familiar to them, they discover how materials interact. They grow in confidence and curiosity and also self control.

So how do we do this?

Children should be free to explore, and most vitally, given enough time to fully engage so that they can develop their explorations and bring them to a natural conclusion - to the child's conclusion. We have to be sure that there is no focus, on the part of the adult, for the child to use material in a particular way or to produce something specific. The child should be free to explore all possibilities.

We need to relax and let go a little in order for this to work. Try not to focus on the mess - yes it might be very messy - but if you are agitated and concerned about the mess and trying to control and manage it while the children are playing then they will notice this and it will inhibit their play. Children who are naturally curious about texture will carry on but children who are unsure or who are used to always being "clean" will back away or be hesitant. Your beliefs about messy play are of huge importance as this is what you will portray to the children - you must believe that it is important, necessary and above all fun!

Get involved with the children, let them chat about what they are doing, let them also see you explore and engage with the material. Observe how they use the material and encourage those who are hesitant. Ask open ended questions -"I wonder what would happen if...?" 

If a child really does not want to participate let them pursue a different activity that is nearby and soon their curiosity may be sparked and they may tentatively join in.


Plan carefully for messy play - particularly if it is something you are cautious of or do not do regularly. Careful planning on your part will ensure the children get maximum benefit from the exercise. Don't plan anything else too specific for that morning - it is difficult to estimate how long the children will play for and how long the clean up will be! Free play in another area, outdoor play or book time are great as wind down before or after messy play time.

Have old sheets and table cloths ready to cover the tables and floor, provide aprons for the children to wear and damp cloths for small clean ups. Keep these accessible in your room - this type of play should become a fairly regular occurrence once you are comfortable with it - not a special occasion.

Make sure to have parent's cooperation - inform them that you will occasionally engage in messy play and that it is wise not to send their child in good clothes, and that they may sometimes come home slightly messy or with some flour in their hair!

Plan for one person to set up the play, for all staff to engage in the play and one staff member to clean up while the others take the children for circle time or story time. Get the children to help with the clean up too if possible - if you have time! Provide cloths and towels and bins and soapy water and they will see that it is important to clean up and to engage in the process together.

What to play with?

Gloop - corn flour mixed with water (add colour choices with food dye or paint if you wish)

Gak - corn flour mixed with water and washing up liquid

Corn flour, jugs of water, bowls and spoons (add colour if you wish)

Sand (and water) and scoops, sieves, tubes etc

Water and scoops, jugs, bowls etc

Mud kitchen (outdoors)

Finger and hand painting

Painting on table tops- lovely patterns can be made and then printed on to pages

Shaving foam

Coloured rice, beans and seeds (check for allergies)


Playdough with extra added textures (glitter, seeds, scent etc)

Flour, spoons, bowls and sieves

Shredded paper - or paper for tearing and shredding

A basin of warm soapy water and things to wash, towels to dry with

Water - at the sink with utensils

Bars of soap and a grater

Bars of soap and warm water

Glue and junk art - scrap card, paper, fabric etc

Glue, pages and sand

The ideas are endless so use your imagination, take risks and enjoy the process. Perhaps rather than calling it messy play we should rename it Creative Play and then we wouldn't be so nervous!

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