Why Messy Play Is Important for Your Preschooler

An expert gives you the ultimate guide to sensory play—what it entails, what are its benefits and how you can organize simple activities that provide loads of fun.

By Sidhika Goenka  • 15 min read

Why Messy Play Is Important for Your Preschooler
“Excuse the mess, the children are making memories!”

This simple quote, hanging on a door in my house, is a continuous source of inspiration for me in my parenting journey!

Honestly, I never knew that a big part of parenting is cleaning up your child’s mess. And never did I expect myself to be “okay” with mess—to embrace it and even enjoy it. When I had my baby , I expected the mess but didn’t know how to deal with it. Most often, I was a tired mom, running behind an active toddler and trying to clean up his mess. To make things worse, I didn’t have any household help.

Every time I gave my 2-year-old puffed rice, I would see him crunching it between his fingers and playing with it. The quote hanging on my door was a constant reminder that mess was essential for my son’s growth—and that young learners make a mess. Despite knowing this, I would frown … my mind racing with thoughts like “Who’s going to clean it up?” Messy play always ended in temper tantrums, power struggles and crying spells!

My 2½-year-old loves unrolling toilet paper and then either wrapping himself with it or making little balls and running to flush them down the toilet! Instead of getting upset, I try to focus on the benefits of such messy play. This activity helps him understand that he can make balls of toilet paper and that they can be flushed. And the best thing is, this kind of play helps him burn off energy!

Also, my older children still seem to enjoy messy play. My 4-year-old squishes thermocol to turn it into “snow”. My 7-year old still loves ripping the newspaper into small pieces and showering them on us in order to make us feel special. Seeing my children having great fun gave me a sudden insight: Why not make a mess together and teach them to clean up after play?

I created a messy corner in my house, which would be the most fun place for my children. They now know where their “laboratory” is—and they allow themselves to go berserk once in a while with paints, clay, sand and even mud! This place stocks everything ranging from coloured rice, slime, shaving foam, toothpaste, kinetic sand and play dough to trays, utensils, pots, pans, whisks and scoopers.

I don’t stop them anymore. In fact, I join them once in a while and enjoy dipping my feet in the mud or dipping my freshly manicured nails into the paint because it awakens my senses, it makes me distinguish between gooey, gloopy and lumpy! The child within me feels alive, my imagination soars and I just create what I feel. I have also created a sensory table for my children, where they can bring leaves, mud, soil, water or flour and just dunk their hands and feet into it.

Messy play, also called sensory play, might seem frivolous, but it releases children’s energy, enhances their creativity and keeps them away from the screen!

What is messy play?

A child’s brain functions differently from ours. When we look at a pile of leaves in our garden, our first thought is to rake it up. But your child’s first thought is how he can jump into that pile of leaves and scatter it all over himself and the garden.

We all know that children love the idea of eating by themselves and spilling their food on the table and the floor! They start experimenting with food, making concoctions of different things on their plate. As parents, we often say, “Don’t play with food”. But for a 3-year-old, this kind of messy play is just exploring what’s on his plate through his sensory organs.

Any activity involving toys or food or other materials that makes your child—or the play area—dirty is considered messy play. During messy play, children use all their senses in their exploration and often manipulate materials with their hands. For example, when your child is mixing rice and curry on a high chair or playing with paints, lentils, buttons or sand, it is messy play.

Why messy play is important

Children just love getting messy— from jumping in muddy puddles and squishing jelly through their hands to smearing lotion or food all over their face! Messy play helps your child explore the world around him and encourages him to be more curious. Needless to say, it’s great fun for your little child!

Jean Piaget—the Swiss psychologist who studied children’s cognitive development—regarded development as a process that occurs due to biological maturation and interaction with the environment. Piaget believed in discovery learning, which means that children learn best through “doing and actively exploring”. According to him, problem-solving skills cannot be taught—they must be discovered. So, messy play is one of the best ways to experiment and solve problems.

Here are some benefits of messy play for preschoolers:

  1. Develops fine motor skills: While squeezing dough or scooping up grains, children learn to use the muscles in their fingers, wrists, arms, toes and shoulders to make small movements.
  2. Improves gross motor skills: When children jump in puddles, throw fistfuls of sand or build clay sculptures, they use the larger muscles in their arms, legs, feet and body to make bigger movements, which support balance, coordination and strength.
  3. Awakens all their sensory organs: During messy play, children explore their environment through their senses. This enhances the sense of smell, touch and taste. For example, you can give your child a small bowl of brightly colored rice. Allow your child to touch the loose grains against the skin, see the vivid colors as they mix together or hear the sound of the grains sprinkling over a plastic container.
  4. Develops problem-solving skills: When playing with sand, clay or water, children learn about sand and water ratio to make the mixture mouldable.
  5. Sparks curiosity: Playing with ice and water can teach children about cause and effect. And squishy bags are perfect for sensory play. Put some gel or paint into a zip-lock bag and let your child squish or press the bag for a sensory experience.
  6. Improves control and balance: Pouring water from one container to another helps children focus on a task and improves their control and balance.
  7. Increases self-esteem: Sensory play offers children the opportunity for self-expression without rules—so children feel safe to experiment and be creative.
  8. Enhances language: Messy play enhances language development—it can help children talk faster, and their use of adjectives increases. When children see the gooey slime falling from their hands or when they feel the coloured rice grains in their fists, they’ll make plenty of sounds to express their joy and surprise.
  9. Encourages independent play: Children learn to spend hours alone just with slime or sand, role-playing and creating stories.
  10. Acts as a stress-buster: The feeling of putting their hand through a bucket of rice can be calming.

How to plan for messy play

With some guidelines, getting a bit messy can be a priceless experience for children and a great bonding experience for you and your child. To encourage messy play, set aside some time and keep a designated area (a high chair or a “messy corner”) where your child can get messy.

Here are some more points to consider when organising messy play:

  1. Choose play materials that are non-toxic and check for choking hazards.
  2. Supervise your child’s play at all times.
  3. Make sure he wears aprons or other mess-friendly clothes.
  4. Establish a clean-up routine. Make it clear that as soon as play is over, your child has to help you with the clean-up by putting away his toys or washing the paint brushes. Tell him that toys should be off the floor and the messy corner should be clean.
  5. If your child wants to include Lego blocks and small things like beads in her messy play, spread a small blanket on the floor and let her play on it. Once play is over, she can pick up the corners of the blanket and pour the contents into a box—and clean-up is done!
  6. Categorize sensory play toys and keep them in boxes. Keep certain things (e.g., paper, scissors, glue, paints and crayons) that are played with together in the same container. Keep boxes of varying sizes to accommodate toys of different sizes.

Incorporating messy play in everyday life

Here are three ways you can integrate messy play in your child’s daily routine and give him “structured” messy time:

  1. When you’re cooking in the kitchen, give your child some dough. Let him mould it into different shapes.
  2. As you’re doing the laundry, give your child some detergent to make bubbles in the water.
  3. In the shower, take a bucket of water and put some drops of food colour in it. Show your child how the colour of the water changes. You can add different colours to show how they mix and create new colours.

6 Easy activities to do with your preschooler

  1. Give her a tray and squirt some shaving foam on it. You can add some food colour and let her drive her toy trucks and cars through the foamy tracks.
  2. Make some homemade slime with water, glue and detergent, and use the slime to make numbers.
  3. Place a mirror on the table and let your child make things with play dough. This will help him explore the world of symmetry, and he’ll be filled with wonder when his creations appear double their height !
  4. Let your child make her own magic potion with soap, food dyes, water and lotion. Use this activity for conversation and ask questions such as “What would you use the magic spell for?” and “What would you want to have?”
  5. Children love playing with snow. Use snow powder in a tray to create Antarctica and teach them about winter animals, hibernation and the winter season.
  6. Make slime to help your children learn about concepts such as solid and liquid. You will need 2 cups of corn flour, 1 cup of water, two drops of food colouring and a large container. While mixing the ingredients, let your child explore the texture and talk about what it feels like—sticky, slimy, cold or powdery.

When I see my 3-year-old playing with spaghetti and wrapping it around his hand, rather than putting it in his mouth, I am sometimes tempted to react—I want to warn him about the mess that he is making. It takes a lot of patience and control to calm myself down, observe him immersed in his play and let the process of learning just happen. My child is a happy and messy baby, and I am a happy spectator!

Messy play is a great way to help your child explore, create and imagine through her fingers, toes and face. So, use messy play as an impactful parenting tool to create a “controlled mess”—a win-win situation for you and your child!

In a Nutshell

  • Messy play is playing with sensory things that cause a mess.
  • Messy play is essential to your child’s physical, mental and emotional development.
  • It is easy to allow messy play by setting up clean-up time and designated messy spaces.
  • Messy play fosters independence, creativity, problem-solving skills, motor skills and language.
  • It is a good idea to appreciate your child’s creativity and imagination that comes out of messy play, and use it as an opportunity to build stories and language.

What you can do right away

  • Create a corner for messy play and keep some paints, flour, sand and rice in it.
  • Give your child some homemade clay, and let her make shapes with it and tell you a story.
  • Give your child a tray of sand and let him trace letters or numbers on it. Place a newspaper underneath the tray for easier clean-up.
  • Make some ice paints and watch your child paint with melting colours.

About the author:
Written by Sidhika Goenka on 2 September 2020.
Sidhika Goenka holds an MSc in Counseling and Counselor Education from Indiana University- Bloomington (US). She is a strength-focused psychologist, parenting expert, happiness coach, MSP and NLP diploma holder, professional storyteller, educator, blogger, podcaster and teacher trainer. 

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 2 September 2020.
Dr Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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