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Why Your Child Needs Messy Play

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When was the last time you let your child get truly messy?

Messy play, or sensory play, is the open-ended exploration of materials and how they work. It’s crucial for your child’s development and, yes, as the name suggests—it can get messy.

Activities like scooping sand, smearing shaving cream, and squishing clay are perfect examples of messy play. Children are naturally curious, and this type of messy play really engages their senses in a variety of developmentally appropriate ways.

And then there’s the fact that messy play is just plain fun, for your child and for you.

Students on our Vivvi Campuses engage in messy play on a daily basis. It’s a key component of our early education curriculum.

“We love using messy play in the classroom because it’s a super fun, educational activity even infants can really focus on,” Vivvi’s Learning and Curriculum Manager Ajia Hunter Mueller said. “Messy play helps young children learn about their senses and discover the world around them. It fosters creativity and independence, strengthens concentration, and helps your child reach key developmental milestones.”

How to Prepare for Messy Play

It sounds counter-intuitive, but messy play is best done in an organized space—and this does require preparation.

Here are some ways to prep for successful messy play:

  1. Organize your materials. Messy play materials should be clean and ready to be explored, with tools laid out and orderly. An organized environment is safer, and helps children focus on what’s in front of them with less distraction.
  2. Define your space. Limiting your space will reduce your child’s overwhelm and help them distinguish what’s fair game and what’s off limits. You can do this by spreading out a tarp or splash mat before playing with messy materials indoors. Bonus: it also makes it easier to clean up!
  3. Respect your child’s sensory preferences. Each child is unique and each has their own level of interest in and tolerance for messy play. It is important to observe and respond to those preferences. Some children may be extra sensitive to sensory input and won’t like getting their hands or feet messy or wet. You can support your child’s exploration by staying close and offering to clean or dry messy hands right away. You can also offer messy play materials—such as paper, loose parts, or natural materials—that do not require hands to get sticky or wet.
  4. Plan for clean up. Splash mats or even shower curtains are effective, cheap floor or table coverings. If you are doing messy exploration that will require water for cleanup, consider doing the activity near a sink or outside. For older infants and toddlers, leaving time for cleanup at the end of messy play is a great way to transition to other routines or play opportunities. It helps children learn responsibility and provides a helpful cue that the messy play is finished.

Messy Play Benefits:

Squeezing mud between tiny fingers is quintessential childhood. And now we know, there are some big reasons why this tactile type of open-ended play matters so much to young brains.

  1. Developmental Milestones

    When children engage in messy play, they use skills from each domain of development and learning, including social–emotional, physical, language and literacy, cognitive, and mathematics. That’s like six milestones with one tub of PlayDoh!

    Here are some examples of how your young child’s brain is working overtime to make sense of the world they’re in—and have fun—while engaging in messy play:
  • Working together to create soapy foam supports cooperation, collaboration, and idea sharing.
  • Pinching clay with fingers and jumping in puddles strengthens both fine-motor and gross-motor coordination.
  • Describing the consistency of finger paint or the smell of “flower petal soup” empowers children to use descriptive language.
  • Pouring water and sand through funnels encourages children to persist as they test cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Counting the number of twigs added to each mud pie or setting the table for a mud tea party invites children to use number concepts.
  1. Fosters Creativity and Independence

    Messy play is explorative and spontaneous—there is no scripted story or prescribed action that your child must take. It’s all their ideas, all the time. This type of play really works your child’s creativity, imagination, and independence muscles (they have to make a lot of decisions here on their own! That’s huge!).

    In addition to flexing your little one’s independence, messy play also supports flexible thinking, resilience, and independence.

    At Vivvi, we encourage children to focus on the process of creating art and allowing your child to discover their own techniques without feeling pressure to create a particular thing. Instead of suggesting they paint a flower, ask how the paint feels brushing across the paper.
  1. Concentration Soars

    Allowing your child to roll their sleeves up and get dirty with some good old-fashioned messy play might be your new favorite way to drink your coffee while it’s still hot.

    Once the kinetic sand or cups of water come out, your mind will be blown with your child’s concentration levels. They have to pay attention while engaging in this type of play because they’re constantly making new discoveries—and really focusing to think through what they mean.

    Of course, always keep your child’s safety in mind, even as they play independently

Messy Play Activities by Age

Yes, even infants can engage in messy play! Our safe, simple recommendations are perfect for curious infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

Make sure each recommended activity is age-appropriate to ensure safety—and enjoy!

  1. Whipped Cream Smearing
    Shaving cream is great for preschoolers, but for infants, we’re huge fans of a good old fashioned whipped cream smear. As long as your child is dairy-friendly, using whipped cream from a can, tub or your own kitchen is a totally safe solution that provides a lot of the same sensations.
  2. Ice in a Bowl of Water
    This may sound boring to you, but to an infant, it’s a world of adventure. The splash mat comes in handy here if you’re indoors—allowing you to relax a bit and let some splashes happen. Your child will love watching and feeling the ice melt.
  3. Cooked Spaghetti Noodles
    Long, wiggly noodles are such a fun tactile experience for little ones. Feel free to add oil to make them a little slippier. Take it up a notch by dying some noodles with food coloring! Present to your child right on a splash mat for a fun floor experience.
  1. Pouring Water
    All you need for this activity is a few cups and water. Messy play with water strengthens your child’s gross and fine motor skills in many ways, through lifting, pouring, carrying, running and splashing. Water-based messy play also provides so many opportunities for your child to explore their senses and have different sensory experiences.
  2. Oobleck
    Because oobleck is naturally taste-safe, it’s a great messy play alternative for little ones who end up with half of everything in their mouths. Oobleck encourages young children to pinch, pour, scrape and poke—exercising their fine motor skills using simple tools or by squishing with their hands.
  3. Painting with Cars
    Unleash your child’s inner artist with this new and exciting way to use their toy cars (or anything with wheels). This type of art is called process art, and much like open-ended play—there is no intended outcome when creating. It’s important to allow your child to just do.
  1. Making Mudpies
    Sometimes all you need is a little dirt and water. Making mudpies has been a hit for generations because a. it’s free, b. it’s fun, and c. preschoolers get so many developmental benefits from squishing, flattening and mixing.
  2. Calm Down Glitter Jar
    Preschoolers are working on a lot internally, including self-regulation. This activity has benefits that are two-fold: engaging in messy play while building the glitter jar, and emotional development as your child begins to recognize their feelings and know when they need to calm down.
  3. Mixing Meatloaf or Meatballs
    Allow your preschooler some independence in the kitchen and use messy play to your advantage by giving them mixing power! Roll up their sleeves, and provide all ingredients in separate cups or bowls for your child to dump into a bowl of meat. Show them how to squeeze, mix and shape into meatballs or press into a loaf tin. As always, when cooking with young children, keep a close eye out to make sure they aren’t eating anything dangerous.

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