The benefits of messy play

let’s get down and dirty!
Honnest Momming-85
Life is hard, and I think we make it even harder because we lose our ability to play. As children, most of us had no problem with getting dirty; engaging in messy play was so much fun! And then, as we grow older, messy play becomes unacceptable. By the time we have our own kids, we have to remind ourselves that it is ok to allow them to get messy, to not be afraid of the mess associated with this. Unfortunately that, as well as the time it takes to clean up after the act, is a big part of the reason why parents and other care givers shies away from these activities. In other cases, parents might feel that they will be criticised if their kids are walking around with dirty, stained clothes, which might even have holes in them. The day I had my kids (actually the day I got married ) I made peace with the fact that I might never again have a clean and painstakingly neat home, and my little girls most probably won’t be going around looking like princesses. Today I am blessed with a wild and energetic toddler who runs, never walks, in the rain, jumps in puddles, digs in the sand, and paints herself, the paper, the floor, and anything else within a 5m radius. Our house have numerous corners for her to be comfortable in, to read her books, and to have all her soft toys packed out on the floor. I know getting messy is a big part of growing up – kids must be able to get dirty. If they are not allowed to, if they are actively discouraged from getting dirty, it can potentially limit cognitive development. So being messy is not just fun, it also has numerous educational and developmental benefits.

Although playing with toys can be educational and fun, messy play puts the focus on exploring and experimenting. During messy play, there is no definite end goal or right or wrong way to use the materials, giving kids the freedom to play unrestricted, to really engage their creativity, focus, and imagination. This sensory adventure gives them the chance to experience how different things feel, smell, taste, and move. When painting, using mud or paint or whatever, the child starts to develop an early form of writing. The extreme concentration needed to explore an object hones your child’s ability to read a book or write a story, further fostering the ability to play independently. Big movements needed to draw or press clay into forms trains the large muscles in the arms and the smaller muscles in the hands and fingers, developing body control and teaching your child the control eventually needed to hold a pen or use scissors. Play that incorporates rich textural elements allows children to express their emotions through manipulating the materials and refines their sense of touch. The richer the textural elements, the richer their cognitive and language development will be – how can a eight-year-old grasp the concept of “soapy” or “slimy” or “ice cold” if he has never touched anything “soapy, slimy or ice cold”? Playing unrestricted also allows your child the opportunity to learn about cause and effect (mixing colours, pressing too hard on your crayon, knocking over a play dough tower) as well as size, shape and many other abstract concepts.

Some other benefits of messy play are evident in the following areas:
• Mathematical: counting, determining space and measuring distances
• Knowledge: questioning, exploring, investigating, creating
• Physical: movement, using equipment, tools, and materials
• Creative: exploring materials, imagination and responding to new insights
• Social: confidence, self-control, communicating new findings

Eager to get your kids in on these awesome development opportunities? Then here are some ideas (we do all and more, mixing them up as time, weather, company, and mood allows):
1. A sand box, filled with clean beach sand. I added about 100g of cinnamon powder to our sand to keep insects away, and we covered the sand box at night with a cover to keep stray cats away. A1 at first hated the sand (sensory issues as a result of SPD) but after a while, and lots of conditioning, she learned to love the sand. She would spend hours digging, carrying around bowls of sand, burying her feet, etc. until we decided enough is enough – the sand in the house got to be too much and so we donated it 
2. Water play – on a warm day (and if there are no water restrictions), nothing beats running through a sprinkler, or playing in the swimming pool. We bought a small inflatable pool that we filled not even 1/4, just enough water that she can sit in it and splash her hands and feet, and when we empty the pool play in the resulting mud.
3. Bath time fun – give your child small cups, spoons, bowls, actually anything hollow that she can fill with water and then dump. Although this doesn’t make such a mess, it can result in the bathroom being under water! So set some rules and everybody will be happy.
4. Paint – with fingers, feet, elbows, brushes, basically with anything that she can! A1 has mild SPD, so she hates getting her hands dirty. When we paint, she prefers using a brush, and to paint her body instead of the paper! So we end up VERY dirty. But through a lot of “practice” she is getting better at handling the slimy texture of paint, and progressing nicely. Just make sure that the paint you use is washable and safe (some of the cheaper finger paints are not washable, big mistake painting in your cloth nappy!). If your bambino is like A1, she also sticks everything in her mouth, making painting a daunting task. I circumvented this by making my own edible paint – the easiest recipe you can find here – and then photographing the end result as you can’t really keep the artwork…
5. Playing with play dough – not high up on our list as A1 kept on eating it, and I just never got round to making a home-made version that was safe to ingest. Also, don’t really want to encourage her to eat the play dough, no matter how safe it might be. If you are braver than me, you can find nice recipes here and here for edible play dough.
6. Bubbles – A1 loves bubbles, of any kind. Whether it is blowing them, or bathing in them, or watching them form in the washing machine, bubbles are a big part of our day. We make our own blowing bubbles with dish washing soap in water, and a natural foam bath using the recipe here or Soap Barn’s amazing Bath Snow.
7. Foodstuffs – A bowl of rice, or whole grain cereal, or spaghetti, all make for awesome play things! Hide small objects such as figurines in the rice, let her “glue” the cereal in paint, etc. Making jelly in a large container with objects set inside also gives her the opportunity to get to know the “slimey” elements.

There are numerous other ideas out there. If you can’t think of one, allow your child to guide you. Remember, kids who play are developing, growing, and learning. So allow them to get involved when you cook, when they bath, when out and about. Allow them to get messy, and dirty, and sticky! That is the only way that they will learn  so….
Go forth and make a mess