Messy Play

We’re rather well known for sending the children home messy. Have you ever wondered why we are so obsessed with playing with messy things?

Messy play involves:

  • Children using all their senses in the process of exploration, especially the sense of touch
  • Offering children plenty of opportunity to mould and manipulate materials
  • Not having a focus on making or producing something

This sort of play is important because its lack of a focus on making or producing something leaves the child free to explore all sorts of possibilities. It taps into children’s innate curiosity about the world around them and their strong desire to explore and find out more. (Taken from “all about messy play”, Duffy – read the full document at

In terms of general child development messy play allows the children to make connections, to create and discover and explore materials with no particular purpose in mind. Messy play should not have a fixed “outcome” since it is this lack of focus that gives the children more freedom to be expressive and creative in exploring the materials.

By giving the children opportunities to explore and discover this helps to develop their sense of curiosity and hopefully leaves them with the desire to learn and explore more! The materials in messy play invite exploration since they are often not what they seem—for example gloop (see recipe on parents handout) appears solid, yet when a child reaches in for a handful it turns into a liquid. A grain of rice is a solid, yet when taken in a large quantity can be poured and funnelled in a similar manner to a liquid.

Messy play can be particularly helpful to children with sensory integration problems (for ex-ample children on the Autistic Spectrum), however they may need to be introduced gradually to enable them to integrate fully into the experience—for example a child may be unwilling to put their hands into paint to explore colour mixing but may enjoy the experience of mixing paint in a sealed Ziploc-type bag or a child may prefer to explore the experiences wearing thin gloves (check for allergies) so that they don’t get dirty.

Since there is no fixed outcome messy play can be helpful to children with additional needs as there is no “right” way to do it. Children new to a group or with English as an additional lan-guage can also find messy play a liberating experience as they can join in without the need for prior relationships or language.

Messy Play and Sustained Shared Thinking.

Messy play gives many opportunities for sustained shared thinking. Sustained shared thinking is defined as ” an episode in which two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend” (Siraj-Blatchford et al (2002) Researching Effective Pedagogy in the Early Years (REPEY), Dfes).

Although the term “sustained shared thinking” is relatively new the concept has been defined for many years, for example by Piaget (as constructivism) or Bruner (as discovery learning). Messy play provides opportunities for us to ask open ended questions or to make “I wonder” statements—for example “I wonder what will happen if I add water to the gloop?”

Providing we allow time for the children to think and respond and take account of their responses we can develop these opportunities into episodes of sustained shared thinking where we can work together with the children to develop and extend our thinking.

The principal of good communication in making 5 statements before asking a question (found in the Cambridgeshire Speech and Language Therapy Service preschool information pack) is a good one to bear in mind when trying to develop periods of sustained shared thinking with the children, since it allows time for them to think and respond without the pressure of answering a question.

Ideas for messy play at home:

What about the mess?

Some ideas for containing the mess:

  • Do it outside! Then you can water the garden and wash it away at the same time!
  • Invest in a large waterproof sheet—a shower curtain or messy mat makes clearing up easier.
  • Do it with a friend—especially with young children, it is much easier if one of you can clear up the children and the other one clear up the mess!
  • Give the children individual trays with the messy play item in—you can get cat litter trays in bright colours from Wilkinson’s very cheaply which are idea. For bigger trays try garden centers and look for potting trays.

What could we use?

Messy play can involve lots of different media. Traditionally messy play would use paint, play dough, water or sand. For “cleaner” messy play try hiding objects in sawdust or shredded pa-per, or for older children packing material, or playing with dry rice or pasta.

For food based messy play try gloop (recipe below), flour, flour mixed with water to make paste, cooked rice or pasta, baked beans, jelly or squirty cream. Other ideas include shaving foam or squirty soap, soap flakes mixed with water, gelli baff (from tesco), or just good old mud! Remember to let the children experiment with how it feels and moves and make a mess—that’s the whole point!!

For children reluctant to put their hands in try giving them spoons or spades, or toy diggers to move the messy substance round with first. If they are very worried about getting dirty they may prefer to wear thin gloves until they get used to the sensation.

Useful recipes

Play dough: Mix 200g plain flour, 100g salt, 2tsp cream of tartar, 1 tbsp oil and 300mls food colour, smell, glitter and water (whatever you fancy) in a bowl. Microwave for 1 min then stir and repeat until you have a lump of dough. Allow to cool before use.

Gloop: Mix cornflour and water in a ratio of approx 3 lots of cornflour to 1 of water until you have a gloop. This has unusual properties—it can be cut and scouped as a solid but poured as a liquid. Again you can mix in colour and glitter as you like.

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