OT Mom says, “Let’s use some [insert something super messy; e.g. paint, slime, sand] today!”
Dr. Dad doesn’t say anything but omits a low guttural sound of disapproval. He doesn’t love it when we make a mess. He does, however, help when we do it anyway.
Messy play activities are excellent for allowing young children to explore their world. Not only does do messy play activities provide an opportunity to develop a variety of senses, they have the potential to promote skills such as fine motor coordination, pre-writing skills, tactile discrimination, and bilateral coordination to name a few.
That being said, we don’t always have the time, energy, or patience for all out messy activities. Last summer we even had our house for sale, and trying to keep it clean with a messy toddler boy and a food-throwing baby was quite the challenge. While attempting to keep our house close to “show” ready, I figured out some hacks to make messy activities possible. I’ve thrown in some bonus ideas to make the most of messy play opportunities.
Take it Outside
If the weather is nice, take the kids outside to make a mess. When we think of painting, we usually don’t think to do it outside, but why not? A little paint splattered into the grass is no biggie. I use a drop cloth on the back lawn and let them go at it. If it’s especially warm, you can have some water ready outside for easy clean up.
You can also use mother nature’s readily available messy supplies. Kids love digging in the dirt, playing in rocks, or stomping in mud puddles. We recently planted some seedlings and got dirt everywhere, and it just took a quick sweep to clean it up.
The bonus: Being outside is associated with a lot of perks in itself, such as associations with many positive mental health benefits.
Take it to the Tub
There are so many fun, messy sensory activities you can do in the bathtub! You can use what’s available commercially (foam soap, bubbles, bath crayons, bath paint) or go a little bit outside of the box.
We use actual kid paint in the bath tub sometimes when we are doing art projects, just because it makes clean up much easier.
The bonus: Using the vertical sides of the bathtub wall also promotes some great motor skills when doing things like doodling with bath crayons. Writing on the vertical surface of the tub wall allows for wrist extension and promotes proper grasp patterns children need for good handwriting skills.
Box It Up
Speaking of thinking outside of the box, you can do messy play IN a box to help keep it contained. This is a great idea for things like markers, paint, and crayons that you don’t want a toddler getting all over the walls.
The bonus: Kids love to play in boxes and they are inexpensive (it’s also another opportunity to utilize a vertical surface).
Catch It in a Sheet
I love letting my kids cook and bake with me, but let’s face it, toddlers are NOT good at keeping all the ingredients in the bowl. When we bake, I usually will put a sheet or a picnic blanket on the floor and let the kids help mix the ingredients on top of that. While it doesn’t catch every speck of flour, it does help keep the mess contained.
I also use a drop cloth under the area that my kids play with play dough.
The bonus: Kids can help lay out the sheet and make sure it’s smooth. When the activity is done, they can help to fold it up in a way that the mess won’t fall out and help shake it out outside.
Try Some Good Ol’ H20
The absolute easiest idea is to simply use water. Young kids can “paint” with water on construction paper (you can let it dry and reuse it several times). When my older son paints with watercolors (what I believe to be the easiest paint to clean up), my daughter (who is a bit younger) is perfectly happy with just water.
There are also watercolor paint books that have just a touch of paint at the top of each page and “magic” water activity books that are low to no mess.
I’ve even taken it up a step with the water messy play by putting a couple thick towels on my kitchen floor to let my daughter use kitchen items and water for pretend play. She likes to pour and stir the water in kitchen pots and bowls with real utensils. She scoops and pours a little water with measuring cups. Sure some of the water spills, but it’s super easy to clean up. Just about a cup of water (and of course supervision) and she is happily entertained and engaged in a great activity.
The bonus: Using water for pretend play encourages creativity and promotes development of social-emotional skills.
Zip It Up
This one isn’t messy at all. It is however, a fun tactile activity that little ones love. You can use a zip lock bag filled with something squishy (I use hair gel) and add things such as glitter, water beads, or small toys (without sharp or pointy edges). I’d also recommend taping the bag shut and always supervising kids closely with this activity, in case the bag does happen to get ripped open and since if not used correctly a suffocation and choking hazard. When my son was a baby, I’d tape it to his high chair tray for a fun, easy activity to do while I prepped dinner. If you’re really brave, you can have a young helper assist in making the bags.
The bonus: Visual perception/discrimination games can be incorporated into the play. Some ideas include: have the child point to all the blue items, identify alphabet beads, squish all the purple water beads to the same side. This activity also provides an opportunity to practice finger isolation to poke at the sensory bag for fine motor development.
Make It Edible
We all have to eat and a lot of young kids are already making a mess, so another option for messy play is to stick them in the high chair or at the table and paint with yogurt, jam, avocados, sauce (whatever you have on hand). This way, if they are in a stage where they’re putting anything (or everything) in their mouth- it’s a good thing!
The bonus: Try to incorporate practice using utensils for fine motor development and promotion of self-help skills. Even if your child doesn’t use a child spoon accurately yet, it’s great to still allow for some practice and exploration of the item.
This may seem obvious, but I’ve learned the hard way. Having your clean up materials at arms length is half the battle. If your doing some kind of wet messy play (e.g. paint, goop, food, etc) have some wet wash clothes or baby wipes nearby. If it’s some kind of dry mess (e.g. rice, sand, etc) have a broom or vacuum ready to go. This way, once the activity is over, the mess can be minimized before it spreads and takes over your house.
The bonus: Having the kids help you gather the needed items allows them to be involved in the routine and can serve as a learning opportunity. Concepts such as before, during, and after can be explained and the preparation, action, then clean up can help kids with transitions between activities.
Clean Up Together
Let’s face it, sometimes messy play (no matter how you plan it or what precautions you take) makes a BIG mess. That’s ok, because there are many great skills to be gained in the clean-up process.
The bonus: During the clean up process, kids get a sense of participation in the family routines, motor skills may be developed, and more sensory input is included, such as proprioception.
Add or Remove Clothing
Either way is a good way to go- Using a smock or an old shirt designated for painting, or allowing for some shirtless messy play, you get a reduction of ruined cloths and:
The bonus: practicing self care dressing (and undressing) skills.
Use Everyday Stuff
Messy play can simply be fun, cheap, creative play. There are so many activities you can do using the items you have in your house at any given time. In the kitchen, have the kids explore produce: pumpkin guts, squishing (and eating bananas), dried rice for a sensory bin, playing in flour, or dried dried noodles. You can head outside to stomp in the mud, dig for worms, or jump in leaves. The options are endless, just look around!
The bonus: by looking at an everyday item in a different way, imaginations can soar.
I hope your next mess is a good one! Let me know how it goes 🙂
*Disclaimer: The information presented in the blog is intended for information purposes only. Please consult your physician with any medical concerns and/or for medical advice. The information presented is not intended to be used in place of individualized therapy services, please contact your health care team for skilled therapy if you think it is necessary. Please supervise your children (or friends, spouses, etc) if you decide to try any of the activities or ideas presented as the author or this blog does not claim liability for possible injury or negative consequences related to the activities and ideas presented here.