Messy Play

Messy play can help your child to learn about the world, it can have a soothing effect, and it is great fun. In this article, we’ll show you how to set up messy play without it getting out of control.

Life is messy sometimes. And we do our best to control it. But we can also use that mess to our advantage. Messy play can help your child to learn about the world, it can have a soothing effect, and it is great fun. In this article, we’ll show you how to set up messy play without it getting out of control.


Messy play is fun above all. Whether it’s jumping in puddles or digging fingers into playdough, your child can really enjoy themselves exploring different materials. The sense of freedom is great too. Try and make the most of this time by allowing your child to explore with as few rules and restrictions as possible. 

Messy play is like spa-time for your kids! Sitting in a sauna, having a facial and getting our nails done make us look good (You too Dad!). But we also enjoy the sensations themselves. And messy play can be very calming too. Many children are soothed by engaging with sensory materials.

Messy play for children with ASD or ADHD can stimulate brain growth. This, in turn, helps children to use the senses to help them learn. This is great for all children but especially for kids whose sensory connections are less developed. Children with ADHD and ASD can find it difficult to understand the messages they get from their bodies so messy play can help them notice and take in their surroundings. It can also help them with social skills, communication and coordination.

Exploring the world around them is great for your child’s development. Through playing with different materials they will get a sense of how things feel and behave. Messy play is essential for learning how to interpret and process the world around them. Rich sensory experiences trigger brain connections and are the foundation for learning, social and emotional interactions and problem-solving.

Learning can be incorporated into messy play sessions. You can make numbers and letters from playdough and make counting games with bubbles and shells. But don’t forget that just experiencing materials is learning too. Your child will figure out what they like and don’t like, and this kind of play can help build tolerance.

Messy play can help children develop fine motor skills as they use the muscles in their hands and fingers. It will also help them develop coordination and control.

Create the Space

It might seem obvious but, be prepared for messy play! Think about the space you are using. Use a wipeable mat or tablecloth to act as a boundary and protect surfaces. Trays or tubs can be used to keep materials in, and your child can reach in and grab what they need. If you can use an outside space then this will be easier. Use kitchen and bathroom spaces as these will have water ready and are easier to clean. Bath-time is a wonderful opportunity for some messy play and the kitchen sink can be great too. Let them know this is the space to play within by using a clear statement: 

“Here are the messy playthings. Everything stays on the mat. You can do almost anything you like. If there’s something you can’t do, I’ll let you know.”

Let Your Child Lead

Try to resist the urge to direct your child too much. Provide the material and some items for cutting, rolling and then leave the rest to your child’s imagination. Give them the structuring statement so they can feel free to explore without the need to conform to your ideas. Messy play is all about exploration.

Add The Props

There are endless ideas to buy and make for messy play – slimes, dough and sand for example. But don’t forget nature’s own messy things too like soil and water. You can also use household ingredients such as flour. Making your own playdough can become a sensory activity in itself. And try to think about collecting materials that feel, smell and sound in different ways. Offcuts of fabrics are great for this along with bits of crinkly paper and bubble wrap.

The simple ideas are the best but here are a few suggestions: 

  • Playdough – bought or made – supply some tools as well, but try to avoid lots of pre-made moulds and machines as these limit the imagination. You can add glitter to the dough or essential oils for a lovely smell
  • Cornflour is great when mixed with water and put in a tray. It feels amazing and children can write and draw in it too
  • Sensory bottles can be made or bought. Just add glitter and sequins to some coloured water. These will also be good if you are going out
  • Create a sensory bag or box which has a range of sensory items inside and your child can put in a hand to guess what they are
  • Food items can be used too. Adding some food colouring to rice and pasta not only looks great – it feels amazing too!

There are so many great ideas on the internet. Have fun experimenting.

Join In

As with all kinds of play, you have a role but that doesn’t always mean you are playing directly with your child, although you can do this too! Your role can be to comment on their play and wonder aloud about how it might feel. You can always comment on their emotional expression as they play. Reflect their feelings and make links to how it feels in their bodies. 

“That looks interesting, I wonder how it feels to you.” 

“I can see you are smiling so wide, and enjoying how that feels.”

”Punching that dough really hard, getting all the big feelings out.”

“Not sure about touching that slime, maybe not sure if you will like it.”


Be careful of your own feelings about mess. Try not to let your own difficulties pass onto your child. This kind of play is so beneficial. You could let them play for as long as they choose, then try and notice when they are getting bored or they begin to do inappropriate things like throwing the dough. This might be the time to stop. Using a structuring statement at the start of the playtime can help with this.

“We have 30 minutes for messy play, I’ll let you know when we have 5 minutes left and 1 minute to finish.”

Above all, have fun. Just by providing the right kind of space and a few simple items, your child will do the rest. Add in some well-chosen words and you have the recipe for a wonderful playtime.

Also have a look at Playdough Wonders

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