It is known that children have always enjoyed getting messy — from splashing in puddles to playing games in the mud, youngsters love getting their hands dirty! Often, we let children discover these new environments themselves. However, messy play can be beneficial for babies and toddlers too, in fact it can help with their cognitive development in many ways. Together with Infinite Playgrounds, designers of wooden playgrounds and advocates of sensory play, we take a closer look at messy play and how it can be implemented in schools and nurseries.
What is it?
Messy play is all about allowing children to experience and explore objects that they aren’t always exposed to. It involves playing with anything that gets messy! This could be sand, water, chalk, paint or playdough. There are now many playgroups set up with messy play as the focus as the benefits have become widely recognised.
Often when parents play with their children, it is structured play with a target in mind — for example, pressing buttons to make the toy light up or make a sound. Messy play is different, as it is unstructured and allows the child to use their own imagination and explore new materials without any end goal.
This sort of play can support physical development too. As children create shapes with the materials, they are using their arms and they might push things around with their feet.
What are the benefits?
There are many benefits for children when they engage with messy play. For children with special educational needs or disabilities, messy play is a good way for them to
interact with other children by communicating in different ways. They may be slower at reading or speaking but can join in with messy play. It can encourage children to develop the ability of creating signs and starting to write as well. By drawing pictures and shapes in the materials such as sand, they begin to discover their hands as writing tools and experiment with what they can do. This practice also allows them to build up their finger and arm muscles, which can be useful when children begin to pick up a pen.
Unstructured play in general allows toddlers and children to explore their imagination and practise concentration. As they come up with their own games or focus on moving the materials around, they learn more about how their bodies work and their spatial awareness improves. Playing with the materials also allows the child to practice their fine motor skills and develop their hand-eye coordination. This goes on to improve their abilities in sports and involvement in games in the future. Research has proven that toddlers are quicker to learn about solid objects due to their unchanging size and shape. Exposing children to soft materials allows them to learn more about non-solid materials and broaden their knowledge. It also allows them to compare and understand textures. For example, two things may look the same from afar but when they interact with them and touch them, they can understand the difference.
How can it be implemented in schools?
Many parents implement messy play at home — allowing their children to play with their food or splash around in the garden. However, it’s important to implement it in schools too, where children can interact with each other in new environments.
Ways to introduce messy play into the curriculum can be as follows:
- Installing a sand pit indoors.
- Adapting lesson plans. For younger children, take counting lessons outdoors or let them practise measuring water with cups and jugs.
- Introducing a rota for lunch and break time, where children can engage in messy play with access to the sand pit or water features.
- Encouraging parents to bring spare clothes or provide overalls for children so they are able to get messy.
- Children don’t have to be sat in the materials to reap the benefits of messy play — finger painting and playing with water is classed as messy too.
- Asking questions to children to spark their interest. ‘I wonder what will happen if we pour this over here?’, for example, can keep children engaged and gives them an opportunity to answer the question in their own way.