Everything you could possibly want to know about messy play! You’ll find over 130 messy play ideas for every season, as well as a list of FAQs, tips, and materials to get started.
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I am a BIG fan of messy play in preschool. Well, honestly, I’m a big fan of messy play for kids of all ages. Even adults can get a lot of benefits from it.
I’ve had some great conversations with other early childhood educators about this topic. And I’ve been asked a lot of in-depth questions about it. So I thought I’d put everything in one place for you!
You’ll notice this page has a “table of contents” spot. You can use it to navigate this post. That way, you can find exactly what you’re looking for. Any blue, underlined text is a link that has more information for you.
Now let’s jump into the messy play fun in all of its glory!
What is Messy Play?
Before we chat about messy play ideas, we need to answer the question, “What is messy play?” Some educators use the term interchangeably with sensory play.
I have a slightly different take on it.
In my mind, messy play is any activity where the kids can get . . . well . . . messy! The two subject areas that offer messy opportunities most often are sensory play and art. Science offers some messy opportunities quite a bit, too.
So, here’s my take on the subject! Messy play:
- is hands-on
- is multi-sensory
- allows kids to fully explore the materials at-hand
- encourages creative learning
- is usually open-ended
- allows for messiness within a safe, controlled environment
What are the Benefits of Messy Play?
There are so many benefits of incorporating messy play into your preschool classroom (or at home)!
Below are just some of the messy play benefits for kids. Messy play:
- allows children to explore many of their senses
- encourages creative thinking
- gives kids chances to practice decision-making
- lets children develop vocabulary and language skills
- supports independent and cooperative play
- encourages many early learning skills with hands-on activities
- helps kids develop both fine and gross motor skills
- lets the children practice early concepts in developmentally appropriate ways
- encourages self-regulation skills
- gives the kids many chances to practice cleaning up after themselves
There are so many more benefits of messy play, but I figured I’d stop at ten. As you can see, all of those messy play ideas and activities really pack a punch!
Messy Play Ideas
Now, let’s chat about some messy play activities that you can try with your kids. I’ve broken them down into a few different categories. This way, you can tailor the messy play to your preschool themes, your students’ interests, or even the time of year.
⛄ Winter Messy Play Ideas – More than 25 messy sensory and art activities perfect for the cold winter months.
🌷 Spring Messy Play Ideas – 30+ messy art and sensory activities to do as the weather starts warming up again.
🌞 Summer Messy Play Ideas – More than 15 messy ideas the kids will love on hot summer days.
🍂 Fall Messy Play Ideas – Over 30 ideas to try as the leaves start changing colors.
🎄 Christmas Messy Play Ideas – Over 35 messy activities to keep the kids engaged as the holidays approach.
🏠 Messy Play Ideas at Home – 25 messy play activities that don’t require too many materials. They’re perfect for homeschooling families or just when you need some weekend ideas.
Be sure to save this page, as I’ll be updating it with more messy play fun throughout the year!
I’d also LOVE to hear about some of your favorite messy play ideas! What activities do your students love to get their hands dirty with?
Materials for Messy Play Activities
As we all know, kids can make a mess with any material. And I’m not one to judge as I have that same talent and I’m way past childhood!
But if you want some suggestions for what materials to grab for messy play, I have tons of ideas for you!
Here are a few items to get you started:
- Corn starch
- Baking soda
- Washable tempera paint
- Liquid watercolors
- Jell-O powder
- Liquid starch
- Shaving cream
As you can see, these materials aren’t too out-there. You likely have most of them in your kitchen or your teacher supply closet right now!
You can, of course, add a wide variety of other items to the basics at any time. There are just so many possibilities when it comes to messy play.
You’ll also want to consider having some messy play “tools” on-hand. Again, they don’t need to be anything fancy. Start with what you already have, and pick up a few pieces as you go. Here are some ideas:
- Sensory table and/or containers of various sizes
- Tablecloth, tarp, shower liner, or protective mat
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Condiment bottles
- Salad spinner
- Child-sized eye droppers
- Kitchen utensils
- Tongs and scoops
- Mixing bowls
What Age Should You Start Messy Play?
Have you ever watched a baby splashing in her bathwater? Or a toddler spreading his food around the plate and all over himself?
Those examples are child-initiated messy play activities. And it just so happens to be the answer to the question, too.
You can start the kids off with messy play at any age. Just be aware of each child’s needs, age, and interests. For example, kids who are prone to putting things in their mouths should avoid getting their hands on things like shaving cream or water beads. But don’t worry! Those children can still enjoy those sensory materials, just put shaving cream or water beads inside a sealed bag and let them go to town.
And of course . . . always ensure proper adult supervision!
This means that, when done safely, messy play activities are “age-appropriate” for babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary-school children. Don’t be afraid to start them young, and don’t be afraid to start with older kids if you want to. Even middle school and high school kids can get a lot of messy activities. And I have to be honest here, some adults get a kick out of them too!
Messy Play Area
Some teachers and parents like to set up a specific area to try out all of their messy play ideas! Others prefer a more transient messy play setup. It really just depends on your preferences and the space you have available.
If you’re able to set up an area just for messy play, here are a few suggestions:
👉🏽 Set it up in a space that can be cleaned up without too much work.
👉🏽 Organize your materials in easy-to-access containers. Make sure the containers are labeled.
👉🏽 Keep it simple. Don’t offer too many messy materials at once.
👉🏽 Have some child-friendly tools and utensils on-hand.
👉🏽 Put kid-friendly cleaning materials in the area. And teach the children how to use them.
👉🏽 Hang up a few aprons or smocks at the kids’ level
Not everyone can dedicate a consistent space just for messy awesomeness. In fact, I think most people will fall into this category. And that’s okay!
If this is the case with you, don’t let it inhibit your messy fun. Pack up the materials and tools in a few bins or bags. Place those inside one larger bin, along with some cleaning materials, and you’re good to go. Pull the messy play bin out where and when you can. And it can be really fun to take the messy play outside on nice days (or rainy, muddy days)!
We can’t talk about fun messy play ideas without touching on cleaning it all up. Preparation is key, let me tell you!
Start off with the way you think about messy activities. Personally, I am very much an “embrace the mess!” person. But not everyone is, and that’s perfectly fine! If you know it might bother you, take some time to remind yourself of all of the benefits. And make a plan . . . that will help ease your mind.
Here are some tips you might want to consider when making your plan:
⭐ Explain the rules ahead of time. For example, “Keep all materials in the bin.”
🌟 Choose a space that can get dirty. Take it outside, contain it in the bathtub, set it up over a tiled floor, etc.
⭐ Put something down to catch the mess.
🌟 Have kid-friendly cleaning materials nearby, and make sure the kids know how to use them. Don’t forget the aprons or smocks!
⭐ Keep the materials to a minimum. If you’re not using it for the messy activity, put it away or place it out of reach.
🌟 Make sure the kids understand what happens when messy fun time is over (you may also want to set a timer and let the kids know just how much time they have left before ending the activity).
So there’s no need to be afraid of messy play. Armed with a game plan, you will rock all of your messy play ideas and the kids will LOVE the opportunity to get their hands dirty!
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