The Case for Messy Play

Two toddlers work with clay

Summer is the perfect time to embrace new, exciting, and MESSY sensory experiences that children can engage with using their whole bodies! At Camp Keetov, messy play (ooblek, slime, paint, mud, sand, shaving cream, clay, water, etc.) is core parts of our days.

Why? Because messy play isn’t just fun, it’s crucial for young learners. Exploring textures, consistencies, and temperatures encourages children to ask questions, test ideas, and discover cause and effect. By “messing about” with paint, clay, and sand, children explore their properties and test their theories. They may wonder, “What happens if I dump the water on the ground instead of back into the water table?” or “How does paint interact with my skin vs. the paper?” While we as adults may be quick to re-direct children back to the way that will prevent the most mess, this freedom to experiment and get messy broadens the children’s potential for learning and fosters essential math and science skills such as innovation, problem-solving, and curiosity.

Squeezing, pushing, pouring, poking and manipulating materials using their whole bodies also supports children’s fine and gross motor development. As child development expert Amanda Morgan reminds us, “Before we ever put a pencil in a child’s hands, those hands should dig, climb, press, pull, squish, twist, and pinch in a wide array of environments and with a variety of materials.” As children engage in messy play, they develop hand-eye coordination, finger dexterity, and muscle strength essential for learning drawing, writing, and self-care skills.

The tactile experiences and sensory input of messy play also help children regulate and express their emotions in healthy ways. Squeezing playdough, pounding clay, and lathering shaving cream provide a safe outlet for children to release pent-up energy and emotions, and learn regulating strategies, promoting emotional well-being and self-expression.

Children are naturally drawn to sensory experiences, although just like adults, some children avoid mess and can need support and encouragement to try a new tactile experience or tolerate mess. Because children observe their caretakers, our own attitudes towards these experiences can influence their likelihood to try something new. As sensory bins spill out and mess spreads to our clothing, children look to us to see how we will react in these moments.

Are you a parent cringing at the thought of messy play at home? You’re not alone! I’ve had to work on my own tolerance and plan messy experiences that don’t trigger my anxiety. Here are some tips: Take the mess outdoors, allow ample exploration and cleanup time, and appreciate the children’s joy as they play. These strategies have helped me make messy play more manageable.

Engaging in messy play has the potential for adults and children alike to strengthen relationships and connect through a shared experience. Our Teva Class enjoys taking “messy face” photos after enjoying a particularly sloppy snack. These silly photos help me re-frame mess, appreciate these moments of joy and connection, and remember that this kind of play teaches us valuable lessons about finding meaning in chaos and embracing life’s imperfections.