I absolute adore messy play, but it wasn’t always that way. I can still remember the first time a friend of mine mentioned it. Long before I had children of my own, she had taken her daughter to a messy play group at the local village centre and explained how she would strip her off and dunk her into a bath of beans or a tuff tray of spaghetti. I was horrified! Who on Earth would do that to their child?! I wondered, seeing visions of children screaming and covered in mashed potato. I smiled, nodded along and vowed never to subject my future children to that nonsense.
Speed forward about 3 years and I was in my local village centre supporting a local cause with fundraising. Across the way, a leader was in the process of setting up a messy play area.
Space was at a premium, so she meticulously covered the carpeted floors in sheets and plastic then laid out the materials. I watched intently as Mum’s arrived with their babies and plonked them into various vats of mess. Well, I was amazed. Every single child was engaged, smiling, laughing, squishing things between their fingers and toes… having an absolute blast! From that moment, I realised what messy play was all about. It was something we, as adults, don’t get to experience very often – being in the moment with nothing much going on except the enjoyment of our senses coming alive. I was hooked!
Soon after, I begin to use messy play experiences in my work as a newly qualified teacher. The children found the experiences so memorable. It was a joy to see. Years later, I was pregnant with my son and I couldn’t wait to get started with all of the messy play experiences.
In the year or so since Arlo has been able to engage in messy play, I have tried dozens of activities. Some were successes, some he hated and were complete failures, others were good but not pitched correctly for his age. I learnt a lot! One of the things I learnt, was how to conduct a ‘messy play’ activity that wasn’t actually so messy.
Let’s face it, some days, there is just too much going on to spend the afternoon washing mashed potato off the kitchen cupboards. Sometimes, I only have an hour or two to get an activity set up, played with and put away again. This got me thinking about how I could incorporate the experience of messy play – engaging the senses, plenty of sensory things to touch, feel, smell, taste (sometimes!), and to really get into that ‘hands-on’ zone where learning is a true joy both for our little ones and for us to observe, too.
Here I hope to share with you some of my favourite not-messy-messy-play activities which you can keep in your repertoire to bring out again and again when you’re looking for an engaging experience which can be tidied away quickly.
1) Using Shredded Paper
Shredded paper makes a fantastic messy play resource. It is free (just shred whatever you have to hand and if you don’t have a shredder, cutting some newspaper with scissors will work just as well), it can be stored indefinitely to use again and again and it makes zero mess!
In the activity pictured, I had stuck some plastic toys to a tuff tray using tape and covered in a layer of shredded paper. Arlo had great fun ‘rescuing’ the animals and exploring the paper.
2) Water Play – Without The Water!
Water can be a pain to tidy up, especially if time is short, however this one is much easier as it uses ice instead.
Here, I used moulds from a sand castle set, filled them with water and a splash of food colouring, added a wooden hammer tool and let Arlo go to town breaking apart the ice with a hammer. When he was done, I simply brushed the ice onto a dustpan and threw it outside to melt on the grass. Job done!
A little word of caution, however. Some food colourings can stain clothes, so if you don’t have time to change your little one, use plain ice instead.
3) Getting Back To Nature
We use nature themed activities all the time. Again, they’re free as I can collect the pieces I need outside in the garden and are easy to set up and put away. For the activity pictured, I ran around the garden and gathered up some cuttings from various plants, laid them out in the centre of the tray and hid some plastic insects underneath. I then gave Arlo a pair of tweezers to see if he could move the branches aside and find the hidden critters! It was also great to put various bits and pieces inside our Treasure Tubes, so he could examine each one closely. He spotted the different patterns in the leaves and even spotted a ladybird hiding on the back of a leaf!
This one was an absolute hit and so easy to do! For packing away, all I needed to do was collect the insects and put to one side before sweeping up the leaves and putting them into the garden waste bin. Perfect!
4) Pass the Pasta!
Pasta, rice and chickpeas are a great resource for practical activities. They’re cheap, reuseable and easy to clean away.
For this activity, I laid out some large artificial leaves (but you could use real ones!) along with a packet of Tray Play Toolkits Sensory Chickpeas, a Lanka Kade Duck and a few Tickit Loose Parts.
Clean up is easy – remove the leaves, put the wooden items back in their box and pour the chickpeas back into their bag for next time!
5) Fake it til you make it!
If time is of the essence, you can substitute real sensory play items for fake ones. For example, play with farm animals on artificial grass or crushed up cereal instead of mud. These simple swaps can lead to an engaging play that is far easier to tidy away!
Now it’s your turn!
So, there you have it! Five different messy play activities which will keep your child’s clothes mess free and allow you to engage in some wonderful play before getting on with the rest of your day!
If you have a go at one of these activities, or think of any other suggestions, drop me a message in the comments box below.