Messy play can be a tricky type of play for several reasons. First of all, not all kids like messy play, and that’s ok. My youngest has always been getting messy and just throwing herself into whatever activity is put in front of her, but my eldest was a completely different story. It’s only natural to worry and think that children should naturally love getting messy without a care in the world, but the truth is not all kids do. The same can be said for parents. Some parents are entirely relaxed about play getting a little chaotic and don’t mind the clear up after; others just don’t enjoy the experience. There is no right or wrong here; there is simply opportunity. Opportunity to play, opportunity to learn, and opportunity to grow. However, those things will only happen if both child and parent feel comfortable and confident. I wanted to share an example of how you can set up a ‘messy play’ activity, but in a way that allows you as a parent, and your child as an individual, to decide how messy the situation gets.

What you need:

  • Learning Resources® Helping Hands Fine Motor Tool Set™
  • Water in a medium-sized bin
  • Shaving cream
  • Food coloring (optional – if it makes you nervous about too much mess and stress, try it without coloring the first time round)
  • Glitter (as above, only use it if you feel comfortable with it)
  • Plastic Easter eggs
  • Muffin tin
  • Plastic bowls
  • Spoons and stirring sticks
  • Tray or container to help contain the mess
  • Have a towel on hand just in case

Let’s Get Set Up

The way you set up activities has a significant impact on how your child chooses to engage with the materials. I always try to make a setup that naturally creates a sense of intrigue for my child. For this reason, I put all of the materials on our large mat and chose not to squirt out any of the shaving creams yet. Allowing time for my four-year-old to touch all of the materials and talk about what she’d like to make with them immediately gives her a sense of ownership over her play and learning. She is deciding how to enjoy the play rather than following my idea of what the play should look like. Honestly, kids often have way better ideas anyway!

How Shall We Play?

Once my preschooler had looked at all the materials, and we’d talked about their names, she told me that she wanted to squirt out the shaving cream and make it colorful. Here’s the main reason I waited to open the shaving cream… for her, getting to squirt the can by herself was super exciting and instantly made her more engaged and hands-on. Then she added the color drops and mixed it in all by herself. She still hadn’t touched the shaving cream, and I was in no rush to make her test it out.

The Importance of Tools

I am always very intentional about supplying tools with a messy play setup. When my son was a preschooler, he would avoid touching sensory materials too much, so I was always sure to provide tools. This helped him get comfortable with the feel of the materials first, and then he would eventually be more hands-on with them. The decision was his, and that was important to me. I always feel that forcing a child into messy play doesn’t do anyone any favors and can deter future involvement.

What’s Next?

After making the colored shaving cream, she started an experiment using fine motor tools to transfer the shaving cream into the plastic eggs and the water. She called her creations ‘sparkly egg cupcakes’ and took great pleasure in adding glitter to each one as the sprinkles. If the word glitter makes you shudder, don’t panic. I always say to fellow parents that if you aren’t comfortable with the material, don’t use it. Instead of glitter, use pom-poms or beads. They will be just as much fun!

Getting Messier…

You can see from the photos that as the play progressed, things got messier and messier. As I mentioned earlier, though, this was all based on my preschooler’s play decisions, not my pressured directions. She is always at her most creative when the play is open-ended and hands-on. She made another batch of colored shaving cream, washing her tools with the Twisty Dropper™ and scooping away with the Handy Scoopers™. Shaving cream and water is a great sensory base combination because if your child is a little hesitant of the shaving cream on their skin, they can wash it straight off in the water. Have a towel ready to dry off, and then the play can resume there and then.

Follow the Child’s Lead

My final tip is always to follow your child’s lead when it comes to playing length. I know how frustrating it can be when you set something up, and after 5 or 10 minutes, your child announces they are ‘all done’ and trots off to the toy room. Please don’t view this as a failure. It’s a win, a small win maybe, but still a win. They showed enough interest to engage, and I bet that they will likely engage for longer next time. Try to reflect on what they did for those 5 or 10 minutes and focus on your setup next time.

I hope you have found some of these tips helpful. Try to remember that messy play can be an acquired taste for parents and children alike. You can use the way you set things up to help support your child’s needs in a way that will encourage them to engage within their comfort level, and that will also keep the activity within your mess tolerance level. Happy playing!