Messy Play

Messy Play

What is Play?

Messy Play is commonly associated with children and juvenile level activities but play occurs at any life stage among higher-functional beings. The Messy play time that children take part in has numerous physiological and emotional benefits and it aids in the building of social skills and consistency, learning & school readiness, to promote mental and physical development.

Dr. Kim Barthel – Occupational Therapist, believes that play should be seen as “an opportunity for a child to think creatively, solve problem, experience success and failure, and learn from those situations. For many children, play is the only time that they can be completely in-charge of themselves. They have the freedom to explore and make new decisions, which contributes greatly to their overall development.”

Read a detail blog on Play in Speech Therapy Sessions

Types of Play

There are various types of play such as physical, messy/sensory, social, constructive, fantasy play & games with rules. They all serve numerous purposes in a child’s development. But, we will put some light on the topic Sensory Play also known as Messy Play.

Messy play has been around since the beginning of time and often occurs naturally, in some setups for kids. Sensory play focuses on stimulating the five senses – touch, taste, auditory, smell & vision. They also explore & engage through movement & balance. They help the child develop these senses to interact with their surroundings. It builds the foundational skills of children which is crucial for child’s development by giving them new learning experiences. Sensory play suits all age groups and helps in various ways to each one of them. Few examples of natural setups are playing in garden with soil, playing on beach with sand & water, while eating with their own hands or having bubble bath in a tub.

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning – Diane Ackerman

Benefits of Messy Play 

  • Exploration: Kids explore & discover more about the world through their senses. It helps in activating & stimulating their senses. Children, who explore with their senses, learn physical principles more quickly which helps them build their foundation skills that can be further used to learn various complex skills such as motor planning, co-ordination etc. Best example is when kids experience a wide variety of textures & materials when they explore their surroundings.
  • Calmness: Messy play inculcates the state of calm in kids. Calmness helps them to build higher functions like sitting tolerance, focus, attention span and concentration power.
  • Skill Development: It helps in developing skills such as fine & gross motor skills, social skills, language development, pre-writing skills. Furthermore, even higher functioning skills can be developed such as cognition, attention span, thinking & learning skills.
  • Lay foundation : Sensory play lays foundation in science and builds math skills by engaging into hands-on activities. Through play they can learn about physical & chemical properties like quantity, shapes, textures, changes and compares objects after the experiment making them more curious about it.
  • Abstract Thinking: Open ended activities give the child an opportunity to experiment and learn at their own developmental pace. For example: Giving them option to choose or asking them to take the lead. Experimenting builds curiosity which makes the process of learning more interesting and creative as it helps to enhance their imagination skills, observation skills and thinking potential. They also develop sense of accomplishment & responsibility through these activities.

Play is the highest form of research – Albert Einstein

girl playing with colour

Messy Play : OT Activities

  • Bubble wrap stomping – For this activity one needs two sets of bubble wrap which can be tied to the kids feet and a white paper sheet. Prepare water colors in a tray. Bubble wraps child’s feet and dip their feet in water color. Now make them walk on a white sheet of paper. This will create visuals of colorful footprints on paper.
  • Painting – Since imagination has no limits, one can replace paint brush with any object and turn a painting session into “Messy Play”. One can paint with finger/vegetable etc. Just dip the object in paint and print it on paper. You can even introduce concept of boundaries by asking the child to paint a star/tree/ cloud etc., drawn on paper. Also, Spray painting is a good activity – Dip toothbrush into paint and ask child to rub their thumb across brush to spray paint on paper.
  • Frozen veggie dig – Mix diced veggies such as peas/corns etc. in a basket. Make the kids sort all those vegetables.
  • Clay Molding – We need clay dough for this activity. Ask kids to roll, stretch, flatten the dough or one can also ask them to create a pattern using spoon or straw.
  • Sensory bins – Fill up a container with materials that provide sensory input to the child e.g.: sand, water, pasta etc. There are lots of possibilities for this activity. It can also be theme based such as beach/ forest so on.

Edible Messy Play

Few ideas for children who tend to explore everything with their mouth along with their hands. We can make few changes for these kids to get a chance to participate & experience messy play like by replacing

  • Clay/play dough with firm flour dough
  • Soil/Sand with biscuits or dried bread crumbs
  • Shells with Cornflakes or muesli
  • Mud with melted chocolate
  • Foam with whipped cream
  • Thermocol balls with Rice crispies
  • Magic water beads with jelly
  • Pompoms with Marshmallows
  • Edible paints can be made with natural fruits & vegetable
  • One can also use colorful cooked spaghetti

Purposeful Messy Play 

  • Plant a garden – This can be a fun activity that involves a sensory benefit. One can go as big as they want, right from planting a seed in a small box to planting your own garden in balcony. It involves many tasks such as sorting seeds, digging in dirt, smelling flowers, etc. which will stimulate all the senses.
  • Cooking – Child can be a helping hand to parent for cooking their everyday meal. Formalize the task depending on kid’s age – Washing or sorting vegetables, smashing potatoes, etc. Also, scooping ice cream, peeling off bananas, etc. can be part of it with no possibility of child harming oneself. Basically allow your child to squish, smear, taste, and smell everything that’s edible.
  • Water play – This can be the least mess creating messy play – imagine to have the best kind of messy play with no worries of having to clean up the child later. You can have this in your bathroom with soap or foam in bath tub and add all the toys that child has to hunt according to the instruction. Further, this activity also teaches values of cleanliness.
  • Tie & Dye – This is my personal favorite as this gives a different end product every time and you can keep adding new ideas. All you need is to tie white t-shirt with any rubber-band and pour some liquid color on any knotted part, now open the tied part to see amazing colored t-shirt.

Tips for Parents

  • Messy play activities doesn’t have to be complex to be fun and they often require a few items that you probably already have around the house
  • Messy play can take place in a well-organized space or naturally available spaces like beach, gardens.
  • Spread tarp or rough cloth to create less mess
  • It is great if one can have messy play regularly in a structured manner
  • Trust your instinct and experiment and be as creative as you can; plan the activity according to your child’s interests and needs
  • Last but not the least, consider which ideas are age appropriate and safe for your child.

IMPORTANT NOTE – Safety is must. Be cautious of choking risks and constantly be in control while performing these activities. Use natural and edible colors.

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