Tips & tricks for successful messy play

Tips & tricks for successful messy play

Messy play focuses on exploring and experimenting with different materials and textures without any end goal. This is key for their development and helps to encourage curiosity, problem solving skills, their range of senses and knowledge.

Getting started

  • Start cautiously and be prepared, especially if this is your first experience with messy play

  • Dress yourself and your child in old clothes

  • Choose a time when you can be fully present and engaged (ie: not when you're making dinner)

  • Find the best time for messy play. Consider doing it right after breakfast while still in pyjamas, or right before bath time. Make sure you have plenty of time to explore without feeling rushed

  • Play shortly after eating a meal or snacks, as hungry children are more likely to eat the materials! All materials in our Messy Play Kits are nontoxic but not edible. If your child is still mouthing or tasting materials extensively, find food-safe materials to play with instead (dough made from flour and oil, whipped cream instead of shaving cream, food colouring instead of liquid watercolours)

  • Choose a space where you can be messy, like the bathtub, kitchen floor, or outside. Have towels and a water supply nearby for easy clean-up

  • Have a clean-up plan in place! Have a bucket of water or sink nearby, and plenty of towels too

  • Involve children in setup and clean-up. This gives them a sense of responsibility over the play, as well as empowering them and building self-confidence. Not to mention self-help skills and fine motor control (and it saves you from cleaning up the entire activity)

Setting boundaries

  • Use a well-defined area (the bathtub, a cookie sheet, or a sheet/plastic tablecloth laid on the ground)
  • Set appropriate limits, such as "materials stay in the tub" and enforce them
  • Give reminders and warnings; if your child isn't listening, stop the activity. They can try again later, when they are ready
  • Children respond better to clear directions, so tell your child what you DO want him to do, instead of what you DON'T want. For example, say "keep the paint in the tub" instead of "don't throw the paint."

Guiding messy play

  • Allow your child to do as much as they can, based on their capabilities. Let them squeeze the liquid watercolours into the bowl. Let them stir the ingredients. Let them unscrew the cap of the glue, if they physically can. If not, loosen it slightly for them and let them do the rest. You're building their self-help skills, confidence and fine motor control! And since you've set materials on an easily-cleaned surface, what's the harm in a few drops of watercolour missing the bowl?
  • Offer tools for those children who don't want to dive right in with their hands. Let them explore using a variety of tools, such as spoons, buckets, shovels, whisks, funnels, and measuring cups. Real kitchen tools or sand play toys are great!
  • Let your child discover freely. If he wants to smash the volcano after letting it fizz a little, go for it! If she wants to spread the glue with her hands, talk with her about what that feels like


  • Ask open-ended questions to extend your child's investigation. "What do you think will happen when...?" "What does it feel like when you...?" "Why do you think we saw...?" "I wonder..." is also a great phrase to use. However, don't overwhelm them by bombarding them with too many questions! It should feel like a normal conversation
  • Answer questions honestly. If your child asks you something and you don't know the answer, say so. Then use the opportunity to wonder with your child about what will happen, or use a resource to find the answer. Not only are you modelling honesty, but resourcefulness!
  • Consider writing down your child's ideas and observations during an activity, especially if you are going to do it multiple times. Did you get the same result each time? Did you notice something new? Was your hypothesis correct? Children feel very validated when adults write down their words, and it's a great opportunity to model writing and literacy skills!
  • Narrate your child's actions as they play, especially for younger children. Describe what they are doing and the effects ("you poured the vinegar into the volcano, and look! It's fizzing!"). Describe what the materials feel like as you explore them ("This goo is soooo cold and slippery!"). You are teaching them to use words for description and bringing their attention to their actions and associated effects
  • Count together as you measure and pour materials together. Did it take one bottle or two for the reaction to occur? How many scoops of rice does it take to fill the tub? When you use a smaller cup, does it take the same number of scoops or a different number? You build the foundation for crucial math concepts when you count with your children, such as one-to-one correspondence, number recognition, the cardinal rule and more

Most importantly, have fun! Enjoy this adventure and appreciate that children learn best from this type of hands-on experience.

Article supplied by Messy Play.