Why messy play & mark making is important in early development

Why messy play & mark making is important in early development

The words ‘messy play’ strike fear into most adults who have children in their care! All we see is the mopping and sweeping up and finding play dough, or paint hand prints, for the next few weeks in places they definitely shouldn’t be!

However, research shows that multi sensory play and mark making is a key area for child development and, when they enter school, writing skills.

What is messy play and mark making?

Messy play and mark making can either be dry, wet, squashy, hard, oily, smooth, whatever the child prefers. This can be done through paint, pens, rice, play dough, foam, water, dancing and so much more! The key to mark making and messy play is that it is child led. Not all children enjoy having dirty fingers, but likewise others will climb straight into the painting tray! But any child can make their mark and engage in messy play given the opportunity.

Messy play allows them to:

  • Explore without the pressure to create
  • Develop the muscles ready for writing later in life
  • Build different muscle groups from fingers to feet
  • Encourages movement and balance
  • Explore their environment
  • Lead play in their own time and limits
  • Develop language skills and pretend play
  • Be creative and independent learners
  • Enhance their memory skills

But my child is a baby, why is this important?

It seems like a lot is going on when a child starts playing with something simple as a piece of play dough! But ‘for creativity to flourish, children need to be actively involved in the process of learning’ (Prentice 2000).

And research shows that all these examples and more starts to happen when a child engages in mark making messy play from a very young age. Babies need to be given the opportunity to build the right muscles and balance to be able to learn to write once they start school.

‘Early childhood educators cannot overstate the importance of sensory play in the educational process. It is the foundation of all the skills children will use in school learning to read, write and solve math and science problems. Once a child has these experiences, they are able to draw upon the body memory and cognitive memory of their experiences when faced with new situations.’ (Butcher and Pletcher 2016)

Where do I begin?

So, how can you get started? Messy play and mark making doesn’t have to be expensive, or that messy! Simple things like making marks with chalk on the pavement can keep a toddler happy for ages!

Here are a few things you can try:

Coloured rice – simply grab some white rice, add a bit of food colouring, mix it in, let it dry on a tray and then let you little one go crazy! Utensils from the kitchen are great for this activity, spoons, cups, funnels etc, but most kids will love letting it run through their fingers.

Edible paint – Mix 4 tablespoons of corn starch (corn flour) with a small amount of water into a paste, add 1 cup boiling water and a few drops of food colouring, heat it in a saucepan on low till it thickens. Allow it to cool completely and then let your little artist go to work!

Crayons and a roll of paper – grab some thick crayons from the shop, a roll of brown paper from the post office and roll it out on the floor. Encourage your child to lie on their tummy to draw; this is great for muscle development. Or, you can stick the paper to the wall which encourages older toddlers who are standing to reach up, again developing those all important muscles.

How can Little Messy Learners help?

The mission of Little Messy Learners Australia is to encourage every child to ‘make their mark’.

Written by Rachel Fey, an experienced primary School Teacher, The Little Messy Learner classes incorporate music, dancing, messy play and packing away games, to encourage your child to develop those all important skills as they grow.

Research shows that repetitive, consistent learning and structure is key to a child’s development, so the Little Messy Learners classes are held over an 8 week term, allowing the children to engage fully with the programme and have the structure of attending the same class at the same location each week.


Growing Hands On Kids - The Importance of Messy Play for Children - November 18, 2018 By Heather Greutman

Cognitive development and sensory play - December 15, 2016 - Author: Kittie Butcher, Michigan State University Extension, and Janet Pletcher, Lansing Community College

Find out more about Little Messy Learners Mandurah and Rockingham here