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Embrace the mess:  The importance of messy play for children

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One of my favourite things to say is “sorry about the mess, we are making memories”.  I even have a sign hanging on my kitchen wall with the saying on it! For us as adults, when we hear the word mess or messy play all we can think about is that word…MESS. Often all we can think about is the clean up afterwards! It’s a natural response because let’s face it, it’s the adult who ends up doing the majority of the clean up afterwards no matter how much the kids promise they will help! It is important for us as adults to look beyond the mess and look at all the valuable learning that happens when children engage in messy or sensory play. Both these terms, messy play or sensory play, can be used interchangeably, but for me, I have always called it messy play!

Messy play is so important for a child’s development. It stimulates your child’s senses and allows your child to work and explore using their hands (sometimes their feet and other body parts such as mouths, eyes and ears too!) to create a controlled mess. What do I mean by a controlled mess I hear you say? It is a mess that is contained to an area (tuff tray, a container, a table), set out by an adult, creating a safe space for the child to explore freely.

For me, I have always been classified as a “messy” person. However within all that mess is where I find I am most creative. In the midst of it all, is actually how I work best, how I find solutions, develop ideas or figure out the direction I am going. From an outsider’s perspective looking in, all they might see is a mess spread out over my kitchen table, not in fact the creativity going on in my head! This is what messy play looks like to many adults, as we struggle to look past the mess and can’t see with our eyes all the learning that this messy play provides our children. It allows children to be creative in their play, use their imagination, and foster curiosity. It allows them to develop their own ideas and thoughts around their play. It provides children with an exciting tactile and sensory experience, which enhances their learning.

Start simple:

Messy play doesn’t have to be an elaborate set up with lots of different elements. It can be simple things like a bubble bath, sink play (fill sink up with water, add a few toys), water play, sand play, food play (dried rice, cereal, yogurt) a muddy patch outside… anything that can stimulate your child’s senses. Even these simply messy play activities have so many benefits to children. It allows children to explore the world around them by using their hands (and other body parts!) which enhances their cognitive development as they figure things out for themselves and in turn, allows them to make sense of the world. It encourages their language development and can encourage independent play as well as social skills.

Managing the ‘mess’:

In our home setting, messy play is a big part of our life. I have always been a big fan of messy playing long before I had my boys. It used to fascinate me how calm a child would become while engaging in messy play, a new level of deep concentration and how they would strike up conversations they wouldn’t normally be willing to have with you. In a school setting, or ECCE setting in my case, I found ways to minimize the time it took to clean up the mess afterwards without restricting the children in their play.  Let’s face it, kids just seem to gravitate towards messy play! Taking messy play outside on dry days always helps with the clean up. Obviously with Irish weather and yard time isn’t always possible so I found a few tricks to help when doing messy play in the classroom.  Using a shower curtain or an oil cloth table cloth under the sand and water trays helped with the clean up. For things like rice or water beads in the classroom, using deeper bins or containers and letting them play with it, sitting on the floor on an oil cloth rather on the table as the mess wouldn’t be as spread out and we all know how far those little water beads can go!  I used to tape black bags on the tables when we would paint, do jelly play, shaving foam play or use gloop and when they were finished it was a matter of taking it off and putting it in the bin (not very eco-friendly, I know, however it was all about saving time in the classroom). At school and at home I find using a tuff tray does help to contain the majority of the mess however the tuff tray doesn’t clean itself so there really is no easy way to clean it!

The play benefits outweigh the tidy-up toll:


I have learned a lot since having my boys, including that they can create an unbelievable and unimaginable mess with all sorts when they play with sensory materials. However, I always find they spend a lot more time engaging in messy play, than it actually takes for me to clean it up afterwards. I can see their creativity as they play, see their little minds working and problem solving, completely immersed in their play, you could disappear and they wouldn’t notice you gone!  So, what I say is to embrace the mess! Set up a messy activity! Make yourself a cuppa and watch your kids have fun and experience the freedom of being allowed to create a mess!

Aoife Burns

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Aoife Burns, is a trained Montessori teacher with over fifteen years experience as an early years preschool teacher. 

A busy Mum of two, Aoife runs the website and a popular Instagram page, @playwithmemammy packed with wonderful examples of purposeful play! The place to go for messy play ideas, Aoife's Instagram page is an absolute treasure trove of tough tray and inspiration for outdoor play. 


Lenses into Learning is the guest post feature of this website. Here, educators spanning a variety of educational sectors share opinion pieces, recommendations and thematic articles to inspire conversation, development and learning.

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