The Importance of Messy Play for Young Children

Messy play allows children to explore their world learning from the materials they are interacting with. The open-ended opportunities of messy play allow children to explore in an inviting, non-threatening way, there is no right or wrong way to play. The lack of focus on making something or an end goal gives children freedom and confidence.  Messy play is a wonderful way for children to develop the use of their senses, especially touch, through hands-on activities. Yes, the mess is unavoidable but the benefits far outweigh the temporary chaos and summer is the perfect time to enjoy many messy play activities outside.

Types of Messy Play


Water play is the perfect way to explore so many scientific concepts. Pouring water from one object to another helps children to understand volume, measurement, gravity, pressure, and displacement. Playing around a water table develops social skills as children share equipment and space.


From babies trying new foods to preschoolers building meals for themselves, exploring food teaches children to try new things. Giving them autonomy in food choices encourages an interest in the food we eat and hopefully leads to less fussy eaters. Helping to prepare a meal as children grow helps them understand and appreciate the work and love that goes into the food they eat. Pasta, beans and lentils make great small scale sensory materials for indoor play.


The sandbox is a wonderful way to explore mathematical and scientific concepts such as empty, full, and half full, wet and dry, and force. Older children can practice writing in the sand with room for error. Fine motor skills are developed as tools are used to play. This sandcastle will not work if the sand is dry and we all know how relaxing the feel of sand is under our feet.


Now is the time to get outside and explore nature. Our summer is short here in Canada and we tend to try to be outside as much as possible. Grass, dirt, mud, leaves, stones, trees, flowers, snow, puddles, all provide wonderful opportunities to play and learn in a messy way.


The options are endless: on paper, on a variety of surfaces, on their bodies, printing with paint, painting with flowers, twigs and water.

Adult Role

Often children are discouraged from getting messy at home and struggle to relax into messy play.

Having smocks available for play can help to reassure those who are nervous and also calm parental worries. Some children wear new clothes to daycare and school no matter what they are advised.

Open-ended questions are an important way to encourage critical thinking “I wonder why that happened?”, “What would happen if…”. These questions are also a way of showing children you support their learning and that it is good to get messy in this situation.

Preparation is key when planning messy play. Often clean up can take time or children are engaged for longer than expected. Allowing lots of time for messy play and then the clean up afterwards is necessary.

Addressing parents’ reactions to messy play can be challenging. Not all parents understand the need for their children to engage in messy play. This wonderful display board from my son’s childcare center explains the concept beautifully:

When your child comes home messy…. look deeper. Your child has been exploring… but most of all your child has had fun!

Skills developed:

  • confidence
  • creativity
  • curiosity
  • social
  • independence
  • communication
  • well-being
  • reasonability
  • imagination
  • identity
  • respect

What a wonderful way to explain the importance of messy play for our children!

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