The Benefits of Messy Play

Children love to explore the world around them, and sometimes this can mean getting their hands dirty – literally. Although the cleanup could seem daunting, there are actually many positives to this kind of exploration. But how does getting dirty or messy, when playing, benefit children? YCIS Puxi Early Childhood Education (ECE) teachers Ms Julie Major and Ms Catherine Ren, and YCIS Pudong Early Childhood Education Coordinators Ms Veronica Martin and Ms Michelle Wang discussed how these explorations have a beneficial impact on children’s development, as well as the differences between ‘Messy Play’ and simply creating a mess.

Not ‘Just Making a Mess’

‘Messy Play’ refers to the type of play-based activities children might participate in, which, as the name suggests, involves them getting dirty and messy. However, this doesn’t mean that the children are creating an unnecessary mess. In fact, Messy Play is a time deliberately set aside for children to explore their environments and to develop sensory relationships with the world around them.


Messy Play can involve the things children find around them in the natural world, such as water, mud, and sand, or items they might find in the kitchen, such as flour, oatmeal, and salt. It might include real food and real experiences, such as mashing bananas and grating lemons or carrots. The children might wish to combine these items when playing or choose to experiment with colour and add them to paints. Feeling the different textures, hearing the sounds made, seeing the changing state of water when it is combined with cornflour or oatmeal, for example, are all important for children while they are starting to understand how things work in their lives. Not everything can be learned from books or teachers – sometimes, getting one’s hands on things is the most effective way of learning.

 


Daily Activities with Deliberate Resources

At YCIS, all children in the ECE programme participate in some sort of sensory activity daily. Messy Play areas are deliberate resources in the classrooms and learning spaces, providing safe and controlled environments where students can learn with their hands, eyes, nose, and ears. These kinds of activities are integral when developing well-rounded learners with multiple transferrable skills and experience that they can use throughout their entire lives. To engage all of the senses in the child’s learning, the teachers might write the child’s name in sand or finger paint so the child can feel it, smell it, see it, and touch it, and the teacher then talks about this with the child. This is a powerful intentional teaching strategy to help students gain the most from their learning experiences, and teachers often say to parents that a child that comes home a bit messy has had a full day of learning.

Structured, Purposeful Play 

Messy Play has a purpose, and just because the items that the children play with might make a bit of a mess, it doesn’t mean that the activities lack meaning. There are still boundaries being explored and implemented by the teachers before the activity, such as arranging for the rice or sand to stay on an appropriate table, or selecting a suitable level of water for a trough. If there is thought and meaning, it’s fine for the children to explore in a safe environment with non-toxic products.


Exploring Messy Play

Not all children will immediately take to Messy Play, but most children enjoy some aspects of it. For example, activities with dry materials such as sand might be a good starting point. Children might not like items they perceive as ‘dirty’ (e.g. paint) but instead would choose to play with perceivably ‘cleaner’ options like water, cornflour, or playdough (undyed). After some time, they will enjoy the freedom of playing and experimenting, which can lead to an increased attention span (increasing from just a few minutes to nearly an hour in some cases). While participating in these activities, children will also be thinking more deeply. 

 


Encouraging Deeper Thinking

Messy Play encourages a higher order of thinking. When engaged in such activities, different skills are implemented, such as moving, tipping, pouring, acting on impulses, doing early mathematics and science, and learning the foundations of experimentation, physical development, language development, and social skills. 

Messy Play can also awaken the senses. Plastic toys smell and feel very similar to one another, so there’s little that makes a child think much when playing with these toys. But playing with malleable, textured materials that can change form or state, have strong smells, and are cool or warm, can absolutely heighten a child’s senses and invigorate thought. 

Having these experiences from a young age can spark passion for hand-on learning – and perhaps even form very initial interests that can be explored for further studies later in life. 

Engaging Children Outside of School

There are plenty of opportunities for Messy Play outside of the school or home. For example, something as simple as going to the park and collecting leaves and playing with them can be inspiring for a child. As can jumping in the grass or picking flowers. Visiting a petting zoo is also a fantastic experience for children to invigorate their senses, and often they can feed the animals which might be a bit of a messy adventure. Back at home, even household chores like helping to wash the dishes or clean the windows (with supervision and boundaries) can provide fun, sensory experiences for youngsters. Equally, helping with baking and cooking, and conversing while they do so are also great ways to engage children in hands-on, potentially messy activities that yield many benefits for these young learners. 

Engaging in activities such as Messy Play is an essential part of children’s development as this helps build their confidence, enhances their sensory development, develops their motor skills and their creativity – all while providing a very fun and memorable way to learn and grow!

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