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What is Messy Play?

What is Messy Play?

Written by guest blogger Justine Atherton from Little Mess Makers.

There’s a conversation that features regularly in my life.

“What do you do?”

“I host messy play sessions for children.”

“What is messy play?”

It’s a good question. For some, it congers up images of colourful Lego, spread across the living room and down the hall for an unsuspecting foot to tread on (ouch!). For others its toys scattered through Every. Single. Room of the house, or muddy puddle jumping, or mixing, stirring and baking in the kitchen, or building a fort in the garden with dirt, sticks and rocks foraged from nature.

Messy play, or sensory play as it’s often called, is play that creates a mess. Usually the kind of mess that makes parents cringe at the thought of cleaning up. It can be sticky, oozy, gooey mess, or quick grab the vacuum cleaner mess. It can be slippery, slimy mess, or is that going to stain my carpet mess. But it has to be messy, and more.


And more?

Yes! There’s much more to messy play than simply making a huge, outrageous mess (let’s face it, children’s play is ALWAYS messy!).

Here are five essential ingredients that make messy play such a memorable childhood experience.


It involves the senses

Messy play let’s children experience the world with all their senses. They taste (even if we don’t want them to), listen, touch, see and smell the material. Some things they like, others make them squirm. It’s not uncommon to find children sitting in the material and pouring it over their head, or painting their arms, hands and feet.

Children might be delighted by a feast of brightly coloured rice, or captivated by the feel of slippery shaving cream between their toes. They could relish the smell of homemade play dough, or be enthralled by the pitter patter sound of rice falling on the floor. They experience these materials with each of their senses, and in doing so they learn about their environment and the world around them.


It is unstructured

There is no structure to messy play. No set path to follow. No prescribed way to play. As a result, messy play relies on exploration, and children are intrepid explorers. Their innate curiosity will lead them down paths not visible to a grown-up. They’ll stack trucks like building blocks, mix all the colours of the play dough together to make a murky brown swirl. It will make you cringe, and smile all in one breath, as they step over the rule book, and play.


It’s open-ended

Messy play has no destination. There’s no right or wrong way to play. This leaves the door open for endless possibilities and creativity. In messy play, a spoon can be a flag, a shovel, a wand, buried treasure, there’s no end to the possibilities and as a result no success and no failure. Two children can start with the same materials. One could mix a potion, the other might build an imaginary world. Each child will approach the play differently, and will play at a level appropriate for their own development and interests. The beauty of this is that they’ll be able to make their own decisions, and take pride in their own individual achievements.


Child led

Children are experts in play. They know how to make their own fun, and they do. Moreover, leaving them in charge allows their imagination to soar, feeds their problem solving ability, and builds their self-confidence. During messy play, children are given the reins and able to set their own direction. They may look at an activity and say it’s “too sticky” or “too gooey”. Or they may dive in, roll in the slime and laugh at how gloriously gluey, sticky and icky it feels on their skin.


It’s fun!

This is the most important ingredient of messy play! It’s fun. Why make a mess, if it’s not bringing smiles and laughter. Of course, it’s not all about crazy, giggling fun, sometimes it’s quite, focused fun, other times it’s sit back and watch fun, or concentrate until you’ve mastered it fun. There are many different ways to have fun at messy play.

 messy play shaving cream c

About the author

Justine Atherton is a mum of two spirited girls, and a passionate advocate of play. Two years ago, Justine’s passion led her to launch a small business, Little Mess Makers, which offers messy play parties and classes in Sydney’s North Shore and Hills Districts.

Through this family owned and operated business, Justine offers children the freedom to explore with all their senses. Giving them the opportunity to create, experiment, have fun and make a huge mess, without parents needing to worry about cleaning it all up.

Justine aims to give parents stress free time to relax and make memories with their children, and children freedom to be themselves.


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