Children naturally use their senses to explore their environment. While the five senses – taste, smell, sight, sound and touch – are well known, there are also internal senses such as balance, position and movement. Messy play activities differ from other types of play as the emphasis on the senses amplifies the activity. Messy play also supports scientific thinking, which involves enquiry, experimentation, hypothesising, researching and investigating.

Why is it important?

Fine and gross motor skills: Messy play helps children pick up objects, and allow textures and materials to be moulded and flow through their hands and fingers. This type of play helps develop your child’s fine-motor skills – those little movements and muscles in the hands used to hold and control a pencil and cutlery, thread a needle or tie shoelaces. For very young children and babies, the exploration of objects through touch can often end up with the item in question in their mouths! Plan for this and make sure the materials are edible.

Hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness, body control and balance: Hand-eye coordination is when your child tracks the movements of their hands with their eyes, which is essential for reading and decoding. Spatial awareness is the ability of a child to understand where they are in relation to objects or where objects or structures are in relation to each other. Body control and balance is the ability to know where your body parts are in three-dimensional space.

Creativity: Your child will be able to use their imagination in order to create shapes, forms and objects in an exploratory way.

Problem solving: With messy play, your child can increase their concentration and ability to problem solve. They begin to select and use resources appropriately and often see a task through from start to finish. Early science experiments are found in messy play (cause and effect and changing solids to liquids).

Language development: Words such as “gooey, crispy, slimy and soft” can be used when your child explores their surroundings by touching different materials. You may hear a few “ickys and yucks” too! This is a good sign as they are starting to make decisions on how things feel. Some materials do genuinely feel “icky”. Supporting your child’s language development, helping them understand how things feel and how to describe them is aided by adult prompts. Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling are all ways children learn to think, feel and compare their environment and the objects within it. Using multiple senses at the same time stimulates learning and language development.

Building relationships with others: When you child plays with a sibling or a friend, they will chatter along quite happily as they explore the messy materials and their senses are introducing new words into their vocabulary. An opportunity to play alongside or together is a valuable social experience for your child. Learning how to share the workspace, equipment and experiences is an excellent skill to transfer into later life. Friendships can be made in the messy play area. Children learn to cooperate with others. Messy play is a sociable activity whether you set up a play area at home or the children are taking part in a playgroup or child care setting. Relationships are formed through conversation and exploring. Children learn to trust others and cooperate with kindness.

Cognitive development: Messy play for babies and children helps developing brains bridge nerve connections and assists children in learning differences and similarities. The use of sensory material creates hands-on, self-directed and self-centred play, and it encourages discovery and development. This approach appeals to children who have different learning and thinking styles. It develops and enhances memory.

Inclusive play: Because there’s no right or wrong way to engage in sensory-rich messy play, it’s particularly beneficial to children with special needs and those who enjoy a practical approach to learning.

Calming: Children who are agitated often calm when taking part in messy sensory play. Children engaged in sensory play often become absorbed in their activities. Playing outdoors or with sand, using scented candles to create a serene scent scape (with supervision), and the sights and sounds of bubbles and water help distract upset children and promote mindfulness.


Fun: Messy play is a fun way to learn.

Where can you do it?

Outdoors is ideal for messy play activities, but if you do decide to do messy play inside use plastic tubs, make sure you cover surfaces, and have a damp cloth ready to wipe sticky hands and little eyes and mouths. Remember, as with all play there are always safety considerations. This is particularly true with babies and toddlers and when water-based activities or choking hazards are in play.

What do you need?

Messy play experiences like water play, mud play, jelly, slime, goo, foam and scented or edible play dough are all cost effective and can stimulate your child’s senses. A digging patch where children can use water is easy to accomplish. Bath time can be a messy play activity. Playing with water, using plastic cups or washed up yoghurt pots to pour, splash and empty water. Meal times are also great. Allowing your child to savour the taste, smell and texture of different foods (pasta, cereals, jelly, mashed potato and even baked beans) provides interesting sensory experiences. In any messy play activity always closely supervise babies and toddlers. Finger painting, on paper or let your child experiment by painting parts of their own body or other surfaces (e.g., make a batch of instant vanilla pudding and mix with food colouring and let them at it!). Play dough lets children squish, squeeze, splat and squelch to their heart’s content. Use bubble mixture, frothy washing up liquid bubbles in a container, or experiment by mixing shaving foam with paint. In the natural world there are plenty of opportunities to engage in messy play. Find some sand, puddles to jump in, leaves to gather, or mud to play in; there are endless messy outside play ideas.

Tips to get children involved:

Give children the okay to get messy. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to let things get messy themselves. So, roll up your sleeves and have some fun engaging in messy play with your child. What may look like a mess on the surface is giving your child a truly unique learning experience.

Blog by the Playgroup Queensland Supported Programs Team


Benefits Of Sensory Play To Brain Development By Parenting For Brain Updated 12/05/2019