The wonderful world of messy learning

September 28, 2020

Messy play is important for young children because it provides endless ways to develop and learn.

  • All types of play are essential for children’s development and early learning. Messy play is one of the most open-ended types of play.
  • Play helps children develop and improve their gross and fine motor skills, co-ordination and concentration.
  • It provides an opportunity to learn how to work co-operatively and collaboratively.
  • It additionally supports the child to use all their senses discovering and exploring their environment and developing their imagination.
  • Playing with items that are unpredictable and continually changing requires creative thinking and the ability to problem solve and experiment with solutions.

This is a great science and sensory activity, giving the children the opportunity to feel several textures and to change those textures as well.  Billowy foam becomes denser and more creamy.  Rough, cold ice becomes more smooth as they rub it, then changes to water and mixes with the foam.  The children will experiment with the concepts of cause and effect and changing states of matter, as well as with mixing colours.  Language skills will be enhanced as they verbalize their experience, talking about the sensations and transformations.

  • Messy play helps children to become more independent.

Children take part in an activity they create. They are able to decide how they want to play and can use the materials in the way they choose. This builds confidence because the child is in control.

  • It helps develop movement, co-ordination and control.

Messy play gives children the opportunity to explore materials using all their body, especially hands, arms and feet.

  • It helps develop language and communication.

Children will learn new words to describe the things they see, feel, hear, smell and taste. 

  • It helps children to be creative and use their imagination.

Regular opportunities for free play allows children to create their own activities in their own way.

  • It helps children use their senses.

Children experience different sensations and have the opportunity to respond in a variety of ways to the things they see, hear, smell, taste and touch.

  • It encourages children to make choices.

When exploring and investigating a range of materials, children have more opportunities to show preferences and make choices.

  • It helps children develop concentration and problem solving skills.

Children become absorbed in their activities. Messy play gives children the opportunity to work things out themselves and experiment safely. Young children learn best through practical experiences.

Messy, mucky mud

Mud Kitchens

Mud is an open ended material that meets the different needs and interests of different children. A younger child might be enjoying the sensory experience while older pre-schoolers are busy making their own mud bricks. There is something for everyone! Mud provides a fantastic sensory experience. Mud comes in many forms; it can be dry or wet, clumpy and rough or soft and smooth. It provides endless options for experimentation and discovery, especially for our youngest children who are learning about materials and textures. Mud connects us directly with the natural world. It lets our children get up close and personal with nature, discovering different mud in different places, the creatures that live in the mud and the plants that grow in it. Worms go hand in hand with mud and are a constant fascination for many children. For lots of us they factor in some of our earliest memories of playing outdoors.

Kaitlyn enjoyed her day playing in very large muddy puddles. The higher she jumped the higher the mud went.  She experimented with this for quite a while!

“A child’s early experiences at touching and being touched, through their infancy, toddler and pre school years are incredibly important for not only developing tactile sensitivity, motor skills and understanding the physical world but also for their overall health and emotional well being.”  Elliot (1999, p 123)

Jelly Play

Children develop and strengthen new motor skills through shaping, moulding, scooping, dumping and splashing — these actions all support the development of small and large muscles. For instance, holding a scoop to fill and dump sensory material works many muscles used in other parts of the children’s day, like when they hold a cup or spoon at mealtimes.  Jelly is a fantastic material to use in sensory play.  It is visually appealing and can be made up in a range of bright colours. It smells and tastes interesting.  It is neither quite solid nor quite liquid and can be made up to different consistencies of stiffness.

We use large quantities of jelly set in a large tray or bowls.  When children have had plenty of opportunity to explore with fingers and hands you can add tools such as spoons and sieves. 

Make up trays of different coloured jelly to set plastic animals and figures into.  Use green jelly for sea creatures, yellow (amber!) for plastic dinosaurs or purple for plastic insects like spiders.

Making jelly moulds will give a different type of appearance and you can set items in the jellies for discovery.  This can be extended to include dinosaurs caught in lava, insects in goo or even fairies…

If you make the jelly really runny it can make a thicker alternative to water play and children can make it roll down funnels, through water wheels and splash and pour.  It’s fascinating to see the children realise it moves slower down ramps but falls faster when dropped from a height to a big splat!  The splat stays there as well so for those children with an impact schema this is a great activity.

Just squishing it through your fingers feels satisfying, and watching the jelly ooze out  between their fingers will have all children (and adults) watching the effect.

There are commercial alternatives such as Gellie Baff that washes away but can be expensive and at least with jelly—if they eat it, that’s snack sorted!

Ice Play

Ice is a great messy play material as the children can discover and explore the science of changing states. Children will discover the freezing and melting method and can explore this in detail.  When discussing the need for warm clothes in winter, we can simply tell children about it, or we can have them hold ice cubes, one in a bare hand, and one in a gloved hand, let them feel difference and then attach a verbal discussion to the sensory experience. Ice slips and slides, shoots out of your hands and skids across the table leaving a trail of cold water in it’s wake.  It takes real skill to pick up and ice cube and hold it in your hands.  It takes even more skill to put it in something else, through something else or even with it! Making igloos with ice and snow in a tray (when the snow gets too cold outside!) is an amazing construction experience and takes a high level of concentration and determination (polar bears and penguins expected but not mandatory!).  Putting trucks, cars or other small world toys in a tray of snow can add to the engagement children show as this again takes skill to lift the ice up with scoop! Drawing with ice on fabric or sugar paper leaves a trail of water behind or with an Aquamat for a different way of make the marks. For different angle you could freeze cubes of juice, paint,, jelly or fruit smoothie for a colourful melting of iciles and if you choose smoothies, snack all in one! When it snows, we love to make ice pictures on trays with a thin layer of water and then lots of items such as leaves, sequins or paint trails and watch them become an ice painting. Painting ice sculptures or snowmen with food colouring or shooting them with coloured paint from water guns makes a different and colourful garden game! Freezing bubbles is supposed to be brilliant and we saw it last year after a parent introduced us but it hasn’t been cold enough yet this year to try it.  Filling balloons with coloured or sparkly water and freezing adds another way or having ice that lasts and provides a different type of stimulus with the textures and colours.

Spaghetti Play

Sensory play is beneficial for children in many ways. It can be therapeutic and calming for children and can work very well as a gentle activity just before. It also helps babies about the world. Because they use their senses to gain knowledge, providing young children with a variety of sensory materials lets them explore something new and compare it to what they’ve already encountered. As they touch the spaghetti they can compare it to the bubbles, paint or sand from earlier playtimes and build up their picture of the world, how different things feel and what you can do with them. Even before children can speak, they are developing an understanding of things in their environment by actively exploring them with all their senses. As they become more verbal they are able to describe similarities and differences in what they see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. When presenting cooked spaghetti to babies give them just one or two strands to play with initially to encourage fine motor exploration and add larger quantities as the game progresses.  As babies grow you can offer them little bowls and cups to fill with their spaghetti.  For older toddlers make larger trays of spaghetti, colour the spaghetti as you cook it, add glitter or a squirt of washing-up liquid for a really, slippery sensory sensation! Allow them to use simple utensils (plastic with rounded edges) to manipulate the pasta such as salad servers, spaghetti ladles, colanders, tongs and spoons. They can stick their spaghetti to paper to make pictures, the starch in the pasta makes it self-adhesive. Or make pictures on the patio – you can leave it for garden birds to enjoy. You can place plastic scissors in the spaghetti for children to learn to cut, as the pasta is easy to push the scissors through. Placing a plate or a tray next to the spaghetti and plastic knives can again provide hours of fun dividing the string up. For the really brave you can throw it at the window or wall and watch it stick to the vertical surface or as it slowly gives up, moving down, beaten by gravity! You can even make shapes and leave it to dry so it hardens. You could make a heap, or twirl it into a cylinder, bowl like shape or even write your name. Putting a fork in it can mean a child trying to catch it on the prongs and roll it around and around like a grown up….. Place dry and wet pasta out for comparison. Place tubes in the spaghetti or bottles for posting through the small holes for real concentration and fine motor skill development. These activities are only limited by your creativity!

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