Surrender daringly to the notion of messy play

What comes to mind when you hear ‘messy play’? Sick in your stomach? Excited? Indifferent? There is always a range of responses whenever I speak on this topic in MOPS groups. In the day-to-day activities that come with parenthood, messy play may be a blip on your radar that you haven’t even considered before.

So why bother with messy play? Isn’t there enough to do in raising kids?

There is an increasing amount of information available about messy or sensory play and its benefits. We could get very technical about neurobiology and child development but I’m going to assume that your mummy brain is like mine and that you are happy with simple and straightforward information.

Messy play helps to create capacity for future learning.

I’m sure you have heard about how rapidly the brain develops between the ages of 0 and 5 years old.  These connections that form provide the foundation for future learning. It is the sensory input a child takes in that creates these connections, for the most part.

Sensory and messy play develops curiosity, exploration and problem solving.

Have you ever wondered why babies stick EVERYTHING in their mouths? They are using their senses to explore. It is a key part of development. Using their senses is a huge part of exploring the world and learning about their environment. It helps them develop the early skills in problem solving through experience.

Messy play develops creativity.

Toys and play in our modern world have becoming increasingly limiting of children’s imaginations in many ways. They often have limited uses. Messy play experiences are open-ended and allow a child’s imagination and creativity to expand and grow.

Messy play can help with confidence.

Related to the idea that messy play is open-ended, there are no right and wrong ways to participate in messy play (although boundaries around messy play are, of course, perfectly OK and needed.) Children can have positive experiences with different materials, ways to play and ideas. This can help to boost their confidence for future new experiences.

Messy play interactions can develop communication and language skills.

The assumption here is that messy play is in tandem with other children, parents or caregivers. These opportunities are rich in ways to introduce new vocabulary and ways to express what they are feeling and experiencing. Sharing delight over an experience is a powerful bonding opportunity too.

Messy plays helps with fine and gross motor development.

Simply put, the large movements of the body as well as the small movements of the hands benefit from messy play opportunities. Children develop through play physically, as well as mentally and socially.

Messy play helps with regulating the nervous system and assists concentration.

It has long fascinated me that sensory input has the ability to both pep up someone who is feeling lethargic and tired as well as calm down someone who is hyped up. Messy play can be used as a tool to help children (and their parents and care-givers) to return to a more calm and balanced space. Sensory play has calmed many a day filled with meltdowns in my house! A child cannot concentrate unless they are in this balanced zone.

So many benefits to messy play and I could go on! I know what you’re thinking. “What if I can’t handle the mess? Am I a bad parent?” I never want to heap guilt on anyone. We mothers are quite skilled enough at finding things to be guilty over! Consider this. Do you give your child a bath or shower at least a few times a week? Do you ever take them to the park or put them in a sandpit? You are already giving your child messy play experiences! There are so many ideas for messy play out there but you can start where you are with the resources and capacity you have right now.

This post isn’t about making you feel inadequate. It’s about encouraging you to surrender daringly and consider taking just one step forward. If we were sitting down together over a cup of coffee or you were seeing my presentation at a MOPS group, I would show you photos of messy play ideas I have explored with my daughter in big and little ways. The goal is always to give you ideas that you can run with. Maybe your next step is simply adding a fun new element to a bath time this week, like adding a little food colouring to the water (it won’t stain skin) or adding a variety of scoops, cups and some pom poms. Maybe for you, it is letting your child play in the sand without giving in to the urge to clean them up constantly and keep their hands from getting dirty. Maybe you are ready for something more and want to try colouring spaghetti to play with or making some cloud dough.

Search Pinterest for ideas. Ask your friends for what they have tried. Get together with a friend who does a lot of these kinds of things and learn from her (I have been that person for friends and it is so much fun.) Celebrate the steps forward. Create spaces to contain the mess such as a bathtub or clam shell outside. Take it outside whenever you can. Know your limits and only bring out activities that you are able to cope with in that moment. Keep some activities handy for when you need them (like cloud dough or lavender sensory salt that last for ages). If in doubt- add water. It always seems to engage kids. Whatever you do, have fun and know that your child loves playing with you.

Jodi Koepke
MOPS Field Manager

Bio: Jodi spends her days sharing words of encouragement for women in leadership, finding her way through the beautiful mess of parenting and relationships, and geeking out on technology. She is one of the managers for MOPS Australia, a support teacher at Alta-1 College, and a writer and speaker. Find more inspiritment at jokoepke.com and ideas for messy play on her Pinterest boards (https://www.pinterest.com.au/jkoepke)

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