A Messy Child Is a Child Who's Learning

Many young children love getting messy, and they may often finish the day at school with their clothes covered in dirt. Or your child may carry out an art or exploration activity at home and seem to do it in the messiest way possible. Whether it's playing with mud, slime, paint, sand or even food, there can actually be lessons to be learned through participating in messy play.

Physical Development

When a child is jumping in puddles, exploring how slime drips through their fingers or creating with finger paints, they are also developing their physical skills.

  • Activities such as running, jumping, twirling and rolling on the grass, in a space large enough to allow for a preschooler to fully explore with their whole body, enables them to develop their gross motor skills.
  • Exploring open spaces, such as parks or gardens, can help young children to strengthen their muscles and start to develop their sense of spatial awareness.
  • Smaller-scale activities such as using paint and glue to make pictures, or rolling, squashing, scooping and moulding messy play materials with their fingers, helps to develop a child's fine motor skills; and the strength in their hands and fingers. These pre-writing skills are an integral part of early physical childhood development.

Exploration, Creativity and Fun!

Messy play activities can help encourage preschool children to explore materials and be creative. For example, a child using paints and mixing them to make different colours may then decide to use their fingers or paintbrushes to spread and arrange the paint in different patterns, using different techniques; developing their exploration skills through creativity. Of course, if a child is involved in an activity where they are allowed to get dirty or messy, they are most likely also having fun.


When a child is involved in a messy play activity which they are interested in; whether it is self-chosen or adult-led, they may spend a prolonged period of time carrying out that activity.

Some children find scooping sand, water, slime or other sensory play materials, a therapeutic experience. They may also start to explore different ways of interacting with the messy play activity; rolling on the grass in alternating directions, or using different toys in the sand and water tray. These repetitive exploratory activities can hold a child's attention; which means they may concentrate well on this type of play.

Communication and Developing Friendships

When taking part in messy play, children have the opportunity to describe how things feel, look, smell, and (with regard to food) even taste. They can utilize their senses to explore materials, reactions, interactions and change. For example, if a child is provided with materials such as shaving foam and paint, they may explore what happens when they mix them together.

Descriptive language may be used to describe colours, textures, smells and tastes. A parent or educator can enhance the learning opportunity by encouraging the child to use and develop expressive language and new words to describe their sensory experience. If the child is playing amongst other children, they may also use language to explore and discuss the sensory experience with each other.

So, next time your child finishes the school day, or a home-activity, with their clothes covered in mess, you can be assured that as well as having lots of fun, they have probably been learning lots of new skills.

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