community. caring. respect.
PrintSend this page to a friendShare this

Benefits of Messy Play

Squish. Slosh. Plop. Children don’t mind getting dirty. Water, sand, finger paint, play dough, and clay—these are all favorite play materials. Adults, on the other hand, are sometimes unwilling to make these materials freely available. After all, they are messy. They involve lots of clean up. And children don’t really need to make such a mess, do they? The answer may be that children need to make a mess more than we may think. Messy play has many benefits for children.

Children are active learners. They learn through play. Play allows them to make sense of the world around them. Through play, children learn to make choices, solve problems, and make plans. Learning processes grow and concepts develop. Play makes learning exciting and interesting. It ensures that children remember what they learn. Messy play is particularly attractive because it stimulates many of children’s senses at once and because of the variety of materials available.

Messy play offers an outstanding opportunity for children to grow and learn. Young children of all ages can enjoy and benefit from messy play. Infants and toddlers may simply explore the materials and enjoy textures and smells. As preschoolers grow, they will begin to ask questions and experiment with the materials to find answers. Each child will benefit in his own way. Messy play helps children to develop concepts. These concepts are the basis for later learning. As children roll and mold play dough, they learn about cause and effect—what happens when they squish it or roll it in their hands. They may practice counting, sorting, and grouping with the things they make with the dough.

As they fill and empty containers and choose objects to use in the water table, they experiment with math and science concepts, like more and less, full and empty, float and sink. As they pour sand from cups, build sand castles, and add water to sand, they learn about physical concepts like the pull of gravity and the behavior of liquids and solids. Messy play activities support problem solving and prediction. As children talk with each other and with adults while they participate in messy play, their language skills and vocabulary grow. In addition, messy play helps children develop large and small motor skills and eye-hand coordination as they dig in sand, pound and squish dough and clay and paint with brushes and fingers. Messy play also lets children express their feelings. As children squeeze and pound clay, they release tensions and relieve stress.

Adults also have an important role in messy play. They can support children as they learn from play experiences. There are several ways to do this. First, in addition to basic materials such as sand and water, clay and paint, adults can provide props to enhance play. Cups of different sizes, funnels, strainers, and tubes add variety to the water and sand tables. Knives and strings for cutting and objects for making imprints enrich clay and play dough experiences. Adults can change the messy materials as well to provide variety.

Adding food coloring or soap to the water can add variety to vary water play. Sand tables can hold rice or beans. Finger-paint can be changed by adding flavoring or sand or salt to change the smell or texture of the paint. Adults can also encourage the hesitant child to try the materials. In addition, adults can ask questions and make comments to help children think about and discuss what they are doing. “What will happen if...?” or “Do you think…?” can encourage a child to take the next step toward learning.

Benefits of Messy Play

Messy play is a useful experience for children. It offers rich sensory experiences and builds self-esteem. Messy play materials can be used many ways. There is no “right” way to enjoy them. Messy play stresses the joy of the moment, not the product that results. Children feel successful and gain a sense of control. Messy play is good for children.
Make messy play more fun!


Water play

  • Add soap to the water table. Wash the dolls or just enjoy the bubbles.
  • Add ice cubes to the water table.


Sand play

  • Bury small objects such as shells or pretty rocks in the sand for children to find.
  • Add water to the sand to change the texture.


Finger paint

  • Add a flavoring such as vanilla to the paint.
  • Use more than one color at a time.
  • Start with white paint and gradually add another color or two.
  • Add salt to the paint for a textured paint and a shiny result
  • Paint with whipped cream or pudding.



  • Add materials such as shells and buttons and small toys to clay to make imprints. Be sure the objects are not choking hazards.
  • Begin with white play dough and let children sprinkle on colored tempera and knead to add color.
PrintSend this page to a friendShare this