Messy play encompasses a wide variety of materials and scenarios that are inexpensive and easy to set up. To the untrained eye, messy play can seem like just a bit of fun or even destructive chaos. However, messy play or sensory play, if you prefer, is an important aspect of EYFS learning and development. It hits many of the EYFS directives, as described below, as well as being great fun.
Messy play is a physical activity that promotes the development of fine motor skills and muscle control for the arms, shoulders, fingers and wrists.
Communication and Language
It also provides excellent opportunities for communication and language. The children will naturally begin to develop their vocabulary as they learn to describe textures such as ‘slimy’, ‘gritty’ or ‘fluffy’. This is taken a step further when they engage in imaginative play based on the ‘messy’ materials, such as creating a story around the dinosaur’s swamp they made in the foam.
Personal, Social & Emotional
When physically and mentally engaged in a task, such as messy play, children can more easily examine their feelings, beginning with their reactions to different sensations such as ‘oo its cold, I don’t like it!’ This, in turn, helps them to start to set boundaries and develop their sense of self. Their confidence in expressing themselves builds as a result of this understanding. Encouraging the children to play together and use teamwork to make bigger and better creations also increases their confidence in dealing with other members of the group.
Understanding the World
Messy play can also help the children broaden their understanding of the world. Children learn about the world around them through exploration and gain confidence from correctly identifying something they have cross into contact with before. Messy play creates opportunities for them to engage with familiar items and materials in a new and exciting way that fires their imaginations and broadens their outlook.
There is often a scientific aspect to the materials used changing form or state, such as water into ice and back again. Physics and chemistry may also come into play. You can also theme messy play for cultural celebrations.
You can incorporate numeracy into most messy play ideas, simply by asking the children to count how many objects are in the goo, sand etc. You could hide (plastic or wooden) numbers in the messy play for added number recognition or just a specific number of objects.
Providing the materials without imposing a specific task onto the children enables them to create their own artistic interpretations of a theme or idea. Let the children use their imaginations to create something unique and allow play to be led by what they come up with.
The traditional three mediums are sand, water, and dough (playdough) which should be provided for the children to explore on at least a weekly basis. However, there are an almost infinite number of materials and variations you can use for messy or sensory play. Switching up the materials you use keeps things interesting and stops the children from being bored and uninspired.
Here are a few of our favourites.
To make gloop you only need two cups of cornflour to one cup of water, and some food colouring to dye it the shade of your choice. Gloop is great for sensory play because it possesses a unique texture that can start interesting conversations about solids and liquids. The resulting mixture is stringy and feels solid when rolled in your hands. However, if you pull it up and hold your hands out, it will dribble down like a liquid. Fascinating.
Slime is made with a mixture of ½ cup of water to ½ of PVA school glue plus 2-3 tablespoons of saline solution and 1 tablespoon of baking soda. You can also add food colouring and glitter if you wish. It’s simple but effective, producing a similar effect to gloop as it can be poured like a liquid but squeezed or patted like a solid. Another tactical material, slime engages the children’s brains and is also good for anxiety or distress as it is absorbing squeezing it into different shapes.
Cloud dough is a mixture of only two ingredients – all-purpose flour or cornstarch and either baby oil or hair conditioner. It is super soft and feels silky on the skin. It can be scented depending what which oil or conditioner you use. You can also add food colouring to create bright and beautiful cloud dough. Once you’ve finished with it, put it in plastic such as an airtight Ziploc bag to stop it drying out. If it does dry out slightly, add a bit more conditioner or baby oil. If you’ve added too much, add flour or cornstarch until it regains the right consistency.
Be aware that some young children may have an aversion to being messy, dirty, sticky or wet. Others may not like being cleaned afterwards. Be sensitive to these needs and adapt your messy play to suit the children in your care. Our CACHE-endorsed Observing Children short course can help you to learn how to observe children and action your observations. You’ll learn how to determine if a particular child is making progress, learn more about their unique needs and how to resolve problems.
As mentioned above, messy play is a fantastic tool in aiding EYFS development and provides opportunities for close observation.
Let’s get messy!