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Messy Play & The Process of Art Making

What is messy play?

Messy play is a way for children to explore materials and their properties through open-ended play. It gives children the opportunity to activate multiple senses as they experience how materials feel, smell, look, sound, and even sometimes taste! When children activate multiple senses at a time, research tells us that learning sticks and their brain’s bridges strengthen.

How does messy play help my child learn?

It’s important to find ways to enter into or facilitate messy play with our children because mess-making is undeniably good for kids. Not only can it be joyful and wildly engaging, but messy also supports the development of their senses, which is critical for learning about the world and for their brain development. The freedom and inherently open-ended nature of messy play helps build creativity because when we are able to think and act freely, we become open to discovering new possibilities and inventing new things. Basically, children need opportunities to play outside of the box now, to allow them to think outside of the box later. 

Giving kids the go ahead to make messes and push boundaries also gives them opportunities to build a sense of self. Our sense of self is connected to independence and self reliance and is an important social skill for children to develop. Independent children become intrinsically motivated and natural explorers as well as capable decision makers with support and guidance from their trusted adults. This kind of self reliance helps children navigate all realms of life by advocating for themselves, taking chances, trying new things, being less dependent on the approval of others and able to navigate the ups and downs of their young lives.

What does messy play have to do with process art?

One of the ways we can help children develop creativity and outside of the box thinking is through focusing on the process of art marking rather than the finished product. Sometimes, this can feel really messy for our adult brains (whether there be an actual physical mess or not) but this type of play holds so many benefits for our children.

For kids, process art is often just what art is. It’s when kids direct the process and when they make their own choices (from what materials to use, to how they use them, to how long they spend on a project.) Process art doesn’t begin with a product in mind; it is focused on the experiences of discovery in the act of creating. Most importantly, it’s joyful!

Benefits for kids include:

  • Develops creativity, flexible thinking and problem solving skills

  • Activates the senses

  • Tends to last longer because it is open-ended and kids feel in control

  • Helps kids see themselves as artists because it doesn’t need to look a certain way

Focusing on the process of art over the product created also allows kids to build their creativity toolbox as they experiment with materials, their characteristics, their possibilities and how they work together. Then they can make intentional decisions about which to use and how to use them later.

Understanding Sensory 'Cups' for Messy Play

Each of our sensory systems is different, and for some kids (and adults) messy play can be a sensory overload. It can help to envision each of us with a different sized sensory ‘cup’ inside. People with a big cup can take in large amounts of sensory stimulation while those with a small cup require very little. For those with a small cup, if there is too much stimulation, their cup overflows and it is overwhelming. If a child is uncomfortable, or reluctant, we can look for ways to give them a comfortable entry point for sensory play.

Here are a few techniques we use in our Tinkergarten with MOLE class to help reluctant kids get the most out of mud play – a wonderfully fulfilling way of messy play! These techniques work wonderfully not only for mud play, but for many other types of messy play as well.

  • Warm up the senses: Help your child warm up their sensory system by rubbing your hands together and inviting your child to do the same.

  • Use tools: Have lots of tools available for touching mud in lieu of hands such as sticks, leaves, pine cones, large seeds, rocks, toys, etc.

  • Form the mess: Make mud dry enough to form into balls. More predictable shapes and forms are easier to control and not as overwhelming.

  • Water, water, water! Play with water a lot. Water is familiar, “clean” and often a much more palatable material that is still wonderfully stimulating.

Can I set boundaries around messy play?

Embracing mess can come down to doing two things at the same time: showing kids that we understand and value their drive to make messes while also teaching them that there is a time and space for everything, including making messes. For example, it’s okay to tell your kids that now, at supper time we focus on eating our food vs mashing our noodles. BUT that we can fit in a little mud making or other messy play after the meal. Communicating this to kids shows that you value and support their learning instincts, but y’all are going to do it on a few terms that work for both of you.

There are so many ways to set messy play boundaries to work for your family! Here are a few we’ve done in class or that have been recommended from our community of families.

  • Setting physical boundaries for mess by having specific spaces for messy play such as a spot in the backyard and naming it (Mess Making Mountain, Chaotic Corner, etc.).

  • Making clean up the messy play! Bath time, or having a water clean up station are fun and joyful ways for kids to clean up and still engage in messy play that feels more palateable.

  • Keep in mind your child’s (and yours!) sensory cups we discussed earlier and use a few of those tips for entering into messy play.

How can we stretch a little and get started with messy play in a simple way?

You can get started with messy play today! Not quite ready for a full on sheet painting party or for making mud? Just start with bath time! Water play is such a fun and safe feeling way to enter into messy play and gives all of the benefits! Add scoops, colorful sponges, colanders, funnels, and different toys to the bath that sink and float. Let your child explore with how water interacts with each of these tools. They are getting a chance at open-ended messy play that can help them engage their senses, develop creativity, problem solving and a host of other skills, all in the bath!

Messy Play Book Recommendations

I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More by Karen Beaumont

Beautiful Oops! By Barney Saltzberg

Mix It Up by Herve Tullet

Mud! by Mary Lyn Ray

Join our Community!

Looking for more ways to get outdoors and develop important skills that help children become creative and capable members of their communities? Check out our Tinkergarten with MOLE classes! You can get information about upcoming classes as well as be the first to hear about discounts and free events when you join our community by signing up for the Minute with MOLE newsletter. If classes aren’t happening with MOLE right now, stay in touch to hear when each season of classes begins and in the meantime, check out our blog for activities, book ideas, and adult learning. You can also join the Tinkergarten community for online classes or the monthly DIY Play downloadable calendar here.

I’d love to hear which ideas sparked play and joy with your explorers or if you have any other connections for play! Comment below or tag me in your play on Instagram @magnoliaoutoor.


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