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Embrace the mess: supporting messy play in early childhood

Learning to write. Learning to read. Learning to count. There is a certain set of expectations of things children are expected to learn around the time they are about to start school, but what about other equally important things, things that will give children just as many future benefits, but make parents cringe? What are we talking about?

Getting messy.

IMG 2711 225x300For a number of reasons, getting messy is an important part of childhood learning and development. While many parents understand the benefits of being out in nature, they may be less comfortable with the idea of getting messy while outside. Or inside, for that matter! Some of the reasons for parental discomfort in messy play could include:

  • Cultural expectations. In many cultures, there is a strong emphasis on cleanliness and tidiness. This can lead parents to believe that messy play is somehow “wrong” or “unacceptable.”
  • Fear of germs. Some parents may be afraid that messy play will expose their children to germs and make them sick. However, it is important to remember that children’s immune systems are strong and that they need to be exposed to germs in order to build up resistance.
  • Lack of time or energy. Messy play can be time-consuming and messy, which can be daunting for parents who are already busy. However, there are ways to make messy play less time-consuming and less messy, such as setting up a designated play area or using washable materials.
  • Personal preferences. Some parents simply don’t like the idea of their children getting messy. This is a personal preference, and while there is no right or wrong answer, we encourage parents to consider the benefits of messy play before making a decision.

Messy play can help children develop their fine motor skills, problem-solving skills, creativity and sensory awareness. It can also help them learn about cause and effect, and even how to manage their emotions.

Getting outside and getting dirty

A recent study by the University of South Australia (UniSA) looked at comfort of parents and early educator when it comes to messy and risky play in early education. Dr Margarita Tsiros, Senior Lecturer in Paediatric Physiotherapy at UNISA, said that given that nearly half of all Australian children ages 0-5 are in some sort of early education setting, further education and training for both early childhood educators and parents could help overcome some of the challenges that might be linked with nature play, which often involves both getting messy and taking risks.

This study explored the perspectives of parents and early childhood educators on unstructured nature play for young children. Participants were interviewed about their views on the benefits, barriers, and facilitators of nature play, and the researchers’ findings suggest that parents and educators value the benefits of nature play for children’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. However, participants also identified a number of barriers to nature play, including time constraints, lack of access to nature play spaces, and concerns about safety and mess. The study also found that adults can play a gatekeeper role in nature play, by either facilitating or restricting children’s access to nature.

The findings of this study suggest that parents and educators need additional resources and guidance on how to engage with nature play and how to overcome barriers within early childhood settings and the home environment.

Messy play is of course, not limited to playing in nature, though there are plenty of opportunities outside to get a little dirty. But messy play is everywhere, from when a baby is exploring food in those early days, learning to feed herself, learning cause and effect when dropping food, that’s just one aspect.

As well, children are creative beings, and parents can attest to the fact that their little ones are directly drawn to arts and crafts that include glitter. OK, we kid a little, but art and creativity are a large part of the childhood experience, and will likely require sweeping, wiping and washing in the end.

Benefits of messy outdoor play

Specifically about messy outdoor play, a 2021 study by Melike Kandemir and Serap Sevimli-Celik, from the Department of Elementary & Early Childhood Education, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey, found that parents and educators believe that it can provide a number of benefits for children, including:

  • Opportunities for sensory exploration
  • Development of fine motor skills
  • Increased creativity
  • Improved problem-solving skills
  • Enhanced social-emotional development

The study found that teachers and parents value the benefits of outdoor play for children’s development, but that they also have concerns about safety, messiness, and lack of resources.

The study also found that teachers and parents have different views on the role of outdoor play in children’s learning. Teachers were more likely to see outdoor play as a way for children to learn about the natural world, while parents were more likely to see outdoor play as a way for children to burn off energy.

The study also found that teachers and parents are concerned about the messiness of outdoor play. They worry about children getting dirty, tracking mud into the house, or ruining their clothes.

The study concludes by arguing that there is a need to better support teachers and parents in providing opportunities for children to engage in outdoor play.

Messy play for vulnerable children

Another study looked explicitly at vulnerable children and getting messy in play.

The study, “Patterns and attributes in vulnerable children’s messy play” by Sue Gascoyne, et al., explores the patterns and attributes of messy play in vulnerable children.

The study defines vulnerable children as “children who are at risk of social, emotional, and/or developmental difficulties.” It used a mixed-methods approach, including interviews with parents and practitioners, and observations of children’s messy play.

Researchers found that vulnerable children engage in messy play in a variety of ways, but that there are some common patterns. For example, vulnerable children often use messy play to explore their emotions, to develop their relationships with others, and to learn about the world around them.

The study also found that there are some specific attributes of messy play that are particularly beneficial for vulnerable children, such as, messy play can help children to develop their sensory awareness, their problem-solving skills, and their self-confidence.

But researchers also found that vulnerable children often use messy play to express their emotions. For example, children might use messy play to express anger, sadness, or joy. As often vulnerable children are facing hardship other children might not be, this was important.

The study also found that messy play can help children to develop their relationships with others. For example, children might play together with messy materials, or they might help each other to clean up after messy play.

The study concludes by arguing that messy play is an important part of the development of vulnerable children, and that it should be encouraged.

Observing the babies experience this source of joy, excitement, relaxation and total presence, I can’t help but feel a sense of wonder and awe.

-Jodie, lead educator

Jodie Dzarir is the lead educator in the nursery studio at Little Scholars Burleigh campus. She agrees there’s a multitude of benefits when it comes to allowing children to get messy while they explore their world.

“My favourite would have to be the social and emotional development encountered, and the creative/imaginative stimulation it provides,” she says.

“Messy play allows babies the freedom to convey their emotions, experimenting different forms of self-expression. It stimulates their imagination and creativity as they engage in open-ended activities with no predetermined outcomes.

Observing the babies experience this source of joy, excitement, relaxation and total presence, I can’t help but feel a sense of wonder and awe. Witnessing their endless curiosity, laughter and the genuine connections they form with one another is heart warming,” Jodie continues.

For parents who cringe at the idea of their young child coming home filthy, she encourages an open mind and a trust in the process.

“For parents, messy play is an important part of your child’s development and can be vastly beneficial to their learning journey, as it allows them to explore, learn and develop essential skills. Rest assured, we prioritise safety and hygiene during these activities to provide a controlled and enriching experience for your child,” Jodie adds. “Investing in a few basic outfits for messy play could be one of the best purchases you make.”

Susan Cooper, group pedagogical leader for Little Scholars, agrees that messy play is an important vessel for play for young children.

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“I have seen through my travels how messy play can act as an emotional outlet for many children, they’re able to verbally express themselves, it’s engaging, enjoyable and most importantly fun, interactive, hands-on learning, ultimately encouraging the love for learning, says Susan.

“While we provide these experiences within our curriculum, there is an element to planning around messy play experiences, planning for management to risk, management to supervision and ensuring that children are able to engage within the experiences that is developmentally age-appropriate, meeting their needs and supporting an inclusive environment for all children.”

Although some parents may initially hesitate at the prospect of cleaning up after a lively outdoor romp or an exuberant indoor painting session, (we understand, you’re busy enough!) the abundant benefits of messy play far outweigh any temporary inconveniences. As both parents and educators, we should actively seek out opportunities to provide children with the enriching sensory experiences and learning opportunities that messy play offers.

Yes, messy play might require a deep breath followed by the use of brooms, vacuums, and mops, but let’s not forget to focus on the incredible outcomes that emerge from these seemingly chaotic moments. We wholeheartedly encourage parents and educators to embrace the magic of messy play. It’s in these moments that we witness the spark of imagination ignite, where education and career trajectories may take shape, and lifelong passions may be kindled.

Remember, every single fun and messy experience can pave the way for a world of endless possibilities. The memories created through messy play will remain etched in the hearts of children, shaping their growth and development in ways that extend far beyond the spills and splatters. Join us at Little Scholars, embrace the mess and the extraordinary potential it holds blossom before our very eyes.





Patterns and attributes in vulnerable children’s messy play: Sue Gascoyne, February 2017

No muddy shoes, no dirty clothes! examining the views of teachers and parents regarding children’s outdoor play and learning: Serap Sevimli-Celik and Melike Kandemir

Serap Sevimli-Celik at Middle East Technical University

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