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Annabel Karmel
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Why is messy play important?

There’s nothing better than seeing children be free to explore and experiment through messy play. The opportunities for learning are endless; it allows kids to be creative, use their imaginations and generally challenge themselves, all of which are highly beneficial skills to learn in those early years. Whether it be playing inside with bubbles, shaving foam and flour or outside in the sand and water play areas at nursery or school, messy play involves children using all of their senses in the process of exploration.

It’s worth noting that getting messy isn’t about making a mess. Instead, it’s about creating an opportunity for children to explore and create freely. Children are naturally curious about the world around them and will find great excitement in being presented with the opportunity to use their independence and channel their inner explorer!

Messy play is important by Annabel Karmel

Messy play is important because it helps to develop core foundational skills in their early years. With no task or objective set, it leaves them free to explore all sorts of possibilities for themselves. It taps into children’s innate curiosity about the world around them and their strong desire to explore and find out more.

Let’s get messy with water

messy play with water by Annabel Karmel

There are many aspects to water play. These include:

  • Measuring, emptying, pouring, filling and filling up to a set level
  • Using sieves, syphons and hoses
  • Floating and sinking containers
  • Washing dishes, clothes, dolls

As children pour from one container to another, they are developing fine motor skills. Consider how difficult it is to fill a container to a specific level – this is why messy play is so worthwhile as practice makes perfect!

Children will need a variety of containers to empty and fill. Provide them with a few which are identical and others that hold the same amount but look slightly different, so children can make comparisons such as holds more, holds less, holds the same etc.

“Rain, rain go away come again another day.” Children often recite this poem so why not utilise this popular rhyme and ask them how they could find out how much rain falls in a day? Children may suggest putting a container outside and seeing how full it gets and with this will learn about the different shapes and size of container used and the difference in final measurements. They will eventually need to agree that in order to make comparisons from one day to the next, they will need to use the same container.


Let’s get messy with sand

Messy play with sand by Annabel Karmel

The sand pit outside or sand tray indoors provides children with many similar experiences to a water tray. The big difference is that sand may hold its form. This allows children to mould the sand to form objects such as the classic sandcastle. When children use their hands to mould an object, they use fine motor movement which is an important part of their development.


Wet or Dry?

Children can compare working with wet or dry sand. Which handful of sand feels heavier? Which handful of sand keeps its form better?


Sand Timer

Children can make a basic sand timer by taping two plastic bottles together.



A variety of moulds may be used to form the sand into shapes, letters and numbers.


Treasure Hunt

Hide a handful of objects such as rainbow pebbles or household materials in the sand pit and task children with finding them.


Prime development areas fostered through messy play:


Physical Development

Messy play offers an amazing opportunity to develop these early motor skills, whether it’s building muscle strength and control in fingers, wrists, arms and shoulders by squishing, squashing and squeezing playdough, or developing muscle control by making shapes in shaving foam, clean mud, sand mousse or paint.


Communication and Language  

Messy play allows children to work together to explore sensory opportunities whilst building vocabulary as they discover the specific attributes of a slimy dinosaur swamp, crunchy cereals or autumn leaves. It also helps to build confidence and communication skills as children roll toy car tyres to each other through paint or fill rubber gloves (with holes in) for each other in the water tray. When role-play opportunities are combined with messy play, children build their imaginative language and get plenty of chances to communicate their ideas through their play.


Personal Social and Emotional Development

Many messy play offerings can be planned to actively encourage cooperative play, to help children to build their social skills as well as to develop their own confidence in approaching unfamiliar situations. By supporting children in their exploration, we help them to explore their personal reactions to different materials, their likes and dislikes and help them to build their confidence in expressing their own ideas and feelings.

For more information, see our next article on learning through play and for inventive toys that will keep kids occupied for ours see Fennies’ favourite toys for under 5’s.

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Edx Education and Annabel Karmel

From early childhood active play and art & craft accessories, to maths and classroom resources, Edx Education’s innovative toys and resources provide children a fun and engaging way to learn.


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