Finger paints, molding clay, sand, and slime all help them discover the world in a hands-on way.
magnetic tiles for kitchen kids art studio
Credit: Kirsten Francis

For children, the world is grand and new. They learn best by exploring parts of it on their own, oftentimes through messy play. "Messy play is giving children the freedom to play, create, and explore without fear of consequences," says Meg Bourne, founder and CEO of Art Feeds. "There may, in fact, be a mess, but it's important that a mess happens without judgement or a punitive environment. When kids can get messy, it creates both a sense of freedom and a sense of safety. This allows them to create a space where they can be fully themselves."

In messy play, kids get to explore all of their senses. When they mold kinetic dirt or squish water beads between their fingers, it opens up their minds to new experiences and possibilities. It's an unstructured way of learning that helps children to build confidence, solve problems, cultivate their imaginations, and so much more. After all, "children learn by playing and doing," according to Sandra Oh Lin, CEO and Founder of KiwiCo. "Allowing kids to engage in messy play sets the building blocks for independent thinking and problem solving skills to build kids' creative confidence," she says. "Kids with creative confidence don't assume one 'right way' to build with blocks, draw a picture, or solve a problem. Their unique way is the right way!"

A study published in Interdisciplinary Behavior and Social Sciences found that messy play actually plays a significant role in encouraging the creativity of preschool children. Even more, it stimulates their imaginations. And for children with sensory sensitivity, messy play and games of pretend can enhance engagement for them. Children also gain memorable early learning experiences when they participate in material play. They learn to concentrate—after all, it takes focus to pour slime into a vial or construct a tower out of play dough. And all of this proves to benefit them later in life. "It's like a muscle you develop strength with over time," explains Bourne, "and if children practice from the time they are young, they will be more confident in their abilities as young adults and adults."

Messy play doesn't even need to be fully unstructured either. You can have certain controls in place, such as the materials that they use and where they are allowed to play, but the goal is to encourage self-expression. "The good news about messy play is it takes time and occupies little ones to do some exploration on their own," says Bourne. "In a time when families are cooped up together, messy play can create freedom for everyone—give children a chance to be themselves and parents a moment to breathe and not manage the continuous expectations, discipline and refereeing that can come with kiddos cooped up in one space."

Try paint wars, marble painting with shaving cream, and sensory bins, as Bourne suggests. One of her favorite activities is aptly called the "Dino Dig," which freezes dinosaur figurines in water, dirt, salt, sand, and glitter, then simply, "give your child a toothbrush, a paint brush, and a spoon, and let them dig for dinos."

Messy play doesn't have to have a theme, of course. Give your kids some non-toxic paints and tape large pieces of paper to the floor and the walls. Let them play Picasso by creating works of art. Let your kids teach the concepts that they learn to you. It gives them an opportunity to communicate with confidence, and it motivates them to learn more. "Give your kids the tools, the space, and the permission to get a little messy," says Oh Lin, "and see what happens."


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