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Why making a mess can be beneficial for children

Early learning

Messy play is important for young children because it encourages them to learn and develop skills including gross and fine motor skills, co-ordination and concentration.

It allows children to explore, discover, negotiate, take risks, create meaning and solve problems.

Goodstart Warner centre director Fiona Micallef said the benefits of digging in dirt, and playing with water were numerous, including encouraging self-expression, self-esteem and developing social, investigation skills and physical skills.

“Messy play offers kids a chance for real self-expression because there is no "right" answer,” Ms Micallef said.

“Materials can be worked and reworked endlessly, meaning a child can create something and recreate it over and over. Unlike painting a picture - which requires a new blank page if you change your mind- sensory play is malleable and ripe for reinvention.

“Since messy play is not about a finished product, children who may be sensitive about "failure" or performance can build confidence in this process-focused activity.”

She said messy play was universally loved by children whether they were good communicators or not.

“If they’re just meeting each other for the first time, messy play can be a great ice breaker.  Playing with sensory materials in a group fosters bonding as children discover aspects of the material together,” she said.

It also encourages children to use their problem-solving skills, allowing them to gain a greater understanding of cause and effect.  They also learn pre-math concepts by exploring shapes, spatial relationships and sequences.

“And importantly, sensory play encourages fine-motor skills and coordination whether they are working with the material alone (such as play dough) or adding objects to the material, such as spoons and cups to dried rice or running a hair comb through shaving cream.”

As a parent, it can be difficult to embrace the mess, but here are a few ideas that won’t take too much effort:

Ideas for messy and sensory play for little ones

  • Bath time – Play with water using plastic cups or washed up yoghurt pots to pour, splash and empty water.
  • Meal times/food – Let your child taste, smell and feel different foods (pasta, cereals, jelly, mashed potato and even baked beans all provide interesting sensory experiences).
  • Finger painting – Let your child experiment by painting parts of their own body or other surfaces.
  • Play dough – Let them squish, squeeze, splat and squelch to their hearts’ content.
  • Bubbles – Use bubble mixture, frothy washing up liquid bubbles in a container, or experiment by mixing shaving foam with paint.
  • Natural world – Jump in puddles, play with sand or check out the leaves in the gutters.
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