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The Joys and Educational Benefits of Messy Play for Children’s Development

The Benefits of Messy Play

Messy play is an essential part of childhood that encourages creativity, exploration, and effective engagement in learning. As parents, we might be tempted to keep our children clean, tidy and presentable, but there is a world of benefits to embracing the mess. From fostering cognitive development to nurturing social skills, messy play has a range of positive effects on a child’s growth. In this article, we will explore the joys and educational benefits of messy play, as well as some fun and engaging activities to try at home or in the classroom.

There is an evidence base for the importance and benefits of Messy or Sensory play to a child’s educational development especially for children with SEN. Dr. Jean A. Ayres, an occupational therapist, was among the pioneers in highlighting the significance of sensory processing in daily activities. In the case of children with SEN sensory experiences and opportunities are especially important many of these children have a limited ability to self-regulate and either seek or reduce sensory input in a way that matches their neurological thresholds (Agostine 2022). The term “neurological threshold construct” pertains to how sensitive an individual is to sensory input, ranging from low to high. Those with a low threshold are more easily stimulated by sensory input, causing them to quickly notice and respond to stimuli.

Benefits of messy play for children's development children playing with a tuff tray

What is Messy Play?

Messy play is any activity that encourages children to explore their senses, manipulate materials, and get their hands dirty. It can involve a variety of materials, such as paint, water, sand, playdough, or food. The focus is on the process of exploration and discovery, rather than having a specific end result or specific narrow planned learning intention.

The Joys of Messy Play

1. Encourages Creativity and Imagination

Messy play provides children with an open-ended environment where they can experiment, create, and innovate. Without the pressure to produce a specific outcome, children are free to use their imagination. It is a low demand way for them to express themselves creatively. This unstructured playtime helps develop their problem-solving skills and fosters a love for learning. We talk more about the different types of play here and how they can be used in learning. This book has some great ideas for providing messy play activities for pupils with PMLD.

2. Enhances Sensory Experiences

Through messy play, children can explore various textures, colours, and smells, which engage and stimulate their senses. Sensory experiences are essential for a child’s brain development, as they help build neural connections that support cognitive growth, language development, and fine motor skills.

3. Promotes Emotional Well-being

As children explore and experiment with messy play, they learn to cope with new sensations and situations. This helps them build resilience and adaptability, which are essential for emotional well-being. Furthermore, messy play can be a therapeutic outlet for children to express their emotions and release stress.

4. Boosts Social Skills

Messy play encourages collaboration and communication among children. As they share materials and work together on projects, they learn essential social skills such as taking turns, cooperating, and negotiating. These experiences help children develop empathy, understanding, and respect for others.

Educational Benefits of Messy Play

1. Cognitive Development Through Sensory Play

Messy play helps children develop critical thinking skills, such as observation, experimentation, and problem-solving. As they manipulate different materials and observe cause-and-effect relationships, they gain a better understanding of the world around them. This hands-on learning approach is particularly effective for young children, who learn best through active exploration. However, a study by Benoetxea et al (2012) found that if an individual has not had these sensory experiences in their early life we can use exposure to sensory stimuli through physiological strategies such as environmental enrichment, to rewire loss of brain areas to enhance other active senses.

2. Language Development

Through messy play, children have the opportunity to learn and practice new vocabulary related to the materials and experiences they encounter. Parents and teachers can support language development by engaging in conversations with children during messy play, asking open-ended questions, and providing descriptive words for the materials and actions involved. It can be tempting to start shaping the play and making it an overt learning activity. I think this needs to be avoided.

3. Messy Play for Physical Development

Messy play supports the development of fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. As children manipulate materials, they strengthen their hand muscles, develop dexterity, and improve their ability to control movements. Gross motor skills can also be enhanced through messy play that involves larger movements and whole-body actions, such as jumping in muddy puddles or creating large-scale artwork.

4. Messy Play for Early Maths and Science Concepts

Messy play provides a natural context for exploring early maths and science concepts. As children measure, pour, and compare materials, they develop foundational skills such as counting, sorting, and identifying patterns. Messy play encourages children to make predictions, test hypotheses, and draw conclusions, which are key components of the scientific method.

Fun and Engaging Messy Play Activities

Here are some simple and engaging messy play activities that you can try at home:

  1. Finger Painting: Provide your child with non-toxic finger paint and large sheets of paper. Encourage them to explore the paint with their fingers, experimenting with mixing colours and creating various textures and patterns.
  2. Sensory Bins: Create sensory bins filled with materials such as sand, water, rice, gelli baff or shredded paper. Add items like cups, spoons, and toys to encourage scooping, pouring, and imaginative play.
  3. Playdough: Make homemade playdough with your child and encourage them to manipulate it using their hands, cookie cutters, or other tools.
  4. Mud Play: After a rainy day, head outside with your child to explore the mud. Encourage them to jump in puddles, make mud pies, or paint with mud on large sheets of paper.

Remember, the goal of messy play is to focus on the process, not the end result. Embrace the mess, and watch your child grow and learn through joyful exploration.


Agostine, S., Erickson, K.A., & D’Ardenne, C. (2022). Sensory Experiences and Children With Severe Disabilities: Impacts on Learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. Accessed Online Here May 2023

Bengoetxea, H., Ortuzar, N., Bulnes, S., Rico-Barrio, I., Lafuente, J.V., & Argandoña, E.G. (2012). Enriched and Deprived Sensory Experience Induces Structural Changes and Rewires Connectivity during the Postnatal Development of the Brain. Neural Plasticity, 2012. Accessed Online Here May 2023

Metz, A. E., Boling, D., DeVore, A., Holladay, H., Liao, J. F., & Vlutch, K. V. (2019). Dunn’s Model of Sensory Processing: An Investigation of the Axes of the Four-Quadrant Model in Healthy Adults. Brain sciences9(2), 35. Accessed Online Here May 2023

O’Neill, D.K., Astington, J.W., & Flavell, J.H. (1992). Young children’s understanding of the role that sensory experiences play in knowledge acquisition. Child development, 63 2, 474-90 . Accessed Online Here May 2023 – Note this study is heavily critiqued but discusses knowledge acquisition through senses

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