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Is messy play beneficial for your baby?

Messy play

A beautiful mess. That’s what we call it in our house when yoghurt meets juice and balls of bread in the cup in a delightful squishy melee.

On some level I know this textural experience is great for my little girls, so I tuck away my inner neat freak and let them play on. While we can see our little people love getting messy, it might surprise you to know that your intuition is quite right, the benefits are backed up by science.

Despite the appearance of dis-organised chaos, messy play can make an enormous contribution to babies’ and young children’s cognitive and creative development.

“Messy play not only teaches children how to experiment, along with the scientific principles of cause-and-effect; it also teaches them that their actions have consequences in a safe way. This can help them develop autonomy and a sense of agency, and with this, a sense of pride in their abilities,” says clinical psychologist for Nubabi, Claire Toi.

Children are being creative when they use materials in new ways, combine previously unconnected materials and make new discoveries, and messy play enables children to do all these things, says Bernadette Duffy, author of Supporting Creativity and Imagination in the Early Years (Open University Press).

During messy play, children use all their senses in the process of exploration, especially touch, as they mould and manipulate materials without having to actually make anything.

The lack of a focus on producing something leaves the child free to explore all sorts of possibilities. It taps into children’s innate curiosity about the world around them and their strong desire to explore and find out more, says Duffy.

“A small child’s life is riddled with do’s and don’ts - how lovely for them to be presented with an activity that has no right or wrong way of doing things. It also forces the parent or caregiver to slow down and take notice of what’s happening, rather than only focusing on the end result,” says Claire.

Often messy play offers opportunities to turn previous assumptions about the world upside down. When a child first plays with bubbles, for instance. Up to this time, their experience may have informed them that all round shapes are solid. When they reach out to touch a bubble and it pops – the look on their faces tells all!

Experts encourage messy play in children from birth to three years, in particular.

Ideas for messy play:

  • dig deep in sand and soil
  • make and explore mud, in particular making mud pies
  • splash in puddles and explore water in paddling pools
  • move water using guttering, pumps and pipes
  • mix large amounts of sand and water
  • add some bubbles to bathtime
  • offer different shapes and texture of foods for exploring with hands and mouth
  • finger painting
  • clay

The many benefits of messy playinclude developing skills in these areas:

  • Mathematical: counting, calculating shape, space and measuring
  • Knowledge: questioning, exploring, investigating, making
  • Physical: movement, using equipment, tools and materials
  • Creative: exploring materials, imagination and responding to new insights
  • Social: confidence, self-control, communicating new findings

Of course messy play is also such a wonderful metaphor for life - life is messy. It isn’t neat or in labeled boxes. Being comfortable with mess may help a child be comfortable with life’s messiness. It’s also a really great learning opportunity for parents, especially the neat freaks - we don’t have to control everything, says Claire.

Go forth and make a mess!

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