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5 Ways to Master Messy Play

Updated: Jul 2

By Marina Rahamim, 02 July 2024

First of all, a big thank you to everyone who read and interacted with the first blog. I was blown away by the response and look forward to writing many more. As always, if there are any topics you think would be helpful to hear about, please let me know.

As I sat down to think about a topic for the next blog, I looked out the window to see my kids running around and laughing whilst leaving a trail of sand all over the place and I thought – what better topic to discuss than one that strikes fear into many-a-parent… messy play!

A child using spaghetti as messy play

Why Messy Play is Important. Summer is here and what could be more fun and entertaining for children than messy play. Messy play offers a whole host of benefits for your child and provides a helpful medium through which they can grow, from language development through the use of new descriptive words to learning about the world around them; it also aids concentration and fosters independent thinking. Additionally, messy play helps children regulate their emotions which in turn boosts resilience and self- esteem. But what if you love the idea of creating sensory experiences for your kids at home but, like me, are also filled with dread at making mess? Here are some steps below as to how I like to approach messy play...

No. 1: Assess Your Mood. Before starting any messy activity, I assess my mood. Did I wake up on the wrong side of bed? Am I feeling irritable and quick to shout? If the answer is yes, then I know that messy materials are probably not the right activity for us today. It is essential to feel confident with whatever you get out because this will feed to your child. If you are feeling anxious about the mess and know that no amount of planning (see below) can equip you, then leave it – it really is supposed to be fun and free yourself up to play with your kids. 

Let’s say, I managed to rest (winning!!) and I’m in the right mood, I then consider how my child is feeling. Are they feeling calm and curious, or agitated and tired after school/ nursery?  If they are calm and tired, they might like to play out the day using figurines placed in some dry sand in a sand tray, or, if they just want to wind down, we might do something repetitive and soothing like mixing flour in a bowl (which you can also move to their pretend kitchen if you have one at home). If you both have it in you, why not try a structured cooking activity with a method and easy steps. You might also want to look at a cookbook together for inspiration and follow a simple recipe like a one pot recipe where everything goes in the same dish (to limit mess). My son and I used to love to do those cooking boxes that are delivered with fresh ingredients to your door– It evokes lots of senses – taste, colours, smells, texture but was also simple and structured for those who, like me, like a plan… and it created much less mess than my usual cooking activities, so even my husband was happy (less so with the end product)!

No. 2: Choose the Right Materials. When we play at home, I think about what mood my kids are in because this can determine what materials we use.  Very sludge-like and gloopy textures can trigger different behaviour to playing with dry materials and I think about this prior to getting the activity out. Another bonus of doing this at home is that you can tailor the activity to your child’s needs/ interests – for example, materials like wet sand are great stimulus for those potty training and who love the texture of their faeces (yes, it is a thing for those that haven’t experienced it) and so an activity like this can offer them a safe way to explore this feeling. 

A tray with Messy Play Set up

No. 3: Designate a Mess Friendly Space. Designating a specific area for messy play is crucial if you don’t like mess. Find a small, easy to clean space, preferably tiled, where you can fit a tray (or use the highchair tray with younger children). If you only have carpet, put a towel and a tarpaulin down. Consider moving to the bathroom floor, a shower or a bathtub if you prefer. Alternatively, use a plastic tablecloth on a table and contain the mess in large Tupperware or trays. It obviously goes without saying that all clothes should be ruin-able, even yours (you might like to make your own messy t- shirts together in a messy play activity and make those your messy play ‘aprons’ in the house going forward - with this positive experience behind them, you may find that they actually want to wear them instead of the usual aprons that can sometimes be a battle to get on).

No. 4: Establish Clear Rules. Setting clear rules will help you relax and allow your child to enjoy themselves (and hopefully you too?!) Make the play, time-limited. At nursery, children are used to set boundaries whereas at home I find that the play can escalate quickly, and it can feel hard to manage behaviour when this happens. I like to use a timer with older children (3+), however for some children, timers can cause anxiety so you could also use the concept of time –- “When the big hand is on the 3 it is time to stop” I also like to give them reminders at different time intervals (e.g. 5 minutes left) otherwise they get so engrossed and the element of surprise can also have an adverse effect on behaviour. You can of course also do the same with a digital clock, which is also a great way to teach numbers and give them a sense of time.  Like us, children need to know when there is an end so that they feel contained. I also like to establish boundaries such as ‘the sand stays in the tray’. If your kids don’t listen and push boundaries, give them a warning and if poor behaviour continues, then end the activity and move on. This keeps you in control of the situation and will give you the tools to feel empowered (and learn to love messy play!)

No. 5: Have a Post-Activity Plan. For older kids, maintaining boundaries can be challenging (it is hard enough to get your kids to listen to you at normal times, let alone when there is something really fun at stake). I usually give them a few options to choose from for after the activity and we decide this prior to starting the messy play. Choose calming and focussed activities that they enjoy such as Lego, magnet building or reading a book, to help them calm down after the excitement (which is done after everyone is clean and dry). 

Messy play can feel overwhelming, but with a little planning and the right mindset, it can become a truly rewarding experience for both you and your child. I hope these ideas help you feel more confident about incorporating messy play into your routine. Feel free to share your experiences, tips, or any questions you might have in the comments below. Stay tuned for the next blog, where I'll be sharing 5 fun ideas for messy play with (hopefully) little mess—perfect for the holidays! Until then, happy playing!


Marina Rahamim is a qualified child therapist. Over her career, she has worked with children who have experienced different challenges from bullying and low self-esteem to divorce and domestic violence and abuse. Furthermore, she has supported a Local Authority Children’s Centre, leveraging her understanding of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) developed through her NCFE Cache Level 3 Diploma for the Early Years Workforce (Early Years Educator). However it was Marina’s work at a leading charity, Norwood, that sparked her true passion for working with children and learning about child development, where she organised and ran activities for young people aged between 5 and 25 years old who had special educational needs over a 5 year period. Now a mother to 3 young children and a fellow parent at La Petite Nursery, Marina has used her extensive training and work in the field of childcare and psychology to follow her own passions and hobbies, including coming up with enjoyable strategies to help manage behaviour and being an enthusiastic baby signer. Marina graduated with a Master’s in Play Therapy from the University of Roehampton in 2017 (accredited under BAPT).


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2 comentários

Michelle Hajjar
Michelle Hajjar
06 de jul.

Love it Marina!


Amy Paskow
Amy Paskow
02 de jul.

Ah yes! The packages that send you ingredients with directions, that’s a brilliant idea ! I will do this with Bella, she loves to follow directions like Phoenix. Fantastic, thank you Marin ❤️

We did it with Valentine’s Day to make chocolate but she was younger and now reading this, I see the importance of it intellectually for them at this age (5)

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