Kids love to dump out bins of toys and examine every object before moving on to the next bin and doing the same thing again. It’s more than just a fun time — this type of messy playtime is beneficial to their growth and development.
As parents, we may see a lot of cleaning, but to kids, messy play is an opportunity to experiment with textures and create games and ideas with their hands, leading to a new and exciting understanding of the world around them. Messy play is best categorized under the umbrella of the more technical term sensory play. Sensory play supports cognitive development and motor skills as well as serves as a practice ground for social skills.
However, truly the best part of messy play is how much fun our children have (while learning, of course).
10 Messy Ideas
Here are ten of the top messy play ideas out there. They’re safe for kids at any age (adult supervision) and cover several interests common in young people.
1. (Edible) Dino MudSlide
You can make a mudslide for your kids’ favorite dinosaurs by combing:
- Hot cocoa mix
- Corn starch
You’ll need a large plastic container and a big spoon to mix. Combine a cup of cocoa powder with two cups of cornstarch and add water until you reach the desired consistency. We recommend stirring often to ensure that you’re maintaining the quality and thickness of mud you’re after.
Then, add your child’s favorite characters (dinosaurs or others) and create a fun and thrilling mudslide scene.
2. Fizzy Dough
Fizzy dough is a textural and colorful sensation that is perfect for curious children. They’ll create their first science experiment at home, preferably in a bathroom or outdoors, as this one gets really messy.
This recipe fosters a love of science, all while teaching children how to follow instructions.
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup baking soda
- ¼ vegetable or canola oil
- Food coloring
- White vinegar
Combine all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl, then dump them into the playtime container. The kiddos will have so much fun grabbing handfuls of the dough and letting it run through their fingers.
3. Paint With Balloons
This one is for all those budding artists out there. Painting with balloons is a great time and could inspire kids to continue their passions with art (and help develop hand-eye coordination).
To do this activity, put together the following supplies:
- Non-toxic or kid-friendly paints
- A funnel
- A canvas
- Safety pins
Set up the canvas or canvases in an area where you don’t mind paint splatters. Funnel paint into the balloons and then tighten them and tie them closed.
Then use the safety pins to poke holes in the balloons and let your kids have free rein, creating gorgeous pictures. Paint will fly, and balloons might pop, but that will just add to the fun.
4. Under the Sea Jell-O Sensory Bin
Sensory bins are very popular right now and for a really good reason. They give kids a chance to explore textures, colors, and fine-tune motor skills. The added benefit of an underwater scene is getting to explore marine life and the different depths of the ocean.
For this activity, you’ll need:
- Jell-O mix
- Underwater figurines
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup flour
- 4 tbs. melted butter
Prepare the Jell-O according to the package, and before setting it in the fridge to chill, add the underwater creatures. Once the Jell-O sets, create a shoreline using the flour, melted butter, and two sugars.
The mixture will crumble in a child’s hands but also hold shape, similar to kinetic sand. Create the perfect beach scene using your hands and watch the learning and fun take off.
5. Colorful Cubes
Help kids learn their colors with a fun bin full of rainbow ice cubes. They’ll learn about the various states of water as the ice cubes melt and have so much fun letting the different colors melt in their hands. While this is perfect for a hot summer day, setting this activity up in the bathtub can make rainy-day cabin fever melt away.
Here’s what you need:
- Ice cube tray
- Food coloring
Once the ice is ready, grab a large plastic bin to dump them in and let the kiddos dig into all the icy fun.
6. Shaving Cream Paint
Besides its role as a skincare product, shaving cream is a fantastic cleaning agent, so don’t be afraid to utilize a sliding glass door or low windows for this project.
The bathroom also makes an excellent area for shaving cream paints, as kids can create colorful works of art in the bathtub, then you can safely wash all of it away when they’re done.
To make shaving cream that is safe if eaten, you need:
- 2 cans of garbanzo beans. Drain the beans to use for dinner, and reserve the liquid for this project.
- ½ tsp. cream of tartar
- Food coloring
Aquafaba, or the reserved liquid, can be whipped similarly to egg whites and create a thick foam. Adding the cream of tartar during the whipping process will create a stable cream that can be divided into a cupcake tin or into small bowls. Then add food coloring to make a colorful paint palette and watch the creativity unfold.
7. Paint With Objects
Pull out washable toys like plastic animals or dolls and let these serve as reimagined paint brushes. Creating tracks of footprints or pressed images is only the start — this painting activity is a wonderful way to encourage imagination.
To make an edible or safe-to-consume paint, use the following recipe:
- 2 tbsp. granulated sugar
- ⅓ cup cornstarch
- 2 cups water
- Food coloring
Dissolve the sugar in the water and cornstarch mixture over medium heat until the consistency is thick and the color turns from milky white to clear. Let it cool and distribute the gel-like liquid into containers to add color. Have your kids choose water-safe toys to use as paint brushes, and guess what the strokes will look like.
8. Fruit Smash
Exploring the texture of new foods can help picky eaters overcome some of their hesitancy to add new additions to their diet. Allow them to select a variety of fruits and veggies that they can experiment with at home.
Giving them the power to choose what to buy and try will leave them curious as to what these foods are all about. They’ll start with an art experiment and end with a new snack time favorite.
Set up a table and cover it with construction paper and place smashable fruits and veggies in various spots. They can pick up each item one by one and explore their texture, color, and shape and then smash them. Smell the juices, and hopefully, they’ll taste each one!
9. Garden Soup
Allow your kids to make up their own outdoor sensory bin to see how different objects, textures, and elements come together to mix and play. It may even help your child cultivate a green thumb.
For this project, you’ll need:
- A plastic bin or durable/child-friendly planter
- All the outdoor elements you want
Have kids make a “soup” by filling up the pot or bin with water and mixing in their gathered ingredients. Everything from dirt to flower petals can be added to create new textures and change the look of the soup constantly.
10. Homemade Play Dough
Kids love the feel of play dough in their hands and love to create with it. It is non-toxic but not safe if consumed. While we don’t want our kids eating play dough, creating a homemade version from edible ingredients will be that much safer for kids in the event that they do try a little piece.
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup water
- 2 tsp. cream of tartar (optional)
- ⅓ cup salt
- 1 tbs. vegetable oil
- Food coloring
Mix all the ingredients together in a large saucepan and cook over medium heat until combined and thickened to the consistency of play dough. Remove the play dough from the heat and let it cool on parchment or wax paper.
Once you have all the colors you want to use, there’s no limit to how much fun the kiddos can have. They’ll enjoy helping you create the play dough, so don’t be afraid to get them in on the fun from the start.
What Is Hands-On Learning?
These ideas are great for hands-on learning for kids, but what is it?
Hands-on learning is a type of education where kids learn by doing instead of being taught. It helps them understand the why for certain events and instances, not just hear it from you or an educator.
Why Hands-On Learning Works
Kids benefit from hands-on learning in a variety of ways. For one, it allows them to immerse themselves in new experiences and understand the nuances of different lessons.
For another, not all kids can retain or learn information in the same way. While many kids are able to sit still for hours and take in everything they’re being told, this isn’t always successful for all. Hands-on learning gives this second group of students a way to learn in a classroom but in a way that helps their minds retain more information.
Here are a few ways to make messy hands-on learning a success:
Fun With Clean-Up
Messes will happen whether we allow them or not, but instead of stressing about them, we can get the kids to join in on the clean-up. Make it a game and keep it light and fun so that they enjoy the clean-up as much as the game. Play some music or make it a competition.
Giving specific instructions like “Put all the paint jars back in the cabinet” or “Everyone, pick up eight pieces of trash and throw them away” is a huge help when working with toddlers and younger children.
It may take some convincing, but the more they help, the more we’re willing to make the mess again, so it is truthfully to their benefit.
When kids are encouraged to explore textures and given the tools to create, the depths of their imaginations will expand in ways they never imagined.
This is important as the imagination we cultivate as children helps us ask questions and then find answers as adults, as well as keep us in tune with our mental health.
Lean Into the Mess
Making a mess on purpose is never easy as a parent, as we know that the bigger the mess, the more clean-up we have later. But this mess play is important for our kids and beneficial in so many ways, so don’t be afraid to lean into the mess.
While there isn’t a wrong way to do messy learning, these ten ideas are fun and easy to change up to match subjects your kids are interested in. We are confident that with these awesome recipes and ideas, you’ll never run out of opportunities for play.
- The Importance of Hands-On Learning in Child Education | FriendsCentral
- How Hands-On Learning Benefits Children of All Ages | GoodwinEDU
- Active Imaginations In Child Development And Adulthood | BetterHelp
- What Is Sensory Play? The Benefits For Your Child and Sensory Play Ideas | Cleveland Clinic
- Fizzy Dough | Laura Cramb Speech Therapy
- How to make non-toxic, edible sensory foam using a tin of chickpeas | Babyology
- Playdough recipe | BBC Good Food