8 Tips for Keeping Messy Play Contained

23 09 2011

Messy play is messy. It’s creative fun and it’s good for children to explore using all their senses. It means they can play with things how they want without having someone else impose their ideas on them. Children’s play tends to focus on toys or creating something recognisable by an adult and this misses out on the benefits children get from exploring materials with different textures and colours and using all their senses to do it.

It is also messy which a lot of people really don’t like. I made a decision a long time ago not to care about the stains on my children’s clothes or the drawings on the wall. They grow out of the clothes and walls can be repainted. Their development is more important than an appearance. However, like most people, having your children take over your house is not something you quite prepare yourself for and I do try and contain it where possible. Below are 8 tips for keeping messy play (reasonably) contained but letting children explore and develop skills that will help them understand their world.


These cost about £16 delivered and you can even get them from Amazon. They have enough space for children to play in but things don’t escape over the edges. I’ve used mine for sand play, moon sand, shaving foam, bark and plants, soil, imitation snow, oats, rice, leaves, as a car wash – its uses are limited by your materials! I use them indoors as I don’t have a garden and it contains many of messy things that spread around otherwise. I tend to put it in the kitchen and children are dusted down before they leave the room thus helping to contain mess further. A dustpan and brush, handheld hoover and on a mat also really  help.


I’ve found shower curtains to be a good investment as floor mats. Ikea do cheap ones and you can probably find them even cheaper. They’re big, waterproof and seem to fold up smaller than any of the splash mats you can buy at an expensive designer price. They can be washed in the washing machine which is a plus point as oilcloth can’t be.  Use them on the floor under the building tray or on a table and mess doesn’t get everywhere. Some of them are quite artistic looking too once they come to the end of their usefulness.


Having specific clothes to wear when painting is an easy one. T-shirts that are a couple of sizes too big are helpful or art smocks. The problem with those though are that little babies don’t always want to wear one or fit it comfortably. They can’t use their arms properly so the messy play experience isn’t as good. However, being mostly naked is best. Up until potty training you can strip a baby down to just their nappy. Skin is easier to clean, nappies are going to be changed at some point and they get to explore using more skin than just finger tips and face. Putting them in the bath afterwards is also extra water play especially if it’s not at bath time.


I do not advocate limiting a child’s creativity. Only giving children a small amount of materials to explore is a very unsatisfying experience. If you limit things you can’t expect them to ask for more to get a better experience. Pre-talkers can’t do that anyway and need to experience large volumes of materials to really get a feel of it. But you can limit some of the messy things you give to children like paint. You can always top it up if they have run out and seem to be engrossed in the activity.

Plastic cups, old fruit trays, bowls or muffin trays can be filled with items or liquids. It is difficult to let children have free reign with materials if it’s in your own house and you like things a certain way, so give them a quantity you and they can enjoy. This is more relevant to activities I’ve done such as the ice cream parlour. Only giving them a small amount of beads in a muffin tin is better than letting them have the whole jar and watching as beads bounce around the kitchen into the cracks in the flooring. It is very gratifying though to have children visit who start off appalled and then enjoy the freedom to make mess. LBM pouring his whole container of (my predetermined quantity) rice into his playdough was met with shock by another child recently. After she realised it was OK to do it in my house she followed suit telling me about how she wasn’t allowed to do that at home. Five minutes of pure child pleasure followed. Brilliant and not as messy as it could have been!


Consider washable kitchen or bathroom paint on your walls if you are prepared to relax your standards for a few years. I’ve discovered pink or red colours tend to stain more but most wipe off really well if you get to them quick enough. Any dry materials are easily hoovered or swept up too. You can often get the children to help too because for some reason they love sweeping or using the handheld hoover. Any old muslins you’ve got can be used to wipe children down and put in the washing machine. Cheaper than wet wipes and bigger for the really messy play.


LBM is not keen on wet messy play – he’s never shown an interest in playing with his food, doesn’t like getting too messy and asks for his hands to be wiped whenever they’re too covered in stuff for his liking. It’s just not his thing. He loves painting but it has to be with a brush. He’s much happier with dry messy play – sand or moon sand, oats, rainbow rice, beans or shaving foam which he doesn’t find as objectionable for some reason. If it’s the first time you’re trying messy play with your child or you don’t think they’ll like it then try dry first. All the things listed above give them a chance to start experimenting. You can then move on to food colouring or coloured ice cubes in a bath to introduce the idea of mixing colour or “mess” into the water.  Some children really don’t like getting messy so respect their preference and try other ideas where they make a mess but not a wet one.


If you do attempt messy play then don’t leave them unattended as creativity will happen! You really do need to be around to wipe the floor, walls and anything else they cover…

Tip 8 – ENJOY IT

Enjoy messy play with your children and do it at home using some of the above tips. Question your own reasons for saying no if it is only about keeping the wall, floor or their clothes clean. I know some people recommend leaving it to a nursery or the childminder to do as it’s their job but you’ll miss out on the times your child tries something different and tells you “I’ve painted a new face”. This stage of a child’s life really is so short (even if it feels longer) and you’ll remember this more than you will the times they spend on a computer…blogging…




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