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5 Quick & Easy Messy Play Ideas (without the mess!)

I absolute adore messy play, but it wasn't always that way. I can still remember the first time a friend of mine mentioned it. Long before I had children of my own, she had taken her daughter to a messy play group at the local village centre and explained how she would strip her off and dunk her into a bath of beans or a tuff tray of spaghetti. I was horrified! Who on Earth would do that to their child?! I wondered, seeing visions of children screaming and covered in mashed potato. I smiled, nodded along and vowed never to subject my future children to that nonsense.

Speed forward about 3 years and I was in my local village centre supporting a local cause with fundraising. Across the way, a leader was in the process of setting up a messy play area.

Space was at a premium, so she meticulously covered the carpeted floors in sheets and plastic then laid out the materials. I watched intently as Mum's arrived with their babies and plonked them into various vats of mess. Well, I was amazed. Every single child was engaged, smiling, laughing, squishing things between their fingers and toes... having an absolute blast! From that moment, I realised what messy play was all about. It was something we, as adults, don't get to experience very often - being in the moment with nothing much going on except the enjoyment of our senses coming alive. I was hooked!

Soon after, I begin to use messy play experiences in my work as a newly qualified teacher. The children found the experiences so memorable. It was a joy to see. Years later, I was pregnant with my son and I couldn't wait to get started with all of the messy play experiences.

In the year or so since Arlo has been able to engage in messy play, I have tried dozens of activities. Some were successes, some he hated and were complete failures, others were good but not pitched correctly for his age. I learnt a lot! One of the things I learnt, was how to conduct a 'messy play' activity that wasn't actually so messy.

Let's face it, some days, there is just too much going on to spend the afternoon washing mashed potato off the kitchen cupboards. Sometimes, I only have an hour or two to get an activity set up, played with and put away again. This got me thinking about how I could incorporate the experience of messy play - engaging the senses, plenty of sensory things to touch, feel, smell, taste (sometimes!), and to really get into that 'hands-on' zone where learning is a true joy both for our little ones and for us to observe, too.

Here I hope to share with you some of my favourite not-messy-messy-play activities which you can keep in your repertoire to bring out again and again when you're looking for an engaging experience which can be tidied away quickly.

1) Using Shredded Paper

Shredded paper makes a fantastic messy play resource. It is free (just shred whatever you have to hand and if you don't have a shredder, cutting some newspaper with scissors will work just as well), it can be stored indefinitely to use again and again and it makes zero mess!

In the activity pictured, I had stuck some plastic toys to a tuff tray using tape and covered in a layer of shredded paper. Arlo had great fun 'rescuing' the animals and exploring the paper.

2) Water Play - Without The Water!

Water can be a pain to tidy up, especially if time is short, however this one is much easier as it uses ice instead.

Here, I used moulds from a sand castle set, filled them with water and a splash of food colouring, added a wooden hammer tool and let Arlo go to town breaking apart the ice with a hammer. When he was done, I simply brushed the ice onto a dustpan and threw it outside to melt on the grass. Job done!

A little word of caution, however. Some food colourings can stain clothes, so if you don't have time to change your little one, use plain ice instead.

3) Getting Back To Nature