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Taking the Stress out of Messy Play - 5 Tips to Unlock the Joy

Let's talk about MESSY PLAY. There are so many great articles these days that talk about all the benefits of messy play for the development of our kids. We know it's good for them. But it's also...well...messy. If you love the concept of messy play, but find yourself too overwhelmed to do it on a regular basis because of the prep/clean-up, here are 5 tips to take the stress out of messy play. 

Put simply, it comes down to having a plan. The less you have to think through each step, the easier they become and the more likely you are to do them. Here are some simple steps to think through ahead of time to help messy play become a habit in your home:

1. Determine your regular messy play areas AHEAD of time

  • What areas of your home (indoors and out) are good for messy play? 
  • What areas are okay for big messes to be made? Agree as a family where these places will be to avoid the extra tension of what you thought was a good spot for a mud pit ends up being Granny's favorite spot to sit in the garden.

Example: The back corner of the garden is the designated mud kitchen area, kiddie pool on the back porch for water play, bathtub, wood floors for sensory bins etc. 

Tip: Make use of the bathtub! It's a contained space ready with water for the easy cleanup of kids and supplies.

 

2. Have a box/bag specifically for messy supplies

  • Keep your go-to messy supplies together for less prep and for easy spontaneous play (Grab the box or bag of messy supplies and GO... just like the swimming or soccer bag).

Example: Clothes that can get messy, towels, tarps and sheets for indoor sensory bins, etc. 

Tip: It's impossible to keep all your messy supplies together for every activity, but pick the thing that you want to do most and prepare ahead for that. Our go to is outdoor mud play, so I try to have supplies that stay in a basket outside with our Waytoplay roads, toy cars, and kids gardening tools and a bag ready with messy play clothes, old towels, and messy play shoes that I can then use to collect the messy things in after we are done playing.

 

3. Set clear boundaries with your kids AHEAD of time to contain the mess and streamline clean-up

  •  Set clear expectations of what kids can and can't do before play begins so you avoid the conflict having to set limits mid-play.
  • Cleaning up the mess can be one of the biggest sources of stress, so the more specific you can be with messy play boundaries and clean-up directions, the less chaos and fighting there will be. Until kids learn to help with clean-up independently, patient and repetitious help is key. You can even write down your plan to help your kids (and yourself) remember until it becomes a habit.  

Example: "You may get as messy as you want in this area, but once you are done, please take your shoes off on the back porch and put them in the blue basket before going inside. Please put all dirty clothes on top of the washing machine instead of in the laundry basket."

Tip: Include your children in the clean-up process by letting them hose out the pool, put away messy toys to a designated area, or wipe down surfaces with child-safe cleaner. If we start including them in the entire process from the beginning, there will be less frustration from trying to clean-up everything ourselves and there will be structure in place so the kids know exactly what to expect.

 

4. Let them go at their own pace

  •  Just like eating a messy piece of cake on their first birthday, some kids dig right in and some are careful and more cautious. Let them explore at their own pace! The most important thing is for them to have a positive relationship with messy play and by letting them go at their own pace they can feel safe exploring and taking new risks in a safe environment. 

Example: One child may be pouring dirt over their head while the other just wants to poke at it with a stick. Both are wonderful for development!

Tip: Though it can be hard, try not to put pressure on kids to play in a certain way or get really messy right away. You know your child best, and there may be a time for gentle encouragement, but putting too much pressure to move too quickly can cause kids to become even more hesitant or shut down entirely. This can be hardest in a group where your child is playing differently from other children, but your confidence and patience in your child's process will help them feel safe to be themselves and maybe even help other parents have the courage to do the same with their children.

 

5. Be an example

  • This might be the hardest one for some of us as parents. Kids pick up on our own attitudes of getting messy and messy play- If we model that getting messy is okay and show them by example that we can get messy too, they are more likely to develop that habit themselves. 

Example: Put on your own messy clothes and get in the mud/water/sand with your kids. Sit down and play parallel to them even if they are more hesitant, and they may even start to copy what you are doing. 

Tip: Often times, it’s not actually getting messy that kids have a problem with, but they feel unsure or out of their comfort zone in some other way (socially, emotionally, physically). Try to determine how to help your child with those other concerns first, and they may be more willing to try messy play once the other need has been addressed.


We do what we are in the habit of doing. If we make messy play a habit (and make each step as easy and accessible as possible) it will become less work each time. If we include our kids in the process (set up and clean up as well as the play), it can become a source of joy instead of stress to work as a team from beginning to end! 

Enjoy the Journey! 

-Sarah

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