How Messy Play Helps Kids Grow

Play is one of the main tools children use to learn about the world around them.

Mar 08, 2018



In the pool playing child. Girl in jacket and rubber boots

Mar 08, 2018

It’s very sweet to watch a 4- or 5-year-old sit quietly looking at a picture book or playing with a doll. But quiet, tidy moments like these are usually pretty few and far between. That’s because preschoolers are naturally energetic, curious, and, yes, sometimes sloppy learners. And that’s a good thing!


Play is one of the main tools young children use to learn about the world around them. When a preschooler accidentally mixes blue and yellow paint it’s an early lesson about primary colors and transformation. When she engages in dramatic play and acts out “school” or “family” scenes, she’s practicing social skills and flexing her imagination.


Messy play—play with “messy” materials like clay, finger paints, foam, sand, or water—also has specific developmental benefits. Messy play engages more than one of children’s senses, bringing sounds, smells, and tactile responses to preschool play. Here are some of the main ways your young child can enjoy the benefits of sensory learning through messy play.


Fine Motor Skills

Squishing mud, rolling clay, scooping rocks, pouring sand—these manipulative activities are like a workout for the tiny muscles in your child’s hands. These tiny muscles are needed to eventually perfect a grip on a pencil or pen in school. Spooning, stacking, pinching, and other motions help develop hand-eye coordination.

Basic Concepts and Cognition

Messy play helps younger preschoolers zero in on sorting concepts like size, color, and texture: Shaving cream is white, fluffy, and wet; sand is yellow, scratchy, and dry. Messy play also helps kids learn about cause-and-effect: Shredded paper is white and soft, but pour on some water and it turns mushy and gray.

Emotional Benefits

Many art therapists use messy play to help kids with behavioral and emotional challenges process their feelings. For example, kids can relieve stress or anger by pounding on clay, tearing it into pieces, or molding it back together. A child might gain a sense of calm while carefully pouring water from bowl to bowl or gently swirling his fingers in a tub of shaving cream.


Think of all the decisions involved in even the simple task of making a snake out of dough: How will you divide the dough to make the body, eyes, and tongue? What’s the best way to roll dough into a rope shape? Whoops! The tail fell off—how do you get it to stick back on? These little obstacles sharpen children’s problem-solving skills.


Kids flex their creative muscles when they use materials in new ways (slime-burgers, anyone?). Exploration through combining substances to make new colors or textures helps kids explore the possibilities of creativity—and discover the joys of invention.   

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