I'll be the first to admit that I am not a neat freak. However, the idea of messy play still made me feel super uncomfortable. Why make a mess on purpose? And it seemed like it would be so hard to clean up...
But as time has gone on, I feel like I've gotten a system down - and now I am able to enjoy messy play without worry! So today I'd like to share my tips for managing messy play in the hopes that they help others get more comfortable with what I think is the MOST fun way for kids to play. :)
1. Control the amount.
(Playing with Wet Cotton Balls)
Left to their own devices, I feel like kids naturally explore with their whole bodies. Not to mention - they are often exploring new skills like dumping and pouring! I have yet to meet a toddler that didn't enjoy dumping things everywhere (or was horribly inaccurate with pouring)! So when S was younger, I wouldn't give her a huge container of rice or water like I do now. I would give her a much smaller amount. That way when it did get everywhere, I had an easier time cleaning it up. With water, I quickly learned that I didn't need to give her a full container of water for it to be fun. I could give her just enough that a towel/clothing would soak it all up! She would still have fun, and then when it inevitably spilled, we wouldn't be left with a soaking carpet.
2. Cover your floor according to your material.
(Playing with Cornstarch and Water)
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If we are playing with dry sensory materials, I generally just use a splat mat. A splat mat can be anything that's waterproof. Initially we used a waterproof disposable tablecloth I found at Target for $2. It did work for quite awhile, but eventually wore through. Now we use 2 yards of oilcloth fabric and I think it's ideal. Oilcloth is very thick and sturdy - if you can afford it, I'd definitely recommend buying the oilcloth to use as your splat mat. There are also commercially produced splat mats - they will cost a bit more, but they have finished edges and designs, so you could also buy a premade one if that's your preference. Once we're done playing, I just fold up the splat mat and pour the excess back into our storage container.
If we are playing with wet sensory materials, I will either lay out a towel on top of the splat mat (this is my usual method for dealing with water) or I will lay out a sheet on top of the splat mat (for something like cornstarch and water or gelatin). I might still need to wipe down the splat mat after we're done playing, but this makes it much easier. I just toss the towel or sheet directly into the wash with any dirty clothes and that's it!
3. Plan ahead.
Particularly with extra messy things like cornstarch and water or paint, I talk with S about how we're going to do things (I also talk it through with X, but he's a bit too little still to follow all of it, I think!). I remind her of the rules (staying on the mat until we're done playing) and state if we're going to go straight to a bath, etc. If it is something they'll need to have washed off in the bath - I make sure I set out soap, towels, etc ahead of time - as these things are much harder to grab while carrying a paint covered child, hahaha. Often the mess is not bad enough to warrant a whole bath, so I just rinse arms and legs in the sink - in which case I make sure to have a towel waiting next to the sink.
4. Decide the venue.
(Playing with Gelatin)
Messy play is for sure easiest outside. But sometimes the weather isn't great (particularly when you live in Seattle!). As far as indoor play, there's the bathtub, or there's the floor. While the bathtub does contain the mess really well (and they're already there for clean-up!), I do appreciate that the floor is less slippery and affords more space for play. Over time, I feel like I've gotten to the point where the floor is just as easy.
Though messy play can be hard on us adults (hahaha), I feel like kids really blossom with it. I hope that those of you who have never tried it will give it a shot. The Super Easy Sensory Plays are a great place to start. If you're new to messy play, I'd really recommend starting with something "easy" like water play or rice play and then gradually moving up to something more messy like painting or cornstarch and water.
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All activities here are activities I feel are safe for my own children. As your child's parents/guardians, you will need to decide what you feel is safe for your family. I always encourage contacting your child's pediatrician for guidance if you are not sure about the safety/age appropriateness of an activity. All activities on this blog are intended to be performed with adult supervision. Appropriate and reasonable caution should be used when activities call for the use of materials that could potentially be harmful, such as scissors, or items that could present a choking risk (small items), or a drowning risk (water activities), and with introducing a new food/ingredient to a child (allergies). Observe caution and safety at all times. The author and blog disclaim liability for any damage, mishap, or injury that may occur from engaging in any of these activities on this blog.