Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Messy Play for the Messy-Intolerant

Picture it:
Eight little hands covered in drippy, droppy, messiness....in your house....with 15 ft of carpet between them and the bathroom.  Add to this picture six more children engaged in various play, needing your attention at random moments.  No.  This is not a nightmare.  This is reality.  It is a reality that I didn't think I would ever be able to fully embrace.

To say that the thought of messy play made my skin crawl is an understatement.  Not only was it sensory overload for me, but it was also patience overkill as well.

I was a family child care provider for 16 years.  I provided care for up to 12 children at a time, ages 2-6.  I provided this care with three co-workers:  me, myself and I.  I could not wrap my brain around the logistics of offering messy play opportunities when there was just me, myself and I to deal with the side effects of said messy play.

What side effects was I concerned about?
  1. The mess getting on my carpet.
  2. The mess getting on the children's clothing.
  3. The mess getting on me.
  4. The mess getting on a child who did not want the mess on them and the unknown behaviors such a catastrophe might spark.
  5. The inevitable cleaning up of the mess.
  6. The thought of what the little people in my care would be doing while me, myself and I cleaned up the messy play residue.

Add to these concerns the simple fact that me, myself and I were not fans of cleaning and you can clearly see why I suffered from messyplay-intolerance.

BUT then....I heard Lisa Murphy (aka:  The Ooey Gooey Lady) speak.  She said that messy play was ESSENTIAL to a child's development.  She said that sensory experiences were something that needed to be offered every single day. (insert guilt trip...ha!!)

The only messy play I had been able to embrace at this point in my career was playdough, flubber (borax and glue...kind of like silly putty) and ON SPECIAL OCCASIONS ONLY:  shaving cream and goop (cornstarch and water).  "ON SPECIAL OCCASIONS ONLY" meaning only on days when I had an extreme amount of tolerance and patience.  And I mean EXTREME.

On the Monday immediately after hearing Lisa's message, I offered messy to my littles.  I went for the big dog on this first attempt at embracing play:  shaving cream and glue.  The sensation of this stuff was amazing.

My littles were beyond themselves with excitement.  One child literally shook as she squeezed the concoction and loudly exclaimed "I LOVE YOU NITA!!!"

Ahhhh yes......Lisa was right.  Children NEEDED messy play.  They needed to explore with all of their senses the amazing textures of our world.  They needed the freedom messy play supplies and the fenceless opportunity for imaginations to wander and soar.

It did not take long for story lines to form, the process of figuring out the social rules of messy play and amazing vocabulary to emerge through the child-led play.

I stood on the sidelines....prepared to catch that child who was done being messy and quickly and carefully whisk them away to the bathroom so I could wash them up and return them to their mess-free self.  I will admit I was on edge.  But I kept breathing.  Deep....deeeeep....deeeeeeeeeeeep breaths.  I kept reminding myself this is good...this is good...this is good.

Over the course of time, I learned to embrace messy play, and I learned some tips that I feel may be helpful to other messy-intolerant early childhood professionals out there.

1.  Be present.  Only set up for messy play on days that you have a clear mind.  Do not do messy play on a day that you are waiting on an important phone call from the Dr. with scary test results.  Do messy play on a day that your brain and body are fully present in the moment.  (Let's be real...we know we need to be fully present, but there are days when that is a very challenging task.  Do not attempt messy play on a day when presence of mind is challenging.)
2.  Structure the environment.  The better job you do at structuring the environment, the more free your little people can be with their play.  Set them up for success. Structuring the environment lets children be in control of the experience.  It lets them be the organizers of themselves and it sets them up for empowering success!

See the structure in this picture? 
The yellow bucket contains goop (equal parts cornstarch and water...or, do the "Denita Method" and just dump and see what happens)  The purple bucket to the right is the "Default Hand (or feet and leg) Washing Bucket" .  My crew has learned that if that bucket is out, let the messy play begin!!  See the little girl in pink right in front?  She has ice cream scoops.  ALWAYS have tools for those that want to play with the messy, but do not care to have it all over their hands.  To the back where the child in blue and the child in green are playing is another messy choice.  Again, there are tools present for them as well.  They are playing with itsy bitsy pieces of sidewalk chalk that have been soaking in water.  They have potato mashers for tools.  When smashed up, this makes a great paste that is perfect for hand and feet prints!!  (SIDE NOTE:  I am a state registered program.  In SD, children CAN play in the front yard, and we can have 12 children with one provider....I get asked that a lot when I show this photo during my keynote presentation)
3.   Give ownership to children.  Find a way for your littles to be able to own the entire messy experience from start to finish...including the clean up part. Giving ownership of the entire process to young children is not only very empowering for them, but it also takes the stress of "how am I going to clean up all of these mess-covered children?????!!!!" from you...because, you are not going to clean up all of these mess-covered children when they are perfectly capable of doing it themselves.
Messy play fosters independence.
This messy-play opportunity was inspired by the book I Ain't Gonna Paint No More by David Carrow.  Notice the structure of the environment, most importantly,  the cleaning station in the background, not far from the mess-making area. Give children the tools they need for independence and watch their self esteems and sense of self soar!

From messy-to clean...all owned by children.
I am proud to say that I did not wash off a single child.  My littles, ages 2-6 owned the entire experience...from messy to clean!  They left just enough residue in strange places (mainly arm pits) to send the message that they got to do something pretty awesome that day!
Cleaning up is empowering!
Children thrive on trust.  They love to be trusted.  This child was empowered through my trust and he loved getting to own the responsibility of cleaning the bucket we used for messy play on this particular day.

4.  Do not force.  All children, just as all adults, do not enjoy messy play.  Do not force a child to "just touch it, I know you will like it" (please tell me I am not the only one who has done this!!).  I have done that.  It has back fired almost every single time.  Allow children to explore as they are comfortable.  TRUST THEM.  Be patient and let the natural process of curiosity happen.  Make sure to have tools available so the messy isn't as threatening, and give lots of time for a young child to learn to trust the messy opportunity.

Always supply tools for messy play.
This natural clay was plopped with plenty of tools so children who did not want to get messy could still play.  Notice every one's hands?  Pretty clean...this was at the beginning of the play.  Now scroll to the next picture.

Freedom of Time
The freedom of time is of utmost importance for messy play.  Children need time to warm up to the sensations of new messy play opportunities!

5.  It's okay to claim it.  It is okay for a child to hog the messy experience and declare that they will be there until pick up time. First of all, that's a huge pat on the back to you.  You have offered an opportunity that this child clearly LOVES.  Second of all, there are a lot of social lessons involved in that simple declaration of commitment:  1)  The child declaring their loyalty to the messy play that day learns that you respect them.  They also get an opportunity to be responsible and considerate when they remember to tell the next child that it is their turn (in the event that the messy-loving child over estimated how much they love the messy play and finish before pick up time)  2)  the child that is waiting their turn gets an opportunity to practice patience, and the experience of disappointment and delay of gratification.  It's a win/win for everyone.


Now that you have some tips to help you embrace messy play, here are a few of my favorite messy play moments:

1.  Scoopy Doop
Inspired by frozen, colored vinegar on top of baking soda, "Scoopy Doop" was a spontaneous random concoction created out of "I wonder..." moments.
The frozen vinegar on baking soda did absolutely nothing.  My littles watched it with eyes full of anticipation.  It was a genius moment of delayed gratification.  After a child wondered what would happen if we squirted warm water on the vinegar cubes, one thing led into another.  "I wonder what would happen if we added more vinegar?"  "I wonder what would happen if we added more baking soda?" Pretty soon, all of those "I wonders.." led to an amazing concoction!!

2.  Wet Chalk Smashing
Rather then throw away those itty bits of sidewalk chalk.  Soak them and plop them with potato mashers.  Little people will know what to do!! 

3.  Baking Soda and Colored Vinegar
When given the freedom of time, baking soda and colored vinegar can become a fabulous messy play opportunity!

4.  Set the Shaving Cream FREE!!
The first time I set out the actual bottles of shaving cream, my littles picked it up and handed it to me, telling me I dropped it.  I quickly corrected them and said, "No, I set this down for you to play with"  They thought they had died and gone to heaven!!  THE ENTIRE CAN?!  FOR THEM?! 
Oh the many ways our muscles work!
Setting the shaving cream free is an awesome opportunity for young children to learn the many different ways their muscles need to work together in order to accomplish tasks.  There was a lot of shoulder shaking going on, with zero success.  This child had not yet figured out how to use the muscles in his thumb.

Shaving cream is motivating.
After lots of failed attempts and shaking shoulders and arms, this child FINALLY discovered a method that worked!
Hmmm...been watching mom shave her legs lately?
Children NEED play to make sense of their world, to try the things they see and express themselves!!
5. Sprinkle Dough
Not messiest of mess-making play, but it's a grand one none-the-less.  Simply mix flour and baby oil until you reach a consistency of moon dough.  Once all the flour is saturated with oil, add liquid water color one color at a time, and mix.  The colors will form sprinkles, and the different colors will NEVER mix!  This is a favorite for ice cream shop play!

 BONUS #6:  Colorful Suds
Yep.  It's that simple.  Plop a bucket of water, add some cheap shampoo and watch the messy (ha..it's soap!!) fun take over!  After lots of fun playing with suds, my crew added sidewalk chalk to the suds they were making on the sidewalk.

Okay, ye messy-intolerant ones....how are you doing?  Was this post successful in giving you some tools in order for you to go forth and embrace messy play?

I certainly hope so, otherwise, I just wasted a good 2 hours of my life I won't get back (ha...it's always my pleasure to share my journey in this blog!!)

Take a deep breath in....read this blog several more times....and go get messy!!

Interested in having Denita speak at your next early childhood educator training?  Contact her at steelerfan.dd@gmail.com. 


  1. Oh, how I love this post and all things messy! I feel a bit guilty sending home a clean child. Some of these activities are things I've never tried with my group but will definitely make a point to get to soon.

    1. I am behind in responding to comments! Thanks for taking the time to comment, April!! I greatly appreciate it!

  2. Love this so much! Thanks for all the great ideas!

  3. I am in a much worse situation.

    I have a fear of getting messy because my past experiences with it were very unpleasant (Yes, even water play!). I am not running the messy play; I am a participant. I have been extremely reluctant to get messy (and get involved with messy play) due to my difficulty to accept the sensory experience. I will write a few examples below.

    1. It was very hot outside where I was sitting, feeling tired. It was over 110 degrees outside and I had to stay out there and play on the blistering swing sets as everything else burned when I touched it. I had to stay outside for a full hour. One time, I became so desperate to cool off that I painted my entire hand red. It felt nice and cool, but I did not realize the effect it had on me. The sensation became so intense that I fainted for 15 minutes while I was doing an art project. I became adverse towards getting paint on my hands after experiencing the loss of environmental awareness from the sensation.

    2. I was playing at a park with a splash pad on it (which was running) during a hot summer day. I was with a bunch of kids doing a water balloon fight, but I kept getting hit really hard by the balloons. They did not pop like they were supposed to, but instead, they bounced off of me and popped when it hit the ground. I stood under the splash pad and walked around it, feeling uncomfortable in the hot summer heat. I was not getting wet in the littlest bit and I stayed dry and unable to cool off (which is also uncomfortable for me).

    3. When I was at the water-park, the water was freezing cold. It was also 110 degrees there, but the water was so cold that it caused me immense pain by simply touching it. Depressed, I circled the play-structure many times, avoiding the water at all costs. Desperate as I was, I walked all the way to the lazy river hoping for comfort. It was never granted to me. I went to the wave-pool and still did not want to get into the water because of how painful it felt to touch. I felt extremely uncomfortable the entire day I went to the water-park and I hardly ever come back (even to another water-park).

    This should give you a general idea of what I experienced when I tried messy play and why I am so afraid of it now. I cannot let go of the tension I feel from even the thought of something "potentially messy". I have been repeatedly told that it is not a big deal; that I will get over it, but I never did. People have also told me that I am making this up and that what I express does not make any logical sense. This has been bugging me for years!

    I am stuck having to do a project with shaving cream and I am really dreading it right now. Please help me...

    1. THank you for sharing this. I am guessing (I am not a Dr.) that you have some sensory processing struggles most definitely.
      My question for you is WHY do you need to participate? You can have these materials out for the little people in your life, but that does not mean that you have to partake. I rarely dive in to the messy play -- I give all ownership to the littles who thrive on this kind of play. They do the play, they do the clean up -- and very little of it gets on me, if any.

      I say take a deep breath in, and be present in mind, but you do not have to be present with your hands. If the children ask, you can say that you just don't feel like getting shaving cream on yourself.

      Best of luck!!

    2. I am not a parent or a teacher. I am a student that is really struggling with messy play.

      The shaving cream project is an assignment for my art class. It is required and not optional! I am stuck having to do it for weeks on end because I don't see this project being finished any time soon.

      I really would appreciate it if I could get some help from a student's perspective. What would you do if you were in this situation?

    3. I would do some research on sensory process disorder and talk to your parents and teacher. With the right assistance you can hopefully go through the rest of your life without worry. My daughter has sensory processing disorder, only her sensitivities are sound. I appreciate your description greatly, it helps me to understand. Your words are very descriptive and you have to find someone to listen to you. What you are experiencing is REAL. I would show your teacher this conversation and ask her for alternative methods that you could accomplish the task of the assignment.
      I hope this helps!!!

    4. I have to make a shaving cream polar bear for art class later this year. I am afraid to touch the shaving cream due to my tactile sensitivity and other memories that I correlate with the looks of the shaving cream. When I look at shaving cream, I think of the immense, overwhelming cold of snow (I am so lucky that I even know what that is). It does not make me want to reach my hand out to touch the shaving cream.

      I have to work under fluorescent lights that burn my eyes like I was staring directly at the sun outside. They drain my energy and cause me intense pain.

      I also have to work with a bunch of other kids that like to be defiant and not follow clear, explicit instructions. I fear that they will throw the painful looking shaving cream at me and make a huge mess. I worry about clean-up after a messy project because it is just as painful as messy play is to me.

      The worst part is, that I do not have any means to clean myself up when I do it. There is no sink to wash your hands in the art room, so I have to go to the stinky, filthy bathroom and wash my hands in the sink. The sink is covered in light blue toothpaste and gray dirt. The toilets have apple cores that students have peed on in them. The sewer is also exposed and there are no stalls in the bathroom. I deprive myself of water for many hours just to avoid going in there.

      Also, what do I get out of all of this? A finished project that just falls apart after the slightest touch and makes a mess as soon as move it away. It is only common sense that shaving cream disappears completely when it is dry (which it can't be because the picture shows it puffed up).

      I do not want to do this project because I know that it will be another bad experience for me. Is there anything that could make it at least more bearable?

      Do you have any messy play suggestions for me that would at least be slightly enjoyable?

    5. I am not an expert at messy/sensory play by any means. So I don't know that I am your best resource.

      I don't know that messy play will ever be enjoyable for you and THAT's OKAY! We are all made differently. The point in my blog post is that those of us that work with young children need to find a way to be able to tolerate for the benefit of the children who DO enjoy it.

      Thank you so much for your comments, but I truly encourage you to talk to someone who knows you personally and can get you some assistance, I have offered you all the help that I am able to.

      Have a blessed Thanksgiving.

    6. Everyone I know personally just thinks that it is some silly excuse to "get out of class". I have been forced to do messy play against my will even when I was little. When I was little I was forced to try getting my hand painted for art class. I had the same problem now as I did many years ago.

      When I speak with clinicians that know me well, they give me the run-around (mostly because they can't help me). I hate having to clean up a mess, and I have hated that even when I was little.

      I can't seem to find help anywhere... :(

      I am WAY too old for OT (not to mention that it was a source of pain and suffering in my childhood). I don't know of any experts on messy play.

      If you know of any, please let me know.