As a parent, there’s one phrase that used to always make my blood pressure rise. When I heard it, I felt my breath quickening. I’d break into a cold sweat, and my hands would start to shake. I used to look for any excuse to avoid… messy play at home. 

I always loved the idea. My kids rolling in shaving foam, squelching mud into a tin to make mud pies, and watching their whole hands (and feet) disappear in oozy slime. I always imagined their joy, unrestricted and uninhibited, laughing, exploring, creating and having fun. Then there were the many, many benefits. Messy play is great for motor skills, building imagination, problem solving, communication skills, a willingness to experiment, resilience, sharing and cooperating, the list goes on. But, despite all of this I couldn’t get past the image of a mess that I simply couldn’t clean up. The vision of my house irreversibly trashed.

I’m not afraid of messy play at home anymore. After running my own messy play sessions, parties and events for two years I know how to manage the mess. Here’s my eight simple steps to plan for messy play and make cleaning up a breeze.

1. Choose Your Materials 

What materials are you playing with? Slime, play dough, rainbow coloured rice? This is the first thing you need to work out, as it will help you make decisions about where to play, what toys or instruments to include, and the best approach to cleaning up. Some materials are easier to clean up than others, depending on whether they’re sticky and wet or dry. Have a think about what you’re willing to tolerate. Remember, messy play is for exploring, testing and experimenting. We want to encourage our children’s play, not be grouchy because of the mess!

2. Dress For Messy Play At Home 

Messy play always delivers the unexpected, so while you may want to put on an apron or an art smock, you should also dress in old clothes, so you can embrace those surprising twists in play!

3. Consider Where You Will Set Up The Activity 

Set expectations on the lower end for the least for your first week of being home. Your kids (and you) need to feel a sense of achievement and if everyone feels like they aren’t achieving the tasks set and you feel like you are constantly nagging it is not going to be fun for anyone.

4. Cover The Floor For Messy Play At Home 

Grab the tarps from the camping equipment, or some old sheets from the linen press and cover the floor (or table). Also consider what type of surface you’re playing on. Grandma’s antique table or the newly renovated bathroom might not be ideal. Remember paint and food colouring can stain some surfaces.

5. Contain The Mess

A storage container, tub, tray or bowl are great for containing messy play materials. Ideally use something that has low sides, so the materials stay inside, but your children can easily reach them to play.

6. Be Ready To Clean Up Messy Play At Home 

Have a plan for cleaning up before you start. Will you need a bowl of water, a few towels, baby wipes, a change of nappy, a change of clothes? Whatever you need, be sure to have it handy, so that when your children’s hands are covered with mud, foam, or slime you can wipe them clean before they make their way to the couch.


7. Keep Some Spare Towels Handy 

Spares will never go astray! Children will often want to clean their hands a few times during messy play, so have a few spare to wipe off excess slime, mud and gloop.

8. Take It Outside Or To The Bathroom 

If you still can’t stand the thought of messy play in the house, head outside! Set up the play in the garden, on the verandah, or in a courtyard. Then you simply need to sweep up the mess and wash the area with some water.

If outside really isn’t an option for you, the bathtub is a great alternative. Both your children, and the mess will be well contained and you can pull the plug to wash the mess away. Please be careful what materials you choose to use in the bath however. Materials such as rainbow coloured rice, and some slimes can cause blockages.

Written by Justine Atherton the owner and founder of Little Mess Makers, which specialises in unstructured, child led messy play for toddlers and preschool aged children. Little Mess Makers offers messy play sessions, parties and events in the Sydney metropolitan area.

If you are looking for other ideas on things to do at home check out our Home Based Activities category on our blog.

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