Welcome to Moving Smart!

Helping parents and teachers understand the LEARNING benefits of all those wiggles & giggles!


Much has been written about the benefits of Messy Play. It is great sensory stimulation for young minds discovering a hands-on world, and it develops strength and fine motor coordination in those curious little fingers. And that's all great, except for one thing. There's more to it than that.

Now, most parents intuitively understand that kids come with a certain amount of mess and adopt a quiet, tolerance towards it. But when you've got the mop out taking care of your end of Messy Play for the third time today, it can be frustrating. So I thought it might be helpful for you to understand just why all that mess is so important, in hopes of bolstering your Messy Play resolve.

So let's start with some basics...

The traditional definition of Messy Play refers to different kinds of sensory materials that children use with their hands. The list looks something like this...

Fun Foods like Jellies, Jams, Peanut Butter, Jello, etc.
Soap, Bubble Bath, Bath Foams, etc.

Dry Baking Ingredients such as Flour, Sugar, Grains, Oats, etc.

And on and on.

Pretty much Messy Play materials are anything that can and will travel to places wholly unrelated to the designated play space and often show up weeks later despite the most vigorous and vigilant clean up.

However, my definition of Messy Play is a little different.

And a lot messier...

Tactile, sensory experiences with materials like these are so vital to your child's developing brain, why stop at the wrist? In fact, I recommend WHOLE-BODY MESSY PLAY whenever possible.

You see, as we've discussed in previous blogs, the brain learns from the experiences the body provides. Sensory stimulation is the key to early learning, helping the brain craft its own unique picture (and judgments) about our world. When your child is fully immersed head to toe (or at least elbow-deep), sensory receptors in the skin are complimenting all of her other senses in developing that "full picture" the brain needs, while giving her a better sense of herself as well.

And while the mess is molding your child's brain, it's doing a whole lot more too...

Back to the hands for a moment. Think about the last time you had a blob of Play-Doh in your hands. Chances are you couldn't put it down -- squeezing it, shaping it, poking holes in it, pressing it through your fingers, etc. The very nature of Messy Play is a call to action for the fingers, working the tiny muscles to build strength, endurance, and coordinated movements. This, in combination with core and upper body development, is where young hands form the ability to carefully manipulate a crayon, a pencil, pen, keyboard, piano keys, guitar strings, slide rules, etc.

What does clean feel like? As an adult, my guess is that you would describe it something like this. Let's use the hands again as an example...

"Clean is when my hands don't feel sticky, gooey, gravelly or chalky... when there is no dirt or stains on my skin or under my fingernails... when my hands don't smell of anything other than soap or lotion... when I feel comfortable touching something precious (or white) or shaking someone's hand." In other words, clean is what's NOT messy.

So consider this. How can your child be expected to understand clean if she doesn't have meaningful experiences with messy?

Now, this is where parents get really nervous. "Messy" is one thing. But put it in the same sentence with "Mania" and that's where most will draw the line. But if you know the old saying, "In for a penny, in for a pound" you know what I'm talking about. Getting messy is like a license to get even messier. And when "messier" happens, something else kicks in. The exuberant freedom Messy Mania provides from the everyday expectations of conformity and neatness is a great emotional release for children.

But more, within these playful confines, children learn an important life lesson about what it feels like to go too far. And while I realize that may sound a bit scary to parents too, your child needs to explore all of her boundaries -- even, and maybe especially, the messy ones. You see, playing with those boundaries with things like mud in your hair or sand in your shoes or snow down your back gives children tangible, physical experiences with the idea of "too far" that they will be able to apply to other, more important situations down the road.

And for the clean up crew, let's be honest. There comes a point where there's pretty much no difference between "messy" and "messier."  

The ability to effect change is one of the most important learning experiences for your young child. When she discovers she can make a difference -- large or small, accidental or deliberate, neat or messy -- she is awakening to the idea that she has the power to do things herself. And Messy Play is a dramatic expression of that power because she's seeing big changes of her own making as she physically transforms herself and the space around her.

I'll admit, the mess at the end of your mop is no fun for you. But remember, it's a mountain full of skill and confidence building for your little one.

Which brings me to the last, and perhaps most important benefit of Messy Play. When your child observes or participates in the clean up she is learning from you how important it is to respect her environment. By seeing the transformation from messy back to neat, she is learning that she is part of something bigger than herself -- your family -- and she's right at home where she belongs... AFTER she takes a bath!

Messy Play extends right into the bathtub! Soap suds and bath foams, gels, and creams offer great, whole body, Messy Play sensory experiences too. Now add one more element, and you can turn bath time into learning time.

My daughter and son-in-law have been playing this bath time game with my granddaughter since she was an infant. Now at age two, she already has a sense of left from right, and demonstrates good body awareness.

The key to this simple, "Talk A Bath" activity is consistency. Each night as you're washing your child in the bath, talk to her about the different parts of her body. Be specific, and associate what you're saying with what she's feeling as you use the soap and bath cloths to get her clean. For instance...

"This is your right elbow. Let's get it nice and clean."
"And your right elbow is part of your right arm."
"At the end of your right arm is your right hand."
"Look, you have five fingers... one, two, three, four, five!"
And so on.

Repeat the game when you're drying off with a nice, warm towel. This gives her a different sensory experience associated with the words you're using to describe her body.

And when she's getting her pajamas on, play the game one more time. The soft fabric of her pajamas gives her another different physical sensation as you reinforce body awareness with your words.

And of course, as she begins to develop her vocabulary, encourage her to join in the game as well! 

P.S. For great ideas to inspire your Messy Play days, please hop over to our friends at...
Hands On As We Grow,  Let the Children Play, and The Imagintion Tree


  1. HELP we have a parent who loved the messy play provided at centre for her child...until the doctor blamed paint on the childs many loose motions (it says non toxic on the container)... now other parents are getting upset about their children tasting paint...any ideas so all of the children can still paint?

  2. love the MESS! thank you for articulating the wonderful skills that children gain thru exploration, experimentation and Mess Mania :)

  3. This is such great info! My almost one year old is really at the point of appreciating a good mess these days :-)

  4. This was a wonderful article! You bring up such amazing points. Thank you!

  5. I really enjoyed this post! Really inspirational. I'm so glad I found your blog while my little boy is so young! Thank you!
    Would it be ok with you if I link to this blog-post on my blog?

  6. Love the mess! My son had a blast playing in the sand at the beach and got so excited when I buried his legs in it! It was an invitation to get messy!!

  7. This is a lovely article, Gill! Thank you for all the entry points to...mess! I wholeheartedly agree and will RT this to all who follow us! Thank you : D

  8. love the messiness! I don't think I'll do glitter again though -- it's taken me ages to get it all cleaned up! Even outside! I'm up for everything else though.

  9. Messy glitter play has a simple solution - we mix our glitter into glue in small cups, or into paint before giving it out! And this offers new sensory play because the paint and glue gets a new texture.

    Idea about the paininting issue - you might want to call the company and ask for an MSD sheet to see if it CAN cause those problems - give the parents something to talk to their doctor with. Or start making edible paints - lots of recipies out there for that! Plus, they are way cheaper :)

  10. Messy play is fun! Our local community center used to have an event where they'd cover the whole floor of a large room with paper, put out trays of paint and invite families to bring their preschoolers over to have at it.

  11. Really nice post to read...and inspiring! I love the other/different aspects of messy play that you mention!

    Thanks so much for a great read.

  12. To the post from Anonymous on June 8th, be careful with products such as paint, etc. labeled as non-toxic but that does not mean they are safe for eating. There are great ways to create edible paint, Vanilla Pudding is a great edible paint, just add food coloring,flavored gelatin is great for painting too, it can be mixed with smaller quantities of water than directions to create a thicker paint. There are also great recipes for edible doughs too. As an educator I would be frightened to learn one of my students became ill after ingesting enough paint/material to cause loose motions, that could bring about a lawsuit to yourself or your center/school as well as distrust among your families. www.perpetualpreschool.com has a lot of edible paints/doughs good luck finding a more suitable medium!

  13. Thanks for visiting our blog @www.unlocktheteacher.wordpress.com We like your blog too! We will share on ours ;-) Denise, Trisha and Sue
    The Unlock the Teacher LLC Team

  14. safe if eaten playdough can be coloured & scented with cocoa powder or coffee or other foods - or u can leave it natural flour colour! have fun! : )

  15. Pretty brilliant mess!!!
    LOVE my first visit here.
    I look forward to getting acquainted!

  16. I'm a total mess maven. Love it! Mud puddles are probably my favourite. What's childhood without mess, right?

    When I see my daughter's room is a disaster, I know play happened. Learning happened. Healthy development happened. It's pretty cool. I'd rather there be a mess than her room always be perfect.

  17. Wonderful article....messy play is so important in a child's life (and adults). Just finished a fabulously messy nature art class - splatter painting...such a wonderful way for the children to express themselves.... http://www.marghanita.com/splatter-painting-in-nature/
    Wishing lots more messy play..love and peace, Marghanita x

  18. "So consider this. How can your child be expected to understand clean if she doesn't have meaningful experiences with messy"

    yes this...... I totally agree mess is in some ways synonymous with childhood and I hope the the parents of my future students will be able to embrace this open attitude to messy play, thank-you!

  19. Thank you for this great article!I agree that causing mess or being messy is part of our learning process and understanding the world around us.