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Why is Messy Play important?

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Children learn about the world though exploring and experimenting – looking, listening, touching, tasting and moving.  Exploration comes before play.  Children explore the unfamiliar, devoting their whole attention to something and trying to “work it out”.  When the unfamiliar become familiar (as a result of exploration), this gives way to play – something children do with more confidence and flexibility.

Think about a baby’s earlier feeding experiences as they are introduced to solids.  Such experiences are often “messy” – sticky hands, chocolate covered faces, porridge engrained hair, food thrown or dropped on the floor and clothes strewn with multi-coloured blobs of jelly, puree and such like!  Babies learn about the texture, temperature and smell of food by exploring it and playing with it… and then eating it!

Some children miss out on these opportunities to explore food. For example children with physical, medical or developmental difficulties. Some of us, as adults, find it hard to deal with “mess” and so may limit our child’s food play opportunities or find ourselves constantly cleaning up messy faces and hands.  Sometimes these children can become reluctant to touch certain textures, get “mess” on their hands, to feed themselves and may only accept puree foods. Children who have feeding tubes, may also have less opportunities to explore and play with foods as they may not engage in regular mealtimes when food is presented to them.

Other children may be reluctant or even scared to engage in food play. They may also dislike touching certain non-food items with their hands or feet (e.g. dislike playing with sand or with soft fluffy toys).  Children that were born prematurely, or have had a lot of medical interventions, feeding tubes, oxygen masks/nasal prongs, food allergies, gastro-oesophageal reflux or extended stays in hospital may show such “sensory aversion” to touching and exploring different textures.  Children with Autistic Spectrum disorder may also display sensory aversions or difficulties with touching and exploring foods.


“Messy play” covers a multitude of activities – such as playing with sand, paint, mud, playdoh… etc.  All these experiences contribute to the development of a child’s physical, cognitive, sensory and creative abilities.  “Messy play” with food is an important activity for all children in supporting their feeding skills and acceptance of different textures and foods.  Messy play provides opportunities for a child to explore food (the unfamiliar) in a non-threatening way.  When engaging in such play, there should be no expectation that your child will put food to their mouth, nor should they be encouraged to eat… rather a child should be left to explore the food in a way that they feel comfortable – allowing them to experience the way the food smells, looks and feels.


…Imagine that you have just come across a monster bug on your kitchen floor… you are unlikely to put it straight in your mouth… but you may nudge it with your foot… and may even pick it up. In a similar way, children are more likely to accept touching textures they are unsure of with their feet, before they will their hands and finally their mouth.  Children are also more likely to feel comfortable exploring dry textures… before they will wet textures and finally sticky.  All these experiences help a child to learn about different foods and this in turn helps them to start accepting more textured foods and new foods in their mouths.


Messy play top tips:

  • Avoid putting any pressure on your child or prompting them to taste or eat the food… just allow them to explore it with their feet and hands
  • If your child is reluctant to touch food directly, encourage them to explore it using a toy (e.g. dropping building blocks in custard) or spoon (e.g. stirring/ bashing cornflakes with a wooden spoon). You can also put food in a clear zip-lock bag or under some cling-film, and encourage your child to feel and squish the texture through the plastic film.
  • To avoid too much mess, try buying a large cheap plastic shower curtain that you can put under your child’s high chair or sit your child on the floor. In summer time, try doing messy play out in the garden, or in an empty paddling pool.
  • Avoid constant wiping up during your play session – ignore the mess and have fun! You can change clothes, wipe surfaces etc. when you have finished…


Messy play suggestions:

  • Cornflakes or rice crispies
  • Porridge oats
  • Custard
  • Mashed potato
  • Cooked pasta shapes or spaghetti (If you put food colouring in the saucepan when you cook the pasta, the pasta will take up the colouring and give you coloured pasta!)
  • Vegetable puree
  • Jelly
  • Aerosol whipped cream
  • Corn flour mixed with water