Many of us provide early years children with messy play experiences on a regular basis, but have you ever wondered why it is so important? Messy play, or ‘sensory play’ engages a child’s senses, including balance and movement. Types of messy play might include playing with slime, gloop, dough, flour, foam, tea leaves, lentils, water, mud – anything really as long as it is safe! Children are able to get their hands/feet/possibly whole bodies stuck in so that they can experience everything there is to offer.

We know that children learn through play. The more senses that a child uses in play, the more they are going to learn. Messy play, therefore, is a fantastic learning opportunity because it allows a child to learn through lots of their senses at once. Here are some of the other benefits of messy play:

It provides opportunities for language

I cannot stress enough how important it is to encourage language development in young children, and messy play is a perfect opportunity do this. As children use their senses to experience all the different textures and sensations on offer, ask them about it. What does is feel like? What colour is it? What does it smell like? Model extending language by telling the children what you think it feels like and what is reminds you of. Can you think of any other words to describe it? Keep going with this and children will end up extending their vocabulary.

Develops fine motor skills

In messy play, children can be found patting, squeezing, scooping, gripping, pouring and picking up lots of different materials. All of these actions are developing the muscles in the child’s hand as they make small movements and co-ordinate these movements. These skills are the foundations for future handwriting.

Builds creativity & self-esteem

The great thing about messy play is that there is no right or wrong. Children can explore their curiosity, use their imagination and they can’t go wrong. This is going to build their confidence to just play however they see fit.

Builds cognitive development

Children file away the things that they experience in their memories and build on them each time they come back to revisit that experience. They then use these memories to gain understanding and knowledge. So, if a child plays with slime a few times, they will gradually remember features such as the fact that it is slippery and feels wet (whether or not they can verbalise this). They can then draw on this knowledge when faced with new situations.


Lots of children find sensory experiences such as messy play very calming. In fact, if you have a child that becomes very upset or angry and you struggle to find ways to help them calm down, then try engaging them in a sensory experience such as messy play. They quickly become so absorbed in what they are experiencing that they are able to move on from how they were feeling to focus on what they are doing now.

Social interaction & spatial awareness

It is likely that your child will be involved in messy play alongside other children, therefore they are very likely to engage with others and gradually develop their social skills. They are also going to need to work out boundaries & respect one another’s personal space.

Now you’ve heard many of the benefits of messy play, but we haven’t mentioned the fact that it is also just really good fun! Lots of children are drawn to messy play, therefore here is a fantastic opportunity to engage reluctant learners. If you have a child that is extremely shy and needs encouragement to speak, try engaging them through chat over the messy play. If you have children that rarely engage in mark-making, let them mark-make in the messy play. Whatever the area of learning that you wish to work on, take it to that child’s area of interest so that they want to be engaged. You may find that some children won’t like certain types of messy play, especially children with sensory difficulties. In this instance you will need to work carefully to find the type of sensory experience that works for them.

So, in offering messy play, you are offering a lot of different learning experiences at once, hence why it is considered such an important activity to offer. To give children the best possible learning opportunities, try mixing up the different sensory experiences that you offer so that they get a variety of different types of messy play over time. Your children will benefit from each one by using different skills, language and muscles to investigate; plus they will love it!

About the author

Gina SmithGina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.



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