Less-mess messy play – 5 practical ideas for real life, not Pinterest

by Katie Virk

If you like the idea of messy play, but don’t like cleaning, read on.

I found nothing engaged my baby quite like messy play. Give him a pile of toys and he’d be whining, crying and tugging on my trousers within 30 seconds. Give him a tray of dried lentils and he would sit scooping, pouring and chatting to himself for a good five to ten minutes, sometimes up to half an hour. Which, when I hadn’t drank an actually hot cup of tea for months was like a shining ray of light from heaven.

What is messy play? In essence any kind of play designed to stimulate a child’s five senses. However it seems to have been co-opted by mummy bloggers of the Internet to mean trays of brightly coloured mushy stuff for babies and toddlers to smear all over their clothes and your house. Think shaving foam, rainbow rice, blue spaghetti, oobleck etc.

My number one tip top messy play rule is: There must be more minutes of peace and happy playing than minutes of set up / clean up.

Pinterest is brim full of the most intricate and beautiful messy play set ups. And that is great, good for them. If you get a kick out of preparing a beautiful rainbow display for your child to smush, you go for it. But for us mere mortals here is a list of dump and go, in-out, quick jobs that will keep your baby happy and you sane.

1. Meal times

Congratulations, if your baby is over 6 months of age you are already doing messy play three times a day, every day; it’s called weaning. Baby swishing their hands back and forth through the residual food gloop on their highchair? Yep that’s messy play with all its associated wonder benefits, well done you!

Pro tips:

  • The tray and the seat of that Ikea high chair everyone has are dishwasher proof.
  • Save the messiest meal of the day for just before bath time.
  • If the weather’s warm strip baby to their nappy before dinner, skin is easier to wipe than clothes.
Messy play eating

2. Bath time

More sensory play you’re already doing. There’s hours of fun, learning and developmental opportunities in a simple water-only bath. Younger babies can just enjoy the sensations of the water and a little splashing.

If you want to add extras as baby gets older, I find the contents of the recycling bin to be an endless source of free bath toys. Plastic trays from grapes or tomatoes turn into fun colanders, empty yoghurt pots for pouring, milk cartons for filling and shaking, etc.

In our house we don’t do a nightly bath before bed, we save baths as a rainy afternoon activity. This way they are fun and novel. Many a slow lockdown day was spent with my three year old having a two hour bath, happily chatting to himself with a sieve and calpol syringe.

Messy play in the bath

3. Spray bottles

Save any leftover spray bottle and make sure you give it a really good wash. Put a little water in and let your child go crazy. For the least possible mess, do this outside. If doing it inside, shut them in bathroom and tell them they’re cleaning it.

4. Playdough

I’m sure, but unable to prove, that as long as humans have eaten bread, they have given children dough to play with. Children seem naturally drawn to squish and squeeze, and I don’t mind admitting I still enjoy a good playdough session as an adult.

There are many recipes to make your own dough online. I have lovely memories of my mum making a fresh batch of playdough on cold afternoons; it comes out warm at first and is a gorgeously satisfying way to warm your hands up. Most recipes call for cream of tartar, if you leave it out you will still have totally usable dough, just slightly less stretchy.

You can buy dough and many associated toys for it. But I find specific playdough toys are just duplicates of things you have at home already:

  • Rolling pin
  • Children’s cutlery
  • Small food containers
  • Garlic crusher – (very satisfying, makes strands like hair)
  • Small plastic toys e.g. cars, little people, animals etc.

5. Toy wash

Tell your toddler that the cars / dinosaurs / zoo animals / Duplo bricks are dirty and need washing. Put about 1cm of water in the bottom of a baking tray with some washing up liquid. Give child an old toothbrush and spread a towel (bonus if it needed a wash anyway) next to them to receive the bubbly toys.

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