Friday, August 28, 2009

Areas of Play 3 - Messy Play

‘All kids really want to do is make mud pies’
Gypsy’s mum

Munchkin is a messy kid. You know the type – face always smeared with food, knots in her hair, mud on her jeans, shoes scuffed beyond recognition. Messy play is her modus operandi … if she can stick her hands in it and smear it everywhere she will! I try not to always run after her wielding a hairbrush and a facewipe, but it’s a struggle.

So, she’d fit in well at Playcentre, where Messy Play is really encouraged. In every Playcentre session you (should) see a messy play station … either finger painting or a close relative to it like gloop or slime. Of course, kids like Munchkin can turn anything into messy play ... clay, playdough, painting, shaving foam with a pile of grass cuttings! Its about getting your hands in and getting .... disgustingly messy.

Seriously though, its wonderful. Although some children don’t enjoy getting their hands dirty, most children do. Having ‘messy play’ set up as a specific play area gives children real pemission to get messy, something that kids just don’t get enough opportunity to do.


Messy play as an ‘area’ at Playcentre evolved out of ‘fingerpainting’

“Finger painting is a wonderfully clever invention. Really a logical development from the puddling in mud or clay but with the added stimulation of colour, a messy delight which has all the stickiness of mud and is yet quite clean and under control. Because it has the close hand-to-texture quality of mud or clay it seems to invite the creative person to do something with it” Gwen Somerset, Vital Play in Early Childhood.

In a Waldorf/Steiner kindergarten you won’t see a ‘messy play’ table set up, but of course, children get messy wherever they can – so Steiner kids do messy play in the mud, with grass clippings, sand, water … like kids always have done. While I love the natural, organic nature of this kind of messy play, I do think that having it specifically encouraged as happens at Playcentre gives kids a real sense of permission to get messy, and helps parents to understand the importance of this kind of play.

“Difference textures and consistencies can help children to integrate their sensory experiences. Messy play is creative and offers children the space to imagine and express their feelings and ideas. Its also a fun way to learn difference words, talk about new ideas and can provide hours of fun and discovery. The wonderment, creativity and playfulness is evident in the way in which children are drawn to messy play” Playcentre Journal Spring 2007

Messy Play can be extended in so many ways. It is particularly popular with toddlers, who may find some other areas of play too challenging. Messy play lets children explore their sense of touch – which is an important learning for toddlers - feeling rough, smooth, soft, sticky, foamy, squelchy, warm, cold. This means the challenge is firstly to provide a variety of messy play activities to let children directly experience all these concepts, and secondly to help them find names for these sensations. I’ve found with my nephew it’s great fun to make up words together for these sorts of things … words like shlurpy, crubbled, pongling all came out of messy play!


At home, while sometimes I set up gloop, slime, shaving foam or fingerpainting (and recipes are here) usually messy play just happens. I have found that keeping a big pile of old bathtowels and teatowels is invaluable, as are longsleeved bibs and waterproof overalls. And of course, there’s always the bath tub! Most importantly though I try to remember that before I know it this phase of my life will be over, my house will be tidy and I will be glad that I really sucked every moment of magic and pleasure out of these years.

Some of my favourite ideas for messy play at home.

Making Concrete

This started after we watched some workmen laying new concrete on the footpath. We take a plastic bucket and a large wooden spoon and stir in various stuff .. sand, flour, leaves, grass clippings, and water of course. Its often never actually ‘laid’ on the grass … its really just making a potion in a bucket!

Enough said! And yes, its vile-ly messy! But keeping old ice-cream containers and other suitable ‘recyclables’ makes this lots of fun. Shells from the beach are great decoration, and twigs make excellent candles. And you can alway carry your child from outside to the bathtub. (Did I mention adults need messy play clothes too?)

Soap play
This could really be water play or messy play .. but I save ‘soap ends’ and we use those with water. As the soap softens it becomes very gooey (especially natural soaps I have found) and wonderful for messy play. Older kids really seem to enjoy grating bars of soap for the same effect.

We don’t have a sloped area in our section, mores the pity. But anywhere there is a grassy, muddy slope Munchkin sees as an invitation to slide down it, each time getting a little muddier. A pair of waterproof overalls and a warm bath fix this mess up, and its heaps of fun.

Baking is probably not intended to be a messy play activity, but it sure is for us. We do a lot of baking and while what we make is usually edible that’s almost an aside. Rubbing in butter (and eating half of it), kneading dough (and eating half of it) breaking in eggs (yes, she’ll even eat raw egg), squishing fruit for cakes … remember the play value is ‘to integrate their sensory experiences’. (In the New Zealand context, its culturally inappropriate to use food products for play, but I think in the context of baking something that will actually be eaten it is considered acceptable. Please correct me if I'm wrong)

Making Potions
We haven’t done this yet, but its on my list for when she gets a bit older. I plan to go to a plasticware shop and buy a bunch of droppers and small bottles. I will then fill the small bottles with various things … baking soda, vinegar, food colouring, glitter, cornflour, things from the collage table .. and then set up Munchkin to use the droppers to make ‘concoctions’. I have seen a friend do this with her 4 year olds and it looked fantastic fun … apparently they would spend hours playing at being witches!

Sawdust and corndust
You can put sawdust into ‘slime’ or just mix it with flour and water to make a glue. (make sure you use untreated sawdust) or make sawdust playdough and then dissolving it in water. (old playdough in water is excellent messy pay!) In summer, you can get eaten corn cobs and get the children to grind them together to create a wonderful ‘corndust’ that you can use instead (I got this idea out of Sharifa Oppenheimer’s wonderful book). Textures in messy play are great!

My last thoughts about messy play are about 'natural' materials. I think its fair to say that an increasing number of parents are concerned about their kids covering themselves in chemicals in the name of play. No-one is about to suggest flash Weleda shaving foam for the kids play (well, maybe you would - leave me a comment!) but it does seem worth thinking about. I'm ashamed to say I have never tried using plant based dyes for painting and playdough, although I know people have had great success with it. GardenMama's approach is inspirational, using petals to create watercolour paints ... definately on my 'to try out' list.

So, until I master the art of the plant dyes, I try to strike a balance. I keep most of our messy play materials 'natural', as you will see in the ideas I have outlined, and have the paint or food colouring based stuff for special occassions. Something to think about!


Annicles said...

When exactly are you hoping messy play will bate and leave your house tidy? I have to say my nine year old is still mad keen on anything messy and her oler cousin (age 12) is just as happy to get in with the mud pie making!! Potions are a big hit around here too! I just hope they make big enough overalls, it is much harder to get a 9 year old into a bath if she doesn't fancy it than a 3 year old!!

Heart Felt said...

I love those kind of kids with messy faces etc.....It tells you that they have had a great day full of adventure and creativity! Great post as usual. xx

jojoebi said...

Thank you for leaving a message on my blog - and I hope you are going to join the muffin tin carnival :o)
I don't know how much of my blog your read, but I am a Montessori mom - to a degree, there are aspects of Montessori that I don't agree with. I would like to learn more about Wardorf and Steiner - I live in japan so rambling off to the library isn't an option but when I look at books to buy on line I just get over whelmed. I was wondering if you had reading recommendations for a newbie in the area?

off to have a poke around your blog now, hope you don't mind :o)


Gypsy said...

Annicles - don't tell me that - I am hoping that Montessori kindy will sort her out ;)

JoJo - welcome!!! I would highly recommend 'Heaven on Earth' by Sharifa Oppenhemier - its an awesome introduction to practical waldorf stuff without any of the 'anthroposophy'. If you have a look at 'sewliberated' (formerly Montessoribyhand) she has done a review of it - so its had the thumbs up from a Montessori mama!

nova_j said...

do you know how *little* messy play my kids have had?!? *blush* so literally while reading your post i dumped some warm water & cornflour in a tub outside for the kids... ran out of corn flour so added self-raising. awesome. there is much cackling coming from out there now ;)

monti kindy huh? do tell more!!

Greta said...

"face always smeared with food, knots in her hair, mud on her jeans, shoes scuffed beyond recognition." LOL.... you could have been describing my own Munchkin! Her hair is knotted within seconds after I've brushed it- I've often threatened to get out the clippers and shave it all off! I thank you for the ideas about messy play; I've always gone with more of the Waldorf approach with nature-play, but I may have to look at providing more planned, messy activities.