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  • Writer's pictureChickadee Contributor

5 Ways Messy Play Boosts Development in Children

Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

Parents who send their kids to daycare might expect them to come home as clean as they were at drop-off. While that might “save an outfit” it is not the best for your child’s development.

A kid who comes home dirty and paint-stained signals they had a day filled with messy play—and messy play can be one of the best ways to boost your child’s language and cognitive development, fine motor skills, and more.

Messy play can mean many things—finger painting, scooping whipped cream, excavating toys from mud, or pouring water—no matter what the mess is made of, if your child is messy when you pick them up, it means they were able to explore through their senses. Open-ended exploration is a huge boost for many aspects of their development.

Here’s what’s happening when your child engages in messy play.

1. Developing Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills are movements that requires the coordination of your fingers and hands to complete a task. Some examples of fine motor skill tasks include zipping up a zipper or using a fork and spoon to eat.

Most messy play is all about using fingers and hands to manipulate and explore. Touching various textures and temperatures, your child will use their sense of touch to discover new sensations like sticky, slippery, cold, rough, smooth, slimy, or soft.

Think of what you do when you get something sticky on your finger—you immediately start touching your fingers together, testing which parts of your hand or finger is sticky. As an adult you have very dexterous fine motor skills. For babies and toddlers, exploring textures for the first time will help them practice and develop these same fine motor skills.

They will naturally be practicing the coordination of their fingers and hands to better understand the things put in front of them—thus developing fine motor skills through play.

2. Understanding and Testing Boundaries

Messy play often involves physicality, whether your child is excavating objects from whipped cream or moving colored spaghetti around a sensory bin. When kids start to get physical in play, they inherently learn boundaries.

Your child will be tested on their own personal boundaries. They will quickly learn what they do and don’t like touching; what textures and temperatures feel good, bad, or indifferent.

They will also start to learn external boundaries: how they prefer to interact with other children. Messy play in a daycare setting will require them to understand things like: Who’s turn is it next? How do I practice pouring water while five other friends are also pouring at the same time?

Through messy play, your little one will start to understand how to respect others’ space, and how they want to be treated as well.

3. Creativity Explosion

With exploratory play, your child will be introduced to new ideas and concepts. Every child will explore in their own way and on their own terms.

For example, if children are asked to paint with finger paints, some kids might put their whole fist into the paint, while others might use only their fingertips, and others may not like touching the paint with their hands at all.

Messy play can lead to expanded thinking in your child. Seeing and experiencing the open-ended nature of messy play will give your child an explosion of new ways of interacting, thus enhancing the creative side of their brain.

4. Language and Cognition Boost

With messy play there are often new concepts that will be introduced to your child. The idea that something is sticky will make more sense to them when they can feel their hands and feet literally getting stuck in the mud.

Activities that involve pouring, scooping, or even just moving goop around with their hands, kids will start to understand the meaning of heavy, light, full, and empty.

Hearing new words while engaged in messy play, the concept will be more useful to them to use the language they hear moving forward. They won’t just be able to repeat the new words, they will be more able to use them in their own context.

5. Expanding Social Skills

At daycare kids often engage in messy play while in a group setting. While they are exploring using their own senses, they are also exploring their social skills.

Messy play often encourages collaboration and cooperation. It brings up sharing, taking turns, and the skills that involve group dynamics.

By allowing your child to engage in messy play often, they will likely practice acknowledging others around them, assessing their own needs and other’s needs, speaking up for themselves, and gaining a concept of empathy.

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