How to Do Messy Play


How to do Messy Play

I hear a lot from people that they are too much of a “clean freak” to let their children make messes, or they just couldn’t handle the mess like I can. Here’s the thing, I can’t handle too much mess EITHER! Messy play is totally possible for even the cleanest of us simply by following these few tips.

Tip 1: Only put out as much as you’re willing to clean up. Sounds simple right? But oh man, this little sentence has changed my life! If I know I’m feeling a little tense or short tempered today, then I won’t put out as much “mess”. Here’s the thing to realize, we have to let kids be kids. That being said, messes are inevitable with children and it’s important to not get mad at them when they are learning how to appropriately engage in messy play. What we can do is put small dabs of paint out for them rather than an entire bottle. Put out a teaspoon of glitter rather than the entire jar. Fill the sensory table with a few cups of Rice rather than an entire bag of rice. We get to decide how much we put out for them!

Tip 2: Lay out a drop cloth. This doesn’t have to be fancy. I would love a super awesome, cute drop cloth some day, but in the mean time I use an old queen sized bed sheet. It works for me. It’s super simple to pull out and place under the easel, the water table, or the light table full of sand. I can adjust the length by folding it to make it smaller if I want or extend it to cover more space. This makes clean up so simple! With dry ingredients I fold it up and shake it outside or in the trash. With wet ingredients such as water or paint, I am able to wipe up larger splotches with a baby wipe, and throw it in the washing machine for easy clean up.

Tip 3: Only choose items that are easy to clean up if it DOES get on the walls or floor. This is more of a specific tip pertaining to paint, markers and other art supplies. When choosing art supplies for young children to use make sure they are “washable”. That way WHEN it does (not if) splatter a bit on the floor or walls it’s easy to remove with a wipe. We like to stick to tempera paint because it’s washable and can clean up off of hard surfaces. (extra tip: if you still notice a little color after wiping it with a baby wipe pull out a magic eraser and it should clean right up!)

Tip 4: Don’t let them wear clothes you would be devastated if a stain occurred, or/and add a smock. I make sure that when my girls are engaged in messy play, they aren’t wearing clothes I would hate to get ruined. I also add a “smock”. We actually like to buy those washable bibs with sleeves from IKEA for our smocks because they are super cheap, easy to clean and last forever. We simply throw them in the washing machine and hang dry after use.

Tip 5: Take it outside. For the record we do messy play all year long, in and out of the house. However when you aren’t feeling super up to all that mess inside, take it outside. We love to do art projects outside. Often times we still add the drop cloth, but it makes it a little more relaxed and care free. There are a few activities, like splatter art, that I will only do outside. So if you can, take the art, easel and sensory table outside!

Tip 6: Reinforce appropriate behavior. If you haven’t done a lot of “messy” activities yet, you may need to reinforce, reinforce, reinforce appropriate behavior. For example if your infant, toddler, preschool etc. starts to throw the rice out of the sensory table we have to remind them that we need to “keep the rice in the bin”. This takes patience and constant repetition.

This is actually one that I get asked a lot from followers. People often say that it seems like my children never throw the sensory activities out of the bin. This isn’t necessarily because they haven’t thrown it out ever, they have. This is more so because we have done a lot of these messy play activities and are constantly reminding them that it needs to STAY in the bin. I will then remind them, “If we keep throwing the rice, we will have to put it away.”

It is then crucial to FOLLOW THROUGH with what you said and remain consistent. If the behavior doesn’t stop, then put the activity away and give them something they can throw such as a ball. They may just need a little more active play and aren’t responding well to the activity you have out. Another idea is to do some active play before engaging in a messy sensory or art activity. They will be in a more calm state to engage in the particular activity you put out for them after some larger motor skills and energy is used.


If you follow the previous steps, you are in a better position to have patience when the inappropriate behavior is occurring. You have set yourself up to succeed rather than for a stressful, too much to handle situation, that often times results in an adult tantrum as well. Remember only put out as much as you’re willing to clean up. It not only makes clean up easier, but it gives you the peace of mind and patience you need to have a productive and positive experience with your child.