Enabling Environments: Outdoors - Messy play for under-threes - Splashes of colour

Practitioners caring for very young children are often unsure about whether to introduce babies to paint for sensory exploration.

As long as non-toxic paint is used, and babies are supervised carefully, then it is a wonderful resource for very young children to explore.


At the Randolph Community Centre in Evenwood Village, County Durham, babies have regular access to paint. As with all substances, staff first check with parents for allergies.

Manager Jill Tomlinson says, 'We buy non-toxic paint in squeezy bottles and squirt blobs of different colours into a builder's tray for the youngest babies.

'Individual babies are stripped down to a nappy and lifted into the tray. They can then sit with adult support, or lie on their tummies, so that they can wiggle their toes in the paint or pat it with their hands.

'For older babies, we spread a roll of paper along the floor and squeeze blobs of paint at intervals along it. They can then lie alongside the paper and make marks with the paint with their hands, crawl along it, creating prints and marks with their hands, knees and feet, or sit in it.

'Some even like to roll along the paper and enjoy the way the paint feels on their tummies. They are fascinated by the way they make the paint move and spread. Using different colours gives added learning opportunities. We always have a bath ready to remove the paint afterwards!'

Adult role

Model actions, such as patting the paint with the palm of your hand or moving it around using your fist, and model new ways of exploring the paint - for example, by holding a baby's foot and patting it gently into the paint.

Describe the actions and sounds you are making, such as 'pat', 'slurp' and 'squeak'. Comment on the babies' actions - for example, 'Your foot is sliding on the paint, Luke. Look, your toes are yellow. Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle they go.'

Observe the babies and watch their reactions to the activity so that you can record their learning later. Photograph them engaged in the activity and display these with an appropriate explanation, so that parents develop an understanding of the learning that has taken place.

What next?

- Put blobs of paint on a reflective surface, such as foil, safety mirrors or low windows (the foil jackets given to runners after a race are ideal). Children can crawl up to the surface or upon it to explore reflections and colour effects.

- Try paint on different hard surfaces, such as washable flooring or tiles.


- There is no need to use resources like paintbrushes at this stage.

- Adding moisturiser to paint helps to stop staining.

- Put bubbles in the bath when washing babies afterwards, to provide a new sensory experience as they watch the paint mixing with the bubbles.

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