Learning & development: Messy Play for Under-Threes - Make a splash

The youngest children will delight in using their whole bodies to explore water, says Jean Evans.

Exploring water provides babies with a range of sensations, both soothing and stimulating.

As long as the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold and the babies are carefully supervised, they should be encouraged to explore independently and make as much mess as they like.


Provide a Tuff Spot builder's tray, or similar, in the centre of an open washable floor space to give babies easy access to the water. This will enable the youngest ones to sit inside wearing only a nappy, held securely by an adult. Older babies can crawl, sit, lie or stand alongside, or sit or stand in the centre. Pour a layer of warm water into the tray and keep topping it up as it spills or splashes over.

Organisational tips

- Keep drying the floor surrounding the tray to prevent the children from slipping.

- Have towels ready to wrap the children in when they have finished playing.

- Do not add resources initially, but older babies will enjoy paddling among plastic ducks and fish.

Sensory explorations

Touch and feel

- Dip a small sponge into the water and gently pat a small baby's arms, legs and cheeks. Draw the sponge over the skin - for example, from shoulder to hand. Squeeze the sponge so that the water trickles slowly on to the baby.

- Hold the baby's hands and pat the palms on the surface of the water. Do the same with the baby's feet. Encourage older babies to try out their own ideas.

- As you support babies, talk through your actions with a running commentary - for example, 'I am patting you with my soft sponge. Pat, pat, pat. I think you are enjoying that, Hetty. You are smiling at me.' For those who are exploring independently, encourage further experimentation by commenting and questioning, for example, 'You are splashing with your feet, Ben. I wonder if you can wiggle your toes?' Touch the child's toes and say 'Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle' as you gently manipulate them.

- Look and listen

- Put the water tray near a window to catch the sun's rays. Spread a layer of foil or hologram paper at the bottom before putting in the water to create an even greater effect.

- Experiment with a safety mirror at the bottom of the tray.

- Try adding non-toxic colouring to the water. Introduce small-world toy sea or pond creatures and spot them swimming in the water.

- Pour water so that it catches the light as it falls.

- As you squeeze sponges, comment on the sound of the water trickling into the tray. Make louder sounds by splashing with your hand or pouring water from a jug.

- Comment on your actions and those of the babies as before.

What next?

- Put coloured and plain water in zip-lock bags, double-sealed with strong tape to avoid leakages. Encourage small babies to feel, pat and stroke the bags. Add ice cubes to vary temperature and shape.

- Take babies outside to feel rain on their faces and hands, and hold them so they can splash their feet in puddles. Make indoor rain with a watering can and pour it gently over babies wearing only nappies.

Thanks to the Stepping Stones Childcare Centre, County Durham, for the photographs of this activity

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