A fine mess

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Despite appearances, messy play can make an enormous contribution to babies' and young children's cognitive and creative development What do we think about when we hear the word 'messy'? Untidy, muddled, disorganised, confused, cluttered, shambolic, disordered, disarray or perhaps the instruction, 'Don't make a mess'.

Despite appearances, messy play can make an enormous contribution to babies' and young children's cognitive and creative development

What do we think about when we hear the word 'messy'? Untidy, muddled, disorganised, confused, cluttered, shambolic, disordered, disarray or perhaps the instruction, 'Don't make a mess'.

The word messy is often given negative meanings and calling an important aspect of play 'messy' can lead to it being undervalued. This guide aims to reclaim messy play as an important part of early years provision and demonstrate its importance for young children's learning and development.

In this article I will be sharing the work of the Thomas Coram Centre for Children and Families, a partnership between Coram Family, one of the oldest children's charities in this country, and the London Borough of Camden. The centre works with children from birth (and before), their parents and the wider community.


To mess about is to play with something and it is through play - which is part of the creative process (Duffy 1998) - that children learn and develop. Children are being creative when they use materials in new ways, combine previously unconnected materials and make discoveries that are new to them, and messy play enables children to do all these things. It is this aspect of messy play that we want to emphasise, and our definition of messy play at Thomas Coram is: play that emphasises the active exploration of materials and their properties.

Messy play involves:

* children using all their senses in the process of exploration, especially the sense of touch

* offering children plenty of opportunity to mould and manipulate materials

* not having a focus on making or producing something.

This sort of play is important because its lack of a focus on making or producing something leaves the child free to explore all sorts of possibilities. It taps into children's innate curiosity about the world around them and their strong desire to explore and find out more.

By giving children messy play opportunities, we give them the opportunity to explore materials fully. Messy play is also enjoyable; we have only to look at children freely exploring water and paint to see their enjoyment and, as the Primary Strategy document Excellence and Enjoyment (DfES 2003) stresses, enjoyment is a good thing and something to aspire to and encourage in all early years settings.

Cognitive development

One word associated with 'messy' is 'confused', and it seems to me that confusion can be a very good thing. The creative process is characterised by risk taking, trying things out and experimenting, and an insight often occurs at the very moment when we are confused and have to look deeper. For me, there is a strong link between the process involved in messy play and Piaget's concept of cognitive disequilibrium.

Cognitive disequilibrium is when thinking has to change to incorporate new information. Children's interpretation of the world is challenged when they take on new information and find that they now have two contradictory views of the same event. Here are two examples:

* Bubbles intrigue the babies at Thomas Coram and watching their first encounter is fascinating. Their previous experience has led them to believe that spherical shapes such as bubbles are solid and can be held, so as the adult blows the bubbles they reach out to catch them. But as soon as their hand closes on the bubble it vanishes. The look of surprise on their face as they puzzle on this new insight is a moment of cognitive disequilbrium.

* Three-year-olds experiencing cornflower for the first time can experience a similar reaction. They see what appears to be a solid surface and reach in to take a handful. At first the cornflower stays solid but then it turns into a powder and falls through their fingers, causing them to rethink their understanding of materials.

Special benefits

Messy play, therefore, brings benefits to all children's learning (for birth to three, see p20 and for three to five, see p22). However, it has particular benefits for particular groups.

It offers new children a way to become involved and get to know other children. As this sort of play does not rely on words, children who are in the process of acquiring English as an additional language can join in and use the materials with their peers. There is no 'right' way to play with cornflower or dough and children with special needs and disabilities are able to use these open-ended materials in their own way as part of the group.

Addressing the obstacles

Despite all the contributions messy play can make to children's learning and development there does seem to be a reluctance to promote messy play in some settings. One reason may be the associations with such words as muddled, confused and shambolic. This has led to this type of play being seen as unimportant and undervalued.

The neglect of such play may be connected with our own and other people's anxieties about children making a mess - what will other people think? How will the caretaker react? Will parents be cross if their children's clothes are spoiled?

The lack of focus on an end product may also deter some people. As someone asked me recently, 'Can I really put "exploring materials" as a learning objective on my plan? Wouldn't people want to see more?'

Lack of control and things getting out of hand is another worry for some practitioners. Allowing children to explore freely needn't lead to anarchy if the adults are well prepared, actively involved in supporting the children and leave plenty of time to tidy up - something I know from personal experience.

Many years ago I decided to introduce a group of one-year-olds to body painting. I mixed a range of colours, undressed the children and left them to explore as they wished. Once they overcame their initial reluctance, the children explored freely and were engrossed. However, I had severely underestimated the amount of time it would take to tidy up.

Perhaps predictably the paint went everywhere - all over the floor, walls and children. The children were easier to clean than the room, but by the time we had bathed them all, they were tired and hungry as their lunch and naps had been delayed. The room took much longer to clean. A little forward planning would have given the children the opportunity to explore but avoided the chaos that followed!

Using food

Using foodstuffs for messy play can be controversial. It is important that each setting takes time to discuss their position and reach their own conclusions. Our position is that food is part of the world around the children and something that they need to explore. For us concerns about world hunger are best addressed by encouraging the children's sense of responsibility to others. We also think that it is important to encourage a respect for food by incorporating growing food and cooking into the day-to-day life of the centre.


Always remember to check materials for potential dangers and do not leave children unsupervised. For example, check for chemicals in wallpaper paste, think about the size of materials such as lentils to avoid choking. When using foods, check for allergies and dietary requirements.

Parents and carers

The importance of working in partnership with parents is a key theme in both Birth to Three Matters and Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, and having parental support is particularly important when it comes to messy play.

Some practitioners express concern, and on occasion annoyance, at certain parents' unwillingness to allow their child to explore freely materials such as paint, clay or water. In turn, some parents are confused by practitioners' views that making a mess is important, especially when it involves doing things that are often actively discouraged at home.

Hands-on workshops for parents and children are a good way of introducing parents to messy play and enabling them to experience at first hand the pleasure that children get from these materials and the possibilities for learning that occur.

The adult role

For creativity to flourish, children need to be actively involved in the process of learning (Prentice 2000), and our role as practitioners is to make sure that this happens.

As practitioners, we need to use our imaginations, take risks and leave the security of structured lessons. Sometimes there is a tendency to prepare the materials for messy play and stand back while the children explore, but children will gain so much more from the experience if we engage in the process with them. We need to learn from and with the children as they engage in messy play.

The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education Project (EPPE 2003) stresses the importance of adult-child interactions. Children's freely chosen play offers many opportunities to promote learning when practitioners recognise its importance and interact with children while they play.

We can support learning through 'modelling', that is when the practitioner shows the children possible ways to explore new materials and equipment.

Open-ended questioning is also very important, as are pondering and thinking aloud. For example, 'I wonder why that happened?' or 'I wonder what would happen if I add more water?' Such comments draw the children's attention to the possibilities for exploration without putting them under pressure to find a right answer.

It is also important for practitioners to know when to be silent, when to pause before speaking and when to give the child the opportunity to speak first.

These adult behaviours are often associated with periods of sustained shared thinking, when practitioners and children 'work together' in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity, or extend a narrative, and it is one of the best ways to encourage learning.


The outdoors offers all sorts of wonderful possibilities for messy play.

Children can make the most of natural resources and work on a bigger scale than indoors. For example, children can:

* dig deep in sand and soil

* make and explore mud, in particular making mud pies

* splash in puddles and explore water in paddling pools

* move water using guttering, pumps and pipes

* mix large amounts of sand and water.


Messy play is about exploring a process and in most cases does not result in an end product. It is vital, therefore, that we find ways to record this process for the children to reflect upon their experiences and to share with others.

Digital photography is a great way to record the process, and the photographs can be added, with accompanying notes, to a child's portfolio, or used to create a display complete with the children's comments on their learning.

If you have access to a video camera, record episodes of play to reflect on with the children, in team meetings and with parents. Video offers practitioners the opportunity to see the 'bigger picture', to see things that we may have missed at the time.

Promoting messy play

The following observation from my godson Matty, for me, best describes someone who promotes messy play. Some years ago practitioners from his nursery came to a conference and heard me speak. When they returned to their nursery they tried to explain to him what I did for a living.

The next time I saw Matty he looked at me accusingly and said, 'I know what you do.' Surprised I asked what he meant. 'You're one of them...You're a head mischief!' Like messy play I think being a head mischief is to be encouraged in early years settings.


* Department for Education and Skills (DfES) (2002) Birth to Three Matters - a framework to support children in their earliest years, London

* DfES (2003) Excellence and Enjoyment - a strategy for primary schools, London

* Duffy, B (1998) Supporting Creativity and Imagination in the Early Years, Milton Keynes: Open University Press

* Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) (2003) Findings from the Pre-school Period - Summary of Findings, Institute of Education, University of London

* Piaget, J (1926) The languages and thoughts of the child, London: Routledge and Kegan

* Prentice, R (2000) Creativity: a reaffirmation of its place in early childhood education, The Curriculum Research Journal 11, 2, 145-58

* Qualification and Curriculum Authority (2000) Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, London


* Make sure that you are clear about and can articulate the value of messy play.

* Do not assume that parents and colleagues share your opinions, and make time to talk to them about your views.

* Allow plenty of time for messy play - children need space and time to explore.

* Prepare well. Colleagues, especially cleaners, deserve consideration.

* Cover floors and walls with plastic sheeting. Define the area available for messy play and ensure that the children who do not wish to be involved have the space for their choices.

* Protect children's clothes from the materials. Remove as much clothing as possible to enable the children to explore freely and provide aprons and overalls as appropriate. Make sure that there is a space ready to wash off materials such as paint when the children have finished.

* Use retrospective planning - leave your learning objective open, observe the children as they play and interact and record their learning at the end of the session.

* Document the process to share with others.

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