“MESSY play?” I hear you gasp. “I spend my days trying to minimise mess, not actively encourage it!”
It’s OK, I know. I understand! I’ve got a confession to make. Before I had my daughter I was a little, well, I was pretty anal, to be frank. About everything. And I still am really. Which is hard for my so-laid-back-he’s-practically-horizontal boyfriend to understand. It took him quite a while to get why the red cushion with the white polka dots COULD NOT BE ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE COUCH! I’d go so far as to say that he still doesn’t understand that actually (don’t know why, I mean, can you imagine it on the other side? Ludicrous!), but he goes along with it. When I was pregnant I was led to believe that children are messy little things and I used to joke that I’d either be the most organised mum in the world or I’d go mad.
I chose madness quite early on.
I’m a lot more relaxed than I used to be, especially now that my daughter is mobile. I’ve discovered that if everything is neatly put away she’s likely to try to get into mischief, whereas if she’s sitting in the middle of the floor surrounded by toys and books she can happily amuse herself for twenty minutes or so, leaving me time to check Facebook do very important work things. But as soon as she’s asleep I still rush round like a whirlwind trying to regain some sense of order, even if I do feel like it’s just damage limitation most of the time.
So I probably don’t seem like your ideal candidate for messy play but I read about it somewhere and it sounded fun and I’d seen how much my daughter loved sticking her hands in her yoghurt and “painting” on the table, so I thought I’d give it a go. My first idea was spaghetti. How much fun is that stuff? You know, from a baby’s point of view. It’s slimy and mushy and slippery and long and you can stick your hands right into it and throw it about and if you happen to eat any of it, it’s totally safe. So I bought some Tesco Value spaghetti (other brands are available) and cooked it up, ran it under cold water to cool it off and make it super slimy and we were ready to go. At first I tried putting it in the washing up bowl but soon realised I was fighting a losing battle and just tipped it onto the floor. J loved it! I pretty much just sat back and let her get on with it, she spent ages just sticking her hands in, then trying to pick it up and letting it run through her fingers. Then I gave her a wooden spoon and she dug around with that for a while. I think she ate a mouthful or two but that’s OK! And it was easy to clean up, I just swept it into a pile then chucked it into the bin, it took about 15 seconds!
The next thing I wanted to try was painting. I bought some baby friendly paints and chose a sunny day (back in march, remember? The week before it snowed) and set up on the lawn. I stripped J down to her nappy (making sure she was in the shade, no nasty sunburn for us!) and spread out some sheets of paper in front of her. Then I made little puddles of paint and again sat back and left her to experiment. She loved putting her hands in it and spreading it around, making patterns and scrunching up the wet paper. Clean up for this one was as simple as having a fun bubble bath which, to J, is a continuation of the fun, rather than an end to it. We’ve also done this inside on a bad weather day and just laid newspaper down. We’ve got a couple of splash mats but it’s easier with newspaper as you can just bundle it up and stick it straight into the recycling bin.
Other things we’ve tried are:
Dying some dry rice with food colouring and pouring it through funnels and in and out of cups. That’s best done on newspaper so it can be poured into a large sandwich bag and kept for use again.
Freezing food colouring in ice cubes and putting in a bath. They scud about as they melt, billowing clouds of red and blue behind them, and J loved trying to catch them and then splashing about in purple water! I was slightly worried I’d end up dying her hair or something but it stained neither baby nor bath. Clean up time here is as simple as pulling the plug!
More yoghurt painting on the table. This is usually at the end of the day before J’s bath. She generally needs a full change of clothes every day so I don’t even bother with a bib, just put it all in the washing basket and then wipe the table, which I’d do anyway, so no extra cleaning time. Another option is naked mealtimes, less laundry and toddlers seem to be little naturists anyway, when left to their own devices!
Baked beans! In the washing up bowl with newspaper down or just straight onto the paper. Again, safe if eaten and clean up is simple.
Bubble baths. This can be at the end of the day or a nice way to cool down on a sticky day. We add a good dollop of Burts Bees baby bubble bath and I also blow some bubbles for J to pop.
I have it on good authority that jelly, cooked porridge and “gloop” (cornflour mixed with water) are all great for sensory play and I’m looking forward to trying them out with J.
So, having seen first hand how easy it is to do messy play in a relatively non-messy way, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to even the most fastidious amongst us. People say there’s no point doing messy play as nursery does it anyway, and it’s true, the children get to do it either way BUT, you don’t! And actually, once you forget about the “messy” part, you might just have fun.