Give kids what they really want: freedom to squish, squash, and splatter with abandon! These thrilling yet very sloppy activities are just the ticket. (And no worries—we’ve thrown in cleanup hacks for when the fun’s all over.)

By Jenny Comita
May 07, 2021
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If you've seen the look of pure bliss on the face of a 6-year-old splashing in a puddle, you know that a little mess can bring a lot of joy to a kid. The truth is that getting wet or sticky is also a component of healthy development for children.

"Think of messy play as turning on your child's brain," says Meghan Fitzgerald, a former elementary-school principal who founded Tinkergarten, an outdoor education program with locations in every state. "When they're covered in mud, they're seeing, feeling, hearing, and smelling the mud. All of their senses are activated, and their neurons are lighting up."

kids playing with paint on white canvas
Gross and goo-covered, or absolutely ecstatic? Both! (Go with it.)
| Credit: Priscilla Gragg

However, if kids are deprived of a chance to get messy, they can have trouble tolerating certain textures, which may contribute to issues like picky eating, says Pittsburgh-based occupational therapist Alisha Grogan. "If a kid isn't comfortable touching something unfamiliar, they may not want to put it in their mouth either."

parental pro tip

These days, providing kids with the opportunity to get dirty is more important than ever, given that many of them have been sitting in front of screens for much of the year, explains Jeffrey Hutchinson, M.D., an Austin-based pediatrician and coauthor of the most recent guidelines on play from the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Online play is structured and limited. The brain isn't picking up those different types of input."

To get kids started, we've offered up four full-sensory ways they can make a glorious mess.

Splatter Paint

splatter paint sensory play
girl wearing goggles with paint
Left: Credit: Priscilla Gragg
Right: Credit: Priscilla Gragg

With this project, it pays to present some supplies, give a quick how-to, and after that, step aside, advises art teacher Barbara Rucci, who blogs at Art Bar Blog and is the cofounder of The Creativity Project, a series of art-centric home-school guides. "Let kids take the lead because they'll be pretty excited." 

Craft Materials

  • Painter's drop cloth or a large, flattened cardboard box 
  • Paper (8x11 in. or larger) 
  • Washable tempera paints, preferably in squirt bottles
  • Cotton cosmetic rounds
  • Wooden spoons or mallets 

Instructions

  1. Lay down the drop cloth or cardboard, preferably outdoors, and rest paper on top of it. 
  2. Let your kid squirt a small blob of paint onto a cotton round. Set it on the paper, paint side down. 
  3. Hand them a wooden spoon and have them smash the round, splattering the paint on the paper to create a design that's splashy, swirly, or just utterly bonkers. 
  4. Experiment with layering colors, changing up the method (squirt the paint on the paper, then put the round on top), and varying the amount of paint and rounds. Kids can pick up the rounds after smashing or leave them as part of the artwork.

Cleanup Tips

Place a bucket filled with water and a sponge nearby. Kids will inevitably splash around, washing their hands, sponging down their arms, and rinsing the spoons. 

Make Pasta Noodles

Kids Making Homemade Pasta With Flour
kids playing with pasta flour
Left: Credit: Priscilla Gragg
Right: When the flour starts flying (as it surely will), scoot the kids outdoors pronto and let them have at it. | Credit: Priscilla Gragg

"Fingers are covered with gluey, pasty dough before it magically comes together," says Dana Bowen, who, along with business partner Sara Kate Gillingham, founded The Dynamite Shop, an online cooking school for kids. "We teach kids that mistakes happen but that it's all part of the process." Get Dynamite Shop's recipe for fresh pasta here.

Cleanup Tips

If you're doing this project in the kitchen, a rubber dough scraper, about $3, will remove gooey flour from countertops easily, Gillingham says. "We're also big proponents of the side towel—just a dish towel tucked into apron strings," which encourages kids to wipe hands and spills as they go.

Press Paper Pulp

press paper pulp play
Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Not only will kids have fun making paper by hand, they'll learn a bit of botany with these seed-studded wildflower cards, says molecular biologist Liz Heinecke, whose experiments with her own children led her to create her blog, Kitchen Pantry Scientist, and eight science books for children, including STEAM Lab for Kids. As an added experiment, "use different seeds in different papers and see which grows faster," Heinecke says.

Craft Materials

  • Construction paper
  • Water
  • Large bowl
  • Blender
  • Packet of wildflower seeds 
  • An old or inexpensive window screen 
  • Cookie cutters (any shape or size)
  • Flower petals 

Instructions

  1. Let your kid go to town tearing a bunch of the papers into bits. Once you get about 4 cups, add paper pieces to a large bowl; cover with water and soak for an hour. 
  2. Dump wet paper into blender with a little extra water, and blend, adding more water as needed to form a damp, not runny, sludge (an adult should handle this step). 
  3. Pour back into the bowl and stir in most of the seeds, setting a few aside for decorating. 
  4. Lay screen on the ground (if indoors, layer a tarp beneath). Place a few cookie cutters on top. Let your kid grab a handful of paper slop and press it into each cutter until it's about 1/4 in. thick. 
  5. Have your kid sprinkle reserved seeds and the petals on top of each shape. Let dry on screen, then pop out dried pulp from each cutter; shapes will be paper flowers that can sprout real flowers—just plant each paper in soil, and water. 

Cleanup Tips

"Washing the blender is another opportunity for learning," Heinecke says. "To teach your kids about a chemical reaction, add 1 cup white vinegar and ¼ cup baking soda to the blender and put on the lid. The explosion of carbon dioxide bubbles will help lift out the gunk." (Just watch out for overflow!)

Squish Shaving Cream

girl playing in shaving cream
squish shaving cream sensory play
Left: Credit: Priscilla Gragg
Right: Credit: Priscilla Gragg

Diving into a fluffy cloud of foam is a great way to experience a fun, new texture, says Grogan, who educates families on sensory issues and picky eating on the blog Your Kids Table. "Make the objects they're searching for somewhat visible so they don't have to dig far for them," she says. "Once they're used to the texture, you can bury the toys." 

Craft Materials

  • An assortment of small, waterproof toys (think Matchbox cars, dinosaur figurines, letters, or plastic dolls)
  • A plastic bin, baby pool, or water table 
  • Two cans of foamy shaving cream or children's foam soap 

Instructions

  1. Place the toys in the bin, and squirt the contents of the cans of shaving cream on top. 
  2. Send your kid on a search-and-rescue mission. If using letters, have them fish around until they pull out their name. Or ask them to find a red car or the T. rex. "Often, kids will start to enjoy the texture and get silly and want to sit in the shaving cream or spread it over their bodies," Grogan says. "That's the whole point here. Encourage it!"

Cleanup Tips

Keep the game going." Bust out the hose and have your kid give the dolls a shower, or set up a car wash with a bucket and towels," Grogan suggests. 

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's June 2021 issue as "The Wild, Wild Mess." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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