What's So Important About Messy Play?

Transcript of this week's "Developmental Thought," an excerpt from the full episode. For additional information, music, play ideas and the complete interactive family experience, please listen to the entire episode.

Ah, messy play. The image that often comes to the mind's eye is of walls and floors splattered with paint, an extra load of laundry, and a lot of extra work. Let me tell you this: messy play can be a big ordeal, but it doesn't have to be. Yes, summer time is often a great time to ensure the least amount of mess by getting young children outside on a surface you can easily spray down, but there are a lot of other ways to integrate messy play opportunities into your little one's life even in the dead of winter. But let's talk about why messy play is so important, first.

The introduction of any object or activity to an infant or toddler will be seen as a “play” activity. You might be familiar with the quote from Maria Montessori, “play is the work of the child.” As we have discussed in previous episodes, a young child learns through experience and interaction. When we give our young children opportunities to explore textures, whether bumpy and smooth or wet and dry, we give them opportunities to learn. When a young child can play with materials that allow them to explore the environment with all their senses, there is a lot of learning happening! What we refer to as “messy play” is simply what happens when a child is able to engage in rich textural experiences. When your baby is able to freely explore the world of texture, he learns the concepts of slimy, smooth, wet, bumpy, etc., he learns that what he does with his body has an impact on the objects with which he plays, and on the world (cause and effect), and he learns about vocabulary when you talk about what he or the two of you are doing. Since this kind of play is naturally open-ended, he learns about self-expression and creation. He learns about what it is to investigate and problem solve when he manipulates materials – as one of my favorite child development researchers, Alison Gopnik, likes to say, he gets to practice becoming a “little scientist.”

Since this kind of play is naturally open-ended, he learns about self-expression and creation. He learns about what it is to investigate and problem solve when he manipulates materials – as one of my favorite child development researchers, Alison Gopnik, likes to say, he gets to practice becoming a “little scientist.”

That brings us to the question of how to provide these experiences in a way that we as adults are comfortable… and this is where we must get a little creative, and need to give a little forethought to the ways in which we can structure the activity so that we are ok with the kind of clean up that will need to happen at the end. So we use wipeable (or hoseable) surfaces – making sure that plastic trays, bathtubs, old table cloths, tarps, or large pieces of paper are available inside or outside, depending on the kind of activity we offer.

We use safe tools and provide supervision. Most importantly, and we’ll talk more about this in a future episode, we involve our young child in whatever way possible, and make the clean up into another activity of its own, where imitation, play, and success are valued above “getting the job done quickly.”

Resources:

Alison Gopnik Feature on ABC News: abcnews.go.com/Nightline/video/kids-play-10275716

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Ayelet Marinovich, M.A. CCC-SLP

Ayelet Marinovich, M.A. CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist specializing in work with pre-verbal infants, toddlers, non-verbal children, and their families. The Strength In Words podcast and blog were created as an additional resource for families of young children with infants & toddlers of all developmental levels. It is not intended to be a substitute for speech and language therapy.