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 1. Don’t put pressure on your child.

Messy play is a love it / hate it activity. Not all children like it at first. It can take time to get used to certain textures and  the feeling of the different materials. Follow your child’s interests. If they like water, use water as a messy play activity. If they don’t like to get wet, add spoons and tools so they can explore the water without touching it. A drop might end up on their hands and that will slowly allow them to start building their relationship with it.

2. Give them time and space

Don’t persuade their attention when they are looking at different things. Just watch them. They might or might not show interest on the different items but just give them a few minutes to explore by themselves whenever they are ready. Just be there as an observant. Watch their actions and try to remember what they do and what they like or they don’t like so next time you can provide more (or less) of those. If they like stacking, add items that are easy to stack. If they like pouring, add items like jugs or containers so they can pour and transfer materials between them.

3. Keep things very simple

Add just a few items as a setup and see how the child gets on. You can add more items as the child plays, for example, if they are painting just add paper and paint and a paintbrush (or no paintbrush so they can use their hands). After exploring the paint with the paintbrush, you can add cotton wool so they can mix the cotton wool with the paint. You can then add stamps, etc and slowly add or swap items to extend the activity. If you add everything from the start the child will probably get very overwhelmed and only last 2 minutes with the activity. As you add the items don’t give any instructions. Again, just watch and see what happens and curiosity will lead the way. You can make suggestions if you think your child needs them.

4. Narrate what you see

This is a really simple but powerful tool to help your child build vocabulary while they play. Don’t tell them what to do, simply narrate what you see. By listening to your words, they are adding vocabulary to their actions and building a structure in their brain. They might not be talking yet or they might be struggling to make sentences but by listening to what they do, they will make constant connections between their actions, the items around them and the vocabulary.

5. Offer alternatives when they feel frustrated

Some toys might cause frustration depending on the skills of the child and how they deal with things when they don’t go as expected (ability to deal with frustration). Lego, for example, can be quite tricky to stick together and kids tend to feel frustrated when this happens. You could swap Lego for magnetic tiles until the child is ready to play with the Lego blocks. It is good to experience frustration during play as it is only by practicing that their ability to cope with it will improve, but sometimes we just need to make things easier to start off.

6. Start with dry items

Lots of children have a hate relationship with wet messy play. They get annoyed when things get stuck on their hands (paint, jelly, gloop, etc.). We want them to have a positive experience with messy play so when this is the case, it is better to start with dry items (rice, pasta shapes, chickpeas, leaves, rocks, cornflakes, Weetabix, etc.). This dislike can be something just naturally built in them (they naturally hate that feeling on their skin) or sometimes they just have had negative experiences when getting messy (adult giving out or trying to constantly clean them for example).

Starting with dry items can ease the introduction of messy play in their life. You can slowly move towards more wet materials. When you do that, you can add tools so they don’t have to touch it directly (stirring with a spoon or a stick for example). It might take time, but it is so worth it and every single activity brings the child closer to having a more enjoyable experience.

7. Mix their favourite toys with new items to explore

Most children have a special relationship with some toys. It could be a teddy, a figure, a picture, a block, a blanket…. Anything! When you want to introduce new items (water, sand, rice, new blocks, etc. any kind of sensory materials) you could mix the toys they like with these new items. For example, if they like Peppa Pig figures, you could made muddy puddles with soil and the figures for Peppa to jump on it, to hide, to explore. You can then narrate what you see: "oh Peppa is very happy on this muddy puddle, she keeps jumping up and down. She is covered in mud. She jumps very fast." Maybe the child will say: "Oh no! she is so dirty!" Then you can suggest a bath for Peppa and wash her in a bucket with water. Ask your child questions, don’t do it all yourself “do we need anything else? What do you use when you have a shower? Oh soap! Let’s get some soap!”

8. Prepare the environment

When a toy sits on the same place for too long it becomes invisible to the child. Sometimes just by moving it and putting it on an unexpected or new space the child will feel suddenly attracted to it. This is what I call “gentle manipulation to play”. Here is an example. You can fill a container with pasta shapes and ask your child to play with it and put some pompoms inside. They might not show any interest. But you can also leave that container full of rice and pompoms with spoons around it on the kitchen table. They will feel curious “what is that doing here? What’s inside? Am I allowed to touch it? Because I really want to touch it!”.

Children are naturally curious and unexpected items like this will really get their attention. Depending on the age and interests of the children you can plan different activities of this type (printables with scissors and colours, cardboard and paint, buckets and socks, etc.)

9. Provide a whole experience, not just a quick activity

Activities can last for 2 minutes or for 2 weeks. Sometimes we can create more meaningful activities for the children when we extend them over a few days. You could go on a walk and pick up some flowers and rocks, that’s the first activity. Another day you could put all the flowers in a bucket and look at them, match colours, feel the textures, add some water and make flower potions… Another day you could wash the rocks with soapy water. And another day you could paint those rocks and organise them by size. Another day you could hide the rocks around the house and go on a rock hunt.

Children will get familiar with those same items by seeing them and using them again and again in many different ways. They will listen to that same vocabulary many times and finally make it their own.

10. A positive experience when you enjoy it too

If you don’t feel comfortable with the mess, don’t expect your child to like it! These activities don’t need to be overly messy. Start small, keep it simple, try outdoors, invite a friend… Whatever makes you enjoy it too! Don’t worry about the mess, you can wash it after. Focus on your child, on their learning, their enjoyment.

If there is no mess to wash, there will be no memories to learn from either.

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