Let Your Kids Get Messy

messy play 2024

Most parents have vetoed a messy activity simply to avoid the cleanup. It’s time to let go. Messy play is sensory play—the gold standard of early childhood learning. Children learn best when they engage multiple senses. The more they can touch, taste, see, feel and hear in their play activities, the better. Here are tips to engage in sensory play:

Messy Play for Babies
If your baby can sit up, she’s probably ready for messy play. She might be hesitant at first, but keep trying. These activities will be more fun as she gains familiarity with them.

Body paint. Let baby be your canvas. Use non-toxic, water-based paint and a soft brush to cover her skin with bright colors. Contain the mess by painting in an empty bathtub. Your wiggly little masterpiece will be free to touch, explore and smear. When the fun is over, simply rinse the paint away. Not ready for an epic mess? Fill the brush with water instead of paint.

Colored spaghetti. A bowl of spaghetti is a wonderful, squishy experience for a baby. Add color by mixing cooked noodles with a drop of food coloring and oil or find a recipe for natural food coloring. Omitting color will still create a fun sensory experience.

Water play. Gather an assortment of plastic containers and cups. Fill the large containers with water. Show your baby how to scoop the water from one container to another. Talk about the noises you can make by pouring, dumping and splashing the water.

Messy Play for Little Kids
Ready to get messy with your youngster? Try these activities with your preschool or elementary-aged kids.

Cornstarch goop. Combine two parts cornstarch and one part water. The irresistible goop has a unique consistency that changes from sort-of-solid when you press it, to sort-of-liquid when you pour it. It washes off quickly with a little water. Mix in a couple drops of food coloring for messy bonus points.

Ice block. In a large mixing bowl, freeze small plastic toys in a few inches of water at a time so there are toys “layered” throughout the bowl. Once it’s solid, remove the hunk of ice and place it in a larger plastic bin. Experiment with different tools to introduce warm water—like turkey basters or squirt guns—to melt the ice block. The giant puddle will be well contained in the bin.

Shaving cream. It’s versatile and washes away easily. Practice writing sight words in it. Or add a drop of food coloring to paint with it. For something completely different, add ice cubes and build with it. The cream will act like mortar. (Note: keep shaving cream away from eyes.)

Messy Activities for Older Kids
Tweens and teens need to get messy, too. Encourage your child’s unique interests with these hands-on learning activities.

Cooking Creating a meal is the ultimate sensory experience. Teach your child the basics; then let her try a recipe by herself. Supervise from a distance. Don’t stress about the mess and be OK with mistakes. The skills will encourage a lifetime of creative expression and thoughtful food choices.

Tinkering. Encourage your tween to design, build or disassemble something, whether it’s a machine, childhood toy or homemade costume. Agree on a designated space where tools, parts and pieces can remain until the project is finished so clutter doesn’t take over the house.


Where to Get Messy in San Diego
The Hot Spot is a family-friendly ceramics and candle studio. Drop in anytime to paint your own pottery or create a stunning candle. www.thehotspotstudio.com

The New Children’s Museum offers rotating sensory activities in a beautiful multi-story space downtown. Workshops are also available. www.thinkplaycreate.org

San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum in Escondido offers hands-on learning opportunities for young children. www.sdcdm.org

Pachis Art Studio at Liberty Station offers classes, workshops and art play for children as young as 18 months. www.mypachis.com.


Mess-Free Sensory Play
Not all sensory play is messy. Other ways to engage the senses include:

  • Music and movement
  • Light or shadow play
  • Exploring different textures
  • Smelling or tasting new foods


Anne Malinoski is a freelance writer and mother of two boys.

Find fun experiments to do at home in Family Science.

Published March 2017

Parenting with Purpose: Raising Hope in Turbulent Times

Parenting with Purpose: Raising Hope in Turbulent Times

Families navigating the challenges of a global pandemic need hope now more than ever. Hope that inspires belief in a better future and empowers action to make that future happen. Are you ready for s . . .

Read more

Finding Joy in a Challenging Holiday Season

Finding Joy in a Challenging Holiday Season

The holidays can be stressful even under normal circumstances. With added uncertainty and current restrictions this year, they may feel more challenging than ever—even for the jolliest among us. I . . .

Read more

Turn Words Into Action: Create a Family Action Plan for Change

Turn Words Into Action: Create a Family Action Plan for Change

For families who want to be part of the change to end racial inequality, there's never been a better time to create a family action plan. A thoughtful plan, built around empathy and compassion, equi . . .

Read more

How to Raise Kids to Be Allies

How to Raise Kids to Be Allies

Parents who want children to stand up for what's right and fair have a responsibility to teach kids how to be an ally to others by cultivating empathy and compassion at home. What is an ally? Ev . . .

Read more

5 Ways to Keep Spirits Up While Kids Are at Home

5 Ways to Keep Spirits Up While Kids Are at Home

In the midst of the worldwide coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, parents everywhere are trying to figure out how to manage long days in quarantine with kids who are bouncing off walls and wondering wh . . .

Read more

10 Ways to Practice Self-Care: A guide for busy parents

10 Ways to Practice Self-Care: A guide for busy parents

It’s necessary to take breaks from the hustle and bustle of life — to pause and recharge. Practicing self-care can mean something different to each individual, but the whole family benefits when . . .

Read more

Set Family Goals to Reap Big Rewards 

Set Family Goals to Reap Big Rewards 

Make your family’s health and happiness the focus this year by gathering setting family goals (notice we didn’t use the word resolution — see note at bottom). Here are suggestions that offer h . . .

Read more

Multigenerational Gatherings: A recipe for success

Multigenerational Gatherings: A recipe for success

Growing healthy emotional bonds between generations helps children develop a sense of identity, continuity and an understanding of their place in family history. Kids who regularly interact with old . . .

Read more

Single Parent? Find Your Tribe!

Single Parent? Find Your Tribe!

No one knows better than single parents the importance of having a team of people to handle the day-to-day demands of life with kids. Call it a team. Call it a village. Call it a tribe. Whatever you . . .

Read more

How to Help Fighting Siblings Make Peace

How to Help Fighting Siblings Make Peace

Images of smiling siblings are impressive for social media, but life with two or more children is decidedly less picture-perfect. According to research from University of Toronto, toddler-age siblin . . .

Read more

Parenting with Purpose: Why Parent/Child Dates Are So Important

Parenting with Purpose: Why Parent/Child Dates Are So Important

Scheduling regular one-on-one dates (outings) with kids is a fun way for families to build lasting bonds while setting kids up with the skills and experience needed to grow healthy relationships for . . .

Read more

How and Why to Develop  Growth Mindset in Kids

How and Why to Develop Growth Mindset in Kids

Is intelligence something you’re born with or something that develops? Is failure an opportunity to learn and grow, or something that impedes success? How a parent answers these questions greatly . . .

Read more

Early Childhood Red Flags

Early Childhood Red Flags

Are you getting a sense that your child may be "different" from other children? Here are early childhood red flags that need attention.  “Einstein didn’t speak until he was 4 years old” . . .

Read more

Parenting with Purpose: Raising Resilient Kids

Parenting with Purpose: Raising Resilient Kids

Teaching children how to do difficult things comes with parenting. We coach and encourage kids through frustration, tears and bursts of anger as they learn to tie shoes, write their names and ride a . . .

Read more

Tips to Teach Kids Time Management

Tips to Teach Kids Time Management

We all know that before school starts we need to schedule annual checkups and go back-to-school shopping, but how do we set our kids up for success that will last through the school year and beyond? . . .

Read more

Parenting with Purpose: Create Family Routines

Parenting with Purpose: Create Family Routines

Routines are like operating systems that set families up for success. They make it possible to complete essential daily tasks with the least amount of resistance, reduce family stress and help thing . . .

Read more

San Diego Family Magazine Logo

Be Family Informed – Sign up for our Newsletters below!