Written by Vicki Macchiavello for Nannies Plus

Experts in child development know that messy play is important for small children…but it’s also, well, messy.

Freedom to explore and experiment with materials and objects that make a mess supports a growing child’s gross and fine motor skills and that freedom is bought with the currency of clean up.

Through messy play, a nanny or family assistant has the opportunity to not only support a child’s development but also teach the child how to clean up after themselves–which is a win-win!

Here are 5 messy but awesome activities, with tips for clean up, that a nanny, family assistant, or parent can use with their charges or children.

Water is probably a child’s first messy play. As an easy access material, it can be contained in a kid size water table, bath tub, or sink. Consider giving the little one in your care some measuring cups, funnels, and larger cups or bowls to practice pouring and catching the water. The child will splash about and when they are done, have some towels on hand to demonstrate wiping up the mess.

Dirt and sand
Another easy access material, allowing a child to play with good old mother earth is a great way to encourage messy play. Dig holes and fill them up again. Allow the little ones to rake their hands through the dirt. As long as the dirt isn’t too wet, clean up can be as easy and brushing off their hands and clothes, then sweeping any dirt or sand back to where it came from.

Mud is next level messy play and is as easily accessed as water and dirt. Mix the two together and the child gets mud, which becomes mud cakes to be patted and squished and “sold” to nanny (or mom or dad) for the price of a high five and a solid hour of messy play. After the activity is complete, help the child rinse down the (outdoor) play space and tools used, wash their hands, and change into clean clothes.

Plant material
Nature, especially in spring, has A LOT to offer to support a little’s one need for messy play. The gathering of flowers, leaves, and sticks is a fun sensory activity that can lend itself to nature art. Lay out gathered plant material to make temporary mandalas or allow the child to tear it all up and toss it about like confetti. The best part about this messy play is that as long as it’s done outdoors in the environment that the plant came from, there isn’t much to clean up.

Beans are an inexpensive sensory activity for children who are past the age of putting small things in their mouth. Give the child a deep wide tub full of about a pound of beans. Similar to water play, beans can be poured through funnels, back and forth between containers, and are even fun to use with some sand toys. Clean up consists of gathering up any beans that have fallen out side of the tub and then putting all the beans in a large ziplock bag to be used again in the future.

Giving children the time and space to make messes is one of the most important things a nanny or family assistant can do to support their development. Helping the children clean up is the bonus of messy play.

What is your favorite way to make a mess, then clean up, with kids?