Messy creative play!

Getting messy is an important part of our children’s learning and development, so, as parents, not only should we embrace the mess, but we should actively encourage it! Here are just some of the reasons you should get out the paints, glues and glitter and a few ideas for activities to take part in with your child. 

Less structure, more learning

Children learn through play, but they learn best through the kind of play that allows them to explore and experiment. Free-flow unstructured play allows them to discover what different objects and materials feel, smell and look like. It also takes the emphasis away from being ‘good’ at something, which even pre-schoolers may be starting to feel. There’s no right and wrong with messy arts and crafts – it’s just about having a go and letting their imagination run wild.

Process – not product!

Art and creativity for young children is about the process, not the final result. So don’t expect a work of art that you can hang on the wall every time. If you end up with a piece of paper filled with big brown splodges, then your child has probably learnt what happens when you mix all the colours together (clue: you get brown!) and even more about their senses and abilities. Focusing on the activity, rather than an end goal, takes away pressure and puts the emphasis on fun and learning.

Let your child lead the way

Of course you are better at drawing than your child; but young children learn how to do these things by practising, not copying, so there’s little to be gained from demonstrating your own skills and imposing your choices. Let your child make the decisions about what they want to create and how they want to do it. The choice doesn’t have to be open ended, and in fact, too many choices can be overwhelming. Just suggest an activity, then give your child free rein with how things pan out.

Skill set

Having fun with arty stuff is a boost to your child’s creativity and imagination – and it’s great fun. But there are other less obvious benefits to letting your child get messy with paints, pens and clay.

Relaxation Your pre-schooler is probably already picking up on the fact that getting the house, clothes and skin messy is not often encouraged in the world, so occasions when the usual rules are relaxed can be a calming and liberating experience. It’s vital that if you find mess difficult, you don’t let this show. Remind yourself that a bath, a washing machine and some washing up liquid will very quickly set things to rights again!

Communication Keep chatting about what you’re doing together as you go along. Tell your child what you like about what they’ve made, ask what they like about it, and listen to their ideas and feelings about the process. But don’t ask ‘what is it?’ – it probably isn’t anything!

What you’ll need

You don’t need to spend lots, but having a few basic items will open up a wealth of creative opportunities for you and your child. Keep arts and crafts materials out, or easily available, so that your child can get creative whenever the urge takes them.

Paper – You can get enormous rolls of paper cheaply from craft shops so that there’s no limit to the size of the art works your child can produce. Cheaper still, try a roll of wallpaper lining.

Paper plates – A cheap packet of paper plates can be great for making masks, turning into hats or just making a picture that’s a different shape for a change!

Washable pens and paint – When choosing pens, try to look out for the E child safety mark to minimise the choking hazard if being used by young children. Whatever pens or paint you decided to use, however, do make sure they’re washable – otherwise embracing the mess will be that little bit more difficult for the person who ends up doing the laundry!

PVA glue – It’s safe for children, and peels pretty easily off surfaces once dry. 

Cotton wool – Cheap, and great for gluing to things to make sheep, clouds, snow… or anything your child can dream up!

Random stuff! – Stash bits of ribbon, string, tissue paper, shoe boxes, loo rolls and kitchen rolls, the tubes from inside wrapping paper… and anything else that you can put to good creative use.

Newspaper – You need to embrace the mess, but this doesn’t mean you can’t take some precautions – sheets of newspaper over all surfaces is good damage limitation.

Play dough – Try making homemade – there are tons of recipes online, so do a quick search – which is a fun, messy activity in itself! 

Written for the Pre-school Learning Alliance by Siobhan Godwood.