Having a baby is the steepest learning curve most adults ever encounter. Changing nappies, sleep routines and assembling a travel system are all skills that new parents develop quickly. But the skill that will make the greatest difference to the happiness and development of their child is the one that most adults find the hardest to master –playing.
Most adults can join in with a board game or help to make an Airfix model but when you are dealing with a baby, the play needs to have a free and random nature that many adults find difficult to participate in and enjoy.
Babies and young children need play which doesn’t have an intended outcome, rules or a set time limit. Messy play, where children have supervised access to a variety of materials, offers exactly that. Of course, it also offers the potential for destroyed furnishings, stained clothing and exhausted parents. So is it worth it?
The benefits of messy play are wide-ranging. Most importantly it encourages young children to be independent, imaginative and concentrate. They are control of how they use whatever material you are playing with. Does paint have to be used to create a picture? In my adult world, yes (and preferably with all the paint on the paper, none on the floor/ face/ hair), but in a baby’s world, paint is just another kind of stuff to stick your hands in to.
In terms of physical development, messy play helps not just with gross motor skills but also with fine motor skills which, due to our national obsession with health and safety, babies often get few opportunities to practise. Picking up a tennis ball is easy. Picking up a single dried pea or one strand of straw requires much better concentration and coordination.
For babies who are starting to chat, messy play opens up whole new vocabularies. They hear and learn the words to describe what they can feel, smell, see, hear and taste (hopefully only with edible materials!) You may also find that they use language to tell you whether they like the material or what they want to do with it.
Messy play is offered widely at nurseries, pre-schools and Sure Start Centres so why risk your upholstery and sanity by doing it at home? I would love to offer a deeply profound statement about bonding with your child or the memories you will create together, but it basically boils down to fun (and entertaining everyone when the weather makes going out unappealing).
In our house messy play happens at the weekend – partly because the weekdays are too packed to fit it in, but mostly because this is when my husband is here. He sees our daughter for maybe half an hour per day during the week so weekends when the three of us can be together doing something lovely are precious.
Enthusiastic as I am about messy play, I am also quite keen on having a clean, tidy house with the minimum of housework, so preparation is the key. Before we start I masking tape a shower curtain to the floor (this in itself becomes part of the fun, as my daughter thinks it’s really funny if I drape it over her head, peekaboo-style).
The taping down is essential otherwise the curtain will slowly screw itself up until you find yourself trying to play on an area one foot square. I put wipes and an old towel within reach and, if things are going to be particularly messy, a bowl of warm soapy water (or we play before bedtime and then pop little one straight in the bath). All three of us put on old clothes so that we can get properly stuck in.
The next step is to assemble whatever we’re going to play with. This depends on how much time and energy I have. If both are short, then dry rice, dry pasta, dried peas/ pulses/lentils, shredded paper, sequins, pebbles or oatmeal are good options. If I’m feeling a little more ambitious we go for bread dough, play dough, wet sand, soaking sponges or cooked pasta. For really messy messy play we go for paint, cornflour, water, jelly, baby oil/lotion or wet potting compost.
This is where my control over what happens ends. Occasionally if we are using paint or gluing something I try to end up with a picture we can send to the grandparents, but more often than not we just have a great time exploring what we can do with the materials and getting wet, sticky or dusty in the process. Of course, I have to intervene sometimes otherwise my daughter would be swallowing all sorts of dreadful things (you really can’t take your eyes off a baby in messy play for a second) and wandering about with a selection of sequins and pulses up her nose.
Although this sounds like a whole lot of planning and setting up, you’re already doing messy play if your child has a bath, cooks with you or helps in the garden. Some messy play can be spontaneous – as I write this my husband is showering my daughter in torn-up tissues, pretending it is snow. We keep a bag of dried peas and a selection of little pots in the lounge which can be whipped out if we’ve a spare 10 minutes.
As an infant teacher, I understood what messy play was for but it wasn’t until I did it at home with my own child that I realised how rewarding it could be. My daughter now gets excited whenever she sees ‘the pea-bag’– an indication that she remembers these messy play sessions and looks forward to them. I hope that when she is an adult she remembers that her dad and I learnt how to play and loved it just as much as she did.