Torn between wanting to encourage creative kids and dreading the cleanup? These tips for managing messy play will help!
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How do you feel about messy play? For most of us, it’s a complicated relationship. We know that mess and creativity often go hand in hand, and we want our kids to be creative! But we also dread the aftermath of the painting, playdough-ing, and sensory bin fun that we know is so beneficial for our kids’ development.
So what do we do? Ban the messy play forever to maintain a clean house? Or surrender to the chaos of paint and popsicle sticks?
In reality, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. We can allow our kids to explore and make messes while still maintaining a semblance of order in our homes.
YOU just need to get creative, too! Creative about problem-solving, that is…
Here are some practical tips to help you in managing messy play and fully embrace the joy of creative play with your kids!
8 Tips for Managing Messy Play
1. Buy a vinyl tablecloth
Worried about paint or markers getting on your furniture? Invest in an inexpensive vinyl tablecloth to cover your table or workspace. See it in the picture below? It’s such an easy way to protect furniture, and makes me less stressed when my kids are doing art projects. Once playtime is over, its easy to simply wipe down the tablecloth, shake it out in the backyard, or for more stubborn messes, toss it in the washing machine (I just learned you can do this!). This is the single best thing I’ve done for creative play in our house.
2. Use old t-shirts as smocks
Before diving into a painting or playdough session, raid your closet for old t-shirts. These make fantastic impromptu smocks to protect your child’s clothes from inevitable splatters and spills. My kids love wearing my t-shirts when they’re painting. I have three old shirts that I’ve set aside for this purpose (free ones you get from events are great for this), and we’ve been using the same ones for years. They’re stained and a little ratty, but they work great and can be washed and reused for future messy adventures!
3. Take a trip to the tub
Take messy play to a whole new level by moving it to the bathtub or shower. Let kids use washable paint on the walls of the bathtub, or use shaving cream on a glass shower door. The best part? Cleanup becomes as simple as turning on the water and watching the mess wash away! Hand your child a washcloth and make scrubbing the art away part of the game! Note: Make sure you use washable paint and test to make sure it won’t stain any grout you might have nearby. This paint is especially for using in the tub!
4. Put it in a bin
It is a law of childhood that children will expand to fill whatever space you give them. So, I like to give them a container as a way to limit their mess. I love using under bed storage boxes on the floor for sensory bins (on top of our vinyl tablecloth). We use them for rice, beans, water beads, and more! For tabletop play with kinetic sand and for science experiments, I use half sheet lids (they’re much cheaper to buy at Costco if you have a membership). Admittedly, we sometimes have things go outside the bin, but having a container has made a big difference for the amount of mess my kids create!
5. Designate a mess zone
Choose a specific area in your home where messy play is welcome. Lay down a drop cloth, vinyl tablecloth, or an old sheet to define the space, making it clear that creativity can run wild within those boundaries. This not only contains the mess but also provides a sense of freedom for your child to express themselves without worrying about the repercussions. This is especially good for sensory bins using things like rice or beans. Our rule has always been, “Keep it on the cloth.”
6. Stock up on easy-to-clean materials
Opt for washable and easy-to-clean art supplies. Watercolor paints, washable markers, and crayons are excellent choices that can be easily wiped off surfaces and clothing. Avoid acrylic paints and permanent markers…that’s just asking for trouble.
7. Keep old towels nearby
Despite your best efforts to plan ahead, spills will still happen. Make sure you have a healthy supply of old towels nearby and teach kids to use them! Whenever spills happen, I try to stay calm and say, “That’s what towels are for!” As much as possible train kids to clean up their own spills and messes rather than pushing them aside to do it yourself. Kids are capable! Especially when we take the time to teach them.
8. Get kids involved in clean up
Teach your child that every creative session concludes with putting away materials and wiping down surfaces. Even toddlers can help put dirty paintbrushes in the sink and gather up scoops from the sensory bin. Eventually, they’ll be able to clean up their entire play space…but it will take time and lots of practice.
A few final thoughts on managing messy play
Be realistic about the types of messy play your child can handle at a given age. A one-year-old is not likely to “keep the rice in the bin,” so don’t expect that of him. Instead of rice bins for this age, try giving them pudding to paint with in the bathtub, or try an ice sensory bin outside.
Speaking of outside, I know it’s not always an option, but it’s a GREAT place for messy play. When the weather is nice, put a tablecloth or cardboard down on the grass or the patio, and take your creativity out for some fresh air and sunshine. When you’re done, it’s easy to hose things off or fill a bucket with soapy water for washing, which is another fun activity for kids!
Lastly, remember to get involved in the fun! Sometimes as parents it’s easy to stop at facilitating the fun and forgetting to participate in it. I’m not saying you need to spend all day long playing side-by-side with your child, but consider taking just a few minutes to play with your kids in their messy play. Paint a picture of your own while they paint, dig your fingers into the kinetic sand, or make a playdough snake. Often when we spend just a few minutes engaging in quality play time with our kids, they’re more content to continue on their own when we move on after 5-10 minutes. You get to connect with your child, they feel loved, and they play independently for a longer period of time after. Everybody wins!
How do you feel about messy play? Tell me in the comments!
Need some inspiration to get you started on messy play? Try these ideas: