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Why We Say “Yes” to Messy Play as Part of Outdoor Occupational Therapy!

Imagine for a moment that you’re sitting in the car waiting for your child to wrap up their outdoor session of occupational therapy.


You see your child and their OT emerge from the woods and quickly notice mud and sand all over your kid. Your kid is grinning ear to ear, telling you about how they made mud castles, explored a new part of the beach, tried a new challenge they had never tried before and more!


If you’re like most parents, you might have a sense of panic over the messy child that stands before you. Your brain is shouting, “Oh noooooooooo! All that mud CANNOT go in my car! It’s going to take forever to get the sand out of their hair tonight at bath time!”


You stare at your messy, mud-covered child with not a small dose of cringing feeling.


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That’s ok! Most adults respond this way. Somewhere along the process of growing up, most adults forget about the big fun and learning that comes with messy play and quickly zero in on the work it will take to get clean.


Here’s what you need to know — at Bearfoot OT, we’re going to play, and we’re going to let your kid get messy. That’s part of the experience — and for good reason. Keep reading to discover why we’re such champions of messy play!


What is messy play?

Messy play is the open-ended exploration of materials and their properties¹. It’s called messy, not because it’s dirty or unorganized — but because the material ingredients of this play have the potential to transfer onto clothes, hands, or the surroundings. Think playdough, sand, water, mud puddles, paint, and even a bowl of spaghetti.


Some of key components of messy play:

  • No right or wrong way to play — set it up and let the kid go for it

  • It’s an experience and not a defined outcome — the goal is to enjoy, so there is no score to keep or set finish lines

  • It involves the senses — feeling textures, seeing and hearing how parts move, and the smell of the earth. And in the case of messy food play — exploring taste.

You’re probably already familiar with how babies and toddlers learn through making messes and exploring their senses. But the power of messy play doesn’t stop when kids are young, kids (and even adults) can continue to enjoy and learn by digging their hands into some dirt or mixing up a fun concoction with water.


Nothing Beats the Outdoors When It Comes to Messy Play

Messy play can happen anywhere. Give a kid some materials and they’ll probably automatically begin to explore them and make some sort of mess. The challenge comes with the clean-up. Even when care is taken to lay down covers for a painting project inside or provide a container for that sand and water activity to avoid it going all over your kitchen, there is still the clean-up of clothing, the environment, or both. This usually means adults don’t want to fully release kids to the freedom of full messy play because it can be a lot of work to clean up (we hear you!).


The freedom for messy play is one of our favorite reasons for offering occupational therapy outdoors!


Even as a big believer in messy play, when I worked in a pediatric occupational therapy clinic, I found myself needing to limit and contain sensory messy play. Take a shaving cream activity for instance. Instead of letting a kid go into full explore mode, I put in extra boundaries because I worried about cleaning up the table or sending a kid home with clothing covered in shaving cream.


That has completely changed now that we work with kids outside. There is no clean-up of the environment. Actually, the environment provides the materials for mess — from the leaves, to the sand, dirt, and water. It’s absolutely rewarding to say “Yes! Go for it!” and then watch kids delight in learning through the sensory-filled world around them.



Messy Play Supports So Many of Our Occupational Therapy Goals

Messy play is just plain fun AND it’s super beneficial to many aspects of development! Which makes our job as occupational therapists easier because it’s automatically so compelling for kids. Take a kid who is initially hesitant and find some water or dirt, and it doesn’t take long for them to dive in.

The fun of messy play actually promotes a ton of important childhood skills²:


Cognitive Development

Messy play provides hands-on learning through the senses. Messing around with materials essentially becomes an experiment with kids using principles of problem-solving, trial and error, and observation of what happens with different materials.


This type of learning is especially great for children whose learning styles depend more on hands-on activities or movement-based learning.


Creativity

In terms of growing creativity and the ability to think in new ways, nothing is better than messy play³. Whether coming up with new uses for the materials or inventing a new game with friends, messy play sets a foundation for flexible thinking and problem-solving. These skills are not only important for kids, but the skill of creativity learned through childhood play makes for better adults in today’s rapidly changing world².


Sensory Development

Whether a kid has a typical sensory system, avoids textures, or needs tons of sensory input — the sensory nature of messy play has big benefits. As kids explore materials, all the sensory systems get used. This includes the feel of materials, watching materials make new shapes or patterns, or hearing a splat or splash. All of these can be deeply rewarding, calming, or enjoyable to the nervous system.


In fact, with this freedom, kids choose the messy activities that fit their needs — whether that’s enjoying the calm that comes with throwing rocks into the water or the excitement of rolling down a sandhill.

For kids who shy away from textures, messy play provides no-pressure practice. For big sensory seekers, messy play gives kids the freedom to pick the big sensory experiences their bodies are craving.


Social-Emotional Development

Whether a child is doing messy play alone or with others, messy play provides tons of opportunities for social and emotional development. One of the most powerful parts of messy play is the fact that there is no right or wrong way to participate. This freedom reduces frustration and helps kids build their confidence. In groups, you’ll see kids quickly bond and work together over the experience of sharing materials, exploring, and enjoying the feel of the activity.


Physical Development

Both fine motor and gross motor skills are boosted through messy play. The act of picking up, mixing, and touching materials during messy play develops the muscles and coordination of the hands.


Rolling in the sand, stomping in puddles, or fort-building all build body awareness, strength, and coordination.


Getting Parents Ready to Embrace a Little Mess

It’s okay to cringe a little at the mess. Here are some quick tips to settle your natural adult response to some mess.

  • Prepare your response — It’s alright for your brain to be saying, “Oh noooo! That’s a lot of mess” while your mouth celebrates with your kid saying, “Wow! It looks like you did some serious exploring today.”

  • Clothing — Dress your child for their therapy sessions in clothes that can get dirty.

  • Protect your car interior — Leave a blanket or towel in the trunk that your child can sit on.

  • Remember the benefits — When you see that stain, *try and* remind yourself of all the development that comes with exploration.

  • Notice the joy — Instead of seeing the mess, think of the pure joy your child felt when jumping in that puddle or stomping through the stream. This is the stuff of great childhood memories!


Through your preparation and responses, you give your child the wonderful gift of permission to get dirty, explore, and fully enjoy their sensory experience during our outdoor occupational therapy sessions.


Which is totally worth the mess!


Let us take your child outdoors into some messy play! At Bearfoot OT, we provide occupational therapy that helps kids with emotional, sensory, or physical challenges in the setting of the parks of San Francisco and Marin.


Contact us today for more details.


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References

  1. Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021). Designing Messy Play For Toddlers. https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/publication/designing-messy-play-infants-toddlers

  2. Duffy, Bernadette. (2007) All About…Messy Play. The Early Years Foundation https://www.birthto5matters.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Messy-Play.pdf

  3. Yin, L.C., Zakaria, A.R., Sulaiman, A.M., Hutagalung, F.D. (2017). Creativity in Messy Play Among Preschool Children. In: Gaol, F., Hutagalung, F. (eds) Social Interactions and Networking in Cyber Society. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-4190-7_6

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