Inside: Tips for managing messy sensory play to make it totally easy and doable.
Does Messy Sensory Play make your skin crawl?
“Are you actually going to let them do this?”
I’m pretty sure my friends thought I’d lost my mind but I knew exactly what I was doing.
I was dumping three bowls of Jell-O into a kiddie pool for our toddlers to make some memories with.
Things were about to get crazy, fun, and totally messy.
Actually, messy doesn’t even begin to describe what those sticky bodies looked like by the end, but spoiler alert: those toddlers all remember that day. My son can’t remember what he had for breakfast, but he can tell you everything about being two years old and in a super classy Jell-O party with his friends.
That doesn’t surprise me.
Messy memories have a way of sticking like that.
Messy play is fantastic play for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers – it’s important for their growth and development. It helps them learn, explore, and engage with the world in a way no other play can.
But even though we know all that, messy play is still a hard reality to face in parenting.
Here’s the problem with messy sensory play.
It creates a mess.
I have three kids 4-and-under. My life is one gigantic mess. On a given day, 47 is the number of times I think, “Maybe we just sell the house as is and walk away. Start over.” Because heaven help me if I have to clean up one more half eaten meal off my hardwood floors. I can’t. So.many.messes.
The problem with messy play is we are willingly opening things up to a new mess. Another mess. A potentially insanity bananas mess.
Except it doesn’t have to be like that.
Messy play doesn’t have to be, well, messy.
Remember that day I let four toddlers play in a Jell-O filled pool?
They were cleaned, the pool was rinsed, and lunch was served less than five minutes after they were done. There wasn’t a backbreaking amount of clean up because I was prepared.
So…how do you make messy play not messy?
By having a game plan.
I know it’s not the most Earth-shattering idea but hear me out. Or rather: hear out my game plan and my biggest piece of messy play advice.
How to Make a Messy Play Game Plan
1. Pick the right messy activity for your first messy activity. Set yourself up for success. If messy play is really tough for you, start with something easy like a rice sensory bin or water pouring station.
2. Pick the right place for your messy activity. Here are my options – inside on my hardwood floors, outside if it’s nice, OR in the bathtub. Some messy activities work amazingly well in the bathtub and everything can just rinse away at the end like it never even happened.
But the bottom line on this one: You want to be somewhere “cleanable”. You will not find me hosting a toddler Jell-O party on my carpet in front of my white couch. Not gonna happen.
3. If you are playing inside, put down a toddler tarp (aka a shower curtain liner) under the activity. This gives your child and the mess lots of room to work with. Big beach towels work great too. Either one you use, just throw it in the wash at the end. Easy peasy.
RELATED: Ready to start sensory bins with your toddler? Check out this post on how introducing sensory bins and how to keep them clean.
4. Try to have a water source near. Inside activities: stick close to the kitchen sink or the bathtub. Outside: by the hose. You never know when a toddler will decide to be all done or attempt to make a run for it, so having a water source near is key to a fast rinse off.
5. Have a washcloth ready. I always have 1-2 wet washcloths near me or with my kids during messy sensory play. If things get too messy, like when my daughter decided to paint her legs, I can give her a quick wipe off before heading to the bath.
6. Come with an exit strategy ahead of time. When the ship starts to sink, how are you going to get out of this mess quickly, efficiently, and without creating a bigger mess?
For me, this usually means running the kids and any tools from the activity right into the bath tub. It’s like activity 2.0: taking a bath to get clean from the mess. If we are outside, it’s sprinklers time. A few laps through the sprinklers and everything looks better.
But the biggest trick to messy play success…
Do these activities with your friends. Plan a messy play date day.
I knew things would be fine the day I made a Jell-O pool because I had three friends with me. Three more sets of hands. Instant backup. We call these our “Bad Decision Play Dates” and we love them.
After the chaos of toddlers in Jell-O, we each took a different clean up job and five minutes later, everything was put back together. Strength in mom numbers.
Text your friends right now about doing a messy play date together. It’s all about divide and concur: someone can clean the messy kids while the other cleans up the messy mess. But let’s be honest, the mess that really isn’t that bad any ways and all the laughter and fun makes it totally worth it. Teamwork.
You can do this.
Messy sensory play doesn’t have to be that messy or that intimidating. Think it through. Set yourself up for success. And if you can, get a friend on board with you because messy memories are some of the best memories.