How Do You Deal With Messy Play?

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Ask Melinda is a Playvolution HQ column offering thoughtful answers to family child care questions written by Melinda Marshall.

Your questions, comments, and answers are welcome in the comment section at the end of the post.

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This week’s question:

How do you deal with messy play and explain the importance of messy play to parents?


Messy play is an important and large part of our program. Much of our day incorporates sensory play, whether its digging in the sand pit, scooping and pouring water, making mud pies, or squishing cool paint in between our fingers.

Sensory type play offers to build nerve connections in the brain, encourages the development of motor skills, supports language development, and encourages ‘scientific thinking’ and problem solving. There are also social and emotional benefits to this type of play. Children learn to work together, and problem solve. It can also be very calming and soothing to a child and support their need for emotional regulation.

For me, its always been much easier to embrace the mess and simply clean it up after than to try to constantly police the children in to keeping things perfectly tidy. Sure, I don’t want them throwing sand across the room or painting on my couch, so we certainly have some boundaries.

There are many ways to help keep messy play under control in your home. If you’re just starting out, it may be more comfortable for you to begin by offering it outside. A hose is your best friend. Inside, you can cover areas with tarps, drop cloths, or even shower curtains from the dollar store, and keep a bucket of sudsy water nearby. There are benefits to having the children help with clean up too, so make that part of the experience! I also try to hose down and wash messy clothing and shoes myself so that parents are not burdened by doing so at home after a long day.

As for explaining messy play to parents, I have a policy in my handbook (see that policy below the photo gallery). When I meet with a family for the first time, I make certain to stress this policy and explain the benefits of messy play to them. I like to make sure they understand and agree with our curriculum and learning philosophies before they enroll.

Here’s what messy play looks like at Mountaintop Family Child Care:

Here’s Melinda’s messy play policy for Mountaintop Family Childcare:


Messy play is a big part of our day here at Mountaintop Family Childcare. Here are a few ways your child will get messy, why it’s an important part of their development, and how we support it here in our program.

  • Messy play is offered everyday. Messy play is carefully designed and purposefully used in early childhood programs for many reasons. Messy play offers a chance for children to learn new language skills, promotes sensory awareness, understanding of math concepts, teaches children to problem solve, and so much more.
  • Messy play includes, but is not limited to: dirt, mud, sand, goop, gak, oobleck, slime, flubber, water, paint, fingerpaint, playdough, shaving cream, clay, mulch, bug guts, and other art materials. Children are allowed freedom of expression and will often paint their bodies and nails. Although all of our art materials are washable and non toxic, sometimes they will still look “stained” and will need a good soak in a bathtub each evening.


  • In addition to messy play, children self feed as soon as they can sit up on their own. Older children serve and pour themselves. This can be MESSY as well.
  • Potty training and personal hygiene can be messy! Please send extra clothing and under clothes IN ADDITION TO the extras that are here for play.
  • Children constantly take off their shoes outside. They may take a few steps before we can get their shoes back on or remove their socks. Bottoms of socks may come home dirty because of this, not because we are not vacuuming or mopping floors.
  • Outdoor play is naturally messy. Your children will be digging in the sand, splashing in mud puddles, tending to our garden, hiking through the woods and exploring bugs and other living creatures. Research has shown that exposure to nature not only has numerous emotional benefits but physical benefits as well. Being outdoors in all weather helps build immune systems and keeps our children healthy.


  • Messy play is MESSY. DO NOT send your child in clothes that you do not want stained or ruined. FEEL FREE to purchase play clothes second hand for use here in our program. We will not be responsible for expensive name brand clothing that is stained or damaged.
  • Please leave extra PLAY clothes here for us to change your child in to as necessary. This includes WEATHER APPROPRIATE pants, shirts, socks, and underwear.
  • LABEL all clothes with your child’s name in permanent marker.
  • We have always offered to leave the dirty clothes here and wash them ourselves. If you would prefer, dirty and soiled clothing can be bagged and sent home each evening for you to wash yourself. If you choose to take home dirty clothing, a clean, new COMPLETE set must be dropped off the next morning in order for your child to attend daycare that day.
  • Mistakes happen. Occasionally we may mix up extra clothing if it is not labeled. If this should happen, simply send back the wrong clothing and we will do everything we can to locate what is missing.
  • We have a box of extra clothing here. On occasion, if your child does not have a change of clothes, we may pull something from the box to use in a pinch. We are AWARE that they do not match and do not belong to your child. When the NEED arises for us to use these spare clothes, simply send them back the next day for us to put them back in our “extras” box.
  • We spend most of our time outside, and will likely be messy upon your arrival at the end of each day. This may include the sand pit and water table, mud, and art supplies so your child MAY NOT be perfectly clean when you arrive.
  • If you have somewhere to go directly after work, please schedule a few minutes extra to change your child here with a clean set of clothing you bring with you. You are free to use the bathroom to freshen up your child before you head out. There are extra rags/towels in the linen closet and plastic bags under the sink.
  • You can always call or text 10 minutes before your arrival and we will do our best to have your child dry and changed for you. Please understand, however, that a longer delay than the 10 minute warning may cause your child to get dirty again. We can not expect children to sit and wait for your arrival.

Messy play is not only an important part of your child’s learning, but also where many childhood memories are made.

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Owner at Mountaintop Family Child Care

Melinda lives in Upstate New York and is owner of her home based program, Mountaintop Family Childcare.

She has been a family child care provider for over 18 years and worked with children for over 27 years. Her program offers relationship based care that includes many aspects of farm life and nature/forest school with PLAY at the center of all they do. She firmly believes in slowing down childhood and allowing children to develop at their own pace.

Melinda believes family childcare programs offer unique settings that have much to offer to the early learning world. She strongly supports family providers in keeping a home like atmosphere in their programs. Backed by research, she continuously advocates for children's right to play.

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