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Why children need messy play

NATHAN WALLIS urges parents to recognise the importance of unstructured, free play for young children, and embrace a little mess. By KATE BARBER

The idea of ‘messy play’ makes many of us tense up, and others roll their eyes. Those two words threaten to upset the order of our homes, and why do kids need it anyway? 

It all comes down to children’s need to play, which, Nathan says, is “the system humans have evolved in order to facilitate higher intelligence”. Essentially, child-led, free play is the key to growing brains, he says. ‘Messy play’ exemplifies this because the child is in charge: empowered to engage with new materials in new ways and follow their own thought processes. 

While messy play might conjure up an image of slime or mud, as Nathan explains, ‘messy play’ is all about unstructured exploration (free play) that is child-directed and open-ended, where there is no particular outcome or ‘right answer’. It’s not the particular substances or materials that are important so much as the nature of the play these inspire.  

“If we focus on getting our kids ready for school by teaching them to read and write when they’re four, then we are raising black and white thinkers,” says Nathan. “Messy play gives children autonomy in their own learning, instilling the idea that they can follow their own lines of inquiry, make their own discoveries, get it wrong and try a new approach.” 

“Essentially, messy play teaches children to cross boundaries, which is the basis of creativity and intelligence,” Nathan says. 

It is vital that children, especially those under the age of eight, are given ample, regular opportunities for this sort of play – indoors and out. That, as parents, we promote rather than stifle their need to explore, says Nathan.  

The good news is that messy play works well outside. Let them dig in your garden or stamp out their own mud pit; provide them with a tub of sand and shells. Take them to the forest or the beach. Enhance their play with tools like forks, funnels and scoops. For more unstructured play (learning), provide ‘loose parts’ (random stuff) like cups, stones, tyres, tubes and planks.  

If you like, designate a space for them to go wild. Set some simple ground rules – about not hurting each other, respecting each other’s right to play and not damaging things that are precious. But let them go for it.  

The benefits of messy play are many, not least for your relationship. It is thrilling and satisfying for a young child to explore their world on their terms. If you can look past the mess for a while, they’ll thank you for the opportunity.  

‘Messy play’ describes an integrated learning experience where children follow their own thought processes to solve problems, exercising social, motor and language skills through the process. The countless benefits stem from its open-endedness: the child is in charge, and there is no ‘right way’ to play.

Messy play: 

  • supports creativity and innovation, as children experiment with new solutions to problems 
  • fuels imaginations and offers new outlets for self-expression 
  • helps children develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination  
  • supports the development of social and communication skills 
  • helps children make sense of their world through engaging with different materials
  • helps children regulate their emotions
  • expands children’s capacity to concentrate – because it is fun and fully absorbing. 

In presentations across the country and overseas, neuroscience presenter Nathan Wallis provides an informative narrative on the different stages of children’s neurological development and offers valuable advice for parents and educators.

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