Secrets of the Fearless Mess-Makers

Secrets of the Fearless Mess Makers Long

“You’re so brave.”

It’s something I’ve heard from many parents, both as a teacher a parent myself.  Usually, they were referring to the fact that I had just set out a bin full of colored rice for toddlers to play in, or jars full of water colors for preschoolers to splatter all over coffee filters with eyedroppers.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if “brave” was code for “crazy”.

It seems crazy and way outside of the normal comfort zone to let kids dive hands first into some of the messiest, goopiest, and drippiest substances known to man.

But there are reasons why kids need it.  And, perhaps just as importantly, there are ways to get it done without putting you in the madhouse.

Why Kids Need the Mess

Sensory play has so many benefits rolled into one activity.  There’s the obvious development of sensory perception, as well as the therapeutic nature of sensory play, but all of that usually comes with some fantastic language experiences as children describe and narrate along with their play.  There’s also a strong foundation for science skills and a wide open door for creative play as well, as kids are encouraged to think divergently, wonder, and explore. (Read more about the benefits of sensory play in this post!)

Open-ended art (art with free use of materials, where the process is valued over the end product) is often very similar to sensory play, not just in the potential for mess-making, but in its ability to encourage many of the same language, motor, sensory, and creativity skills.  Like sensory play, open-ended art carries some therapeutic properties as well!  (Read more about art therapy – it’s fascinating!)

How to Get it Done

Know Your Limits

With all the open-endedness of these messy-play activities, it’s important to realize that this does not mean that these activities should come without any limits.  Being clear from the start, and giving children the appropriate boundaries helps to make the activity more comfortable for you, but it is also good for the kids.  They feel more secure in knowing what the limits are, which gives them less trepidation and opens them up to more confident exploration.  (Here’s a post from the archives about setting boundaries for sensory play.  Well worth the read!)

You have to start by knowing your own limits.  And be honest with yourself.  Your friends might be OK with having their kids paint right on their bedroom walls.  That doesn’t mean you have to.

Your kids are going to have a more enjoyable experience if you are comfortable.  So find what works for you.  Kids benefit from the act of creating and exploring, but it’s a “that it happens” not a “where it happens” proposition.

It’s OK to try stretching your comfort zone from time to time, but if you’re constantly trying to force yourself to work from a zone where you’re not comfortable, you’ll find that you’re always avoiding the activities, and the ones you do pull off won’t be nearly as enjoyable as they could be — for you or your kids!

Choose your Space

The biggest secret is to pick your spot wisely.  I have a pretty high threshold for mess, but even I wouldn’t let my kids fingerpaint in the living room.  Find the space that makes you comfortable.  Where do you have a margin for error?  For many, that’s the kitchen counter.  The surface is made to be easily cleaned.  Others prefer to take it outside where the risk of permanent damage is almost nonexistent.

In our last house, we had a room that was dedicated to messy play.  Our sensory table, easel, and art table were all kept in this room.  We cleaned up spills and splatters, but if the carpet had a slight green tinge to it here and there, we just didn’t worry.  That’s what the room was for.


That was certainly a luxury.  One many don’t have.  Including us right now!  As we’re waiting to relocate, we’ve been lucky enough to live with the in-laws.  That’s made me quite a bit more self-conscious about the messes I allow my kids to make in someone else’s house.

We’ve certainly used the outdoor option many times, but I’ve also discovered that the bathtub can be a great place for an artist’s studio.  When my toddler wants to paint, I set him up in the bath tub with a stool as his table.  When he’s done, it only takes a quick rinse of the tub to clean our space.  If things get particularly exciting, I can even bathe the artist, rinse his clothes, and clean up the studio all at the same time.  (Check your paints.  Some may stain bathroom fixtures, but most washable watercolors should be fine.)

Be Prepared

A lot of the potential mess-making stress can be relieved by starting out with the right materials to catch or minimize the inevitable spills, splashes, and splatters.  Here are some of my favorite sanity savers:

Drop Cloths

A drop cloth can be anything that catches your spill and protects the surface beneath.  You can pick up a real, professional-painter-style drop cloth at the hardware store.  But I’ve never used one.  Our go-to is an old sheet I keep stashed in a cupboard.  After each use, I ball up the mess like it never even happened, throw the sheet in the washer and dryer, and then fold it up and pack it away until our next adventure.   I’ve used old sheets, garbage bags, towels, newspapers, blankets, and old tablecloths.  Whatever works for you.  Be generous in covering the ground well beyond what you think a reasonable working space would be.  You’ll be grateful later!


Define a child’s working area and protect the surface below it by using a tray.  I’ve used both plastic activity trays like these from Amazon (*affiliate) as well as old, cast-off cookie sheets.  Both are great for helping kids to know where the boundary of their work should be.  When the play or art gets a little exuberant, simply remind kids that the work needs to stay on the tray.  (For extra sanity-saving, place a small towel underneath to give just a little room for unintentional overflow.)


Covering kids’ clothes can take a lot of the pressure off when you’re getting ready to dive in for some messy fun.  Not only does it protect your kids’ clothes, but it makes cleanup much easier when you don’t have to drag a smooshy mess across your child’s face, as always happens with a typical T-shirt.  You can pick up smocks like these online (*affiliate), or you can make one from an old adult T shirt like The Artful Parent.  I’ve also grabbed old short sleeve button-ups of my own (or from a thrift store) and just put them on the kids backwards, buttoning one button in the back.  Simple!

spill proof


Choosing the right containers for your activity can change everything!  First off, set out small amounts of your materials and plan on refilling, rather than putting it all out at once.  Young children will use everything in front of them all at once, so sometimes you have to be the one setting the pace.  If there’s an entire straight-from-the-store jar of glitter on the table, you may very well find its entire contents piled in one glittery mound on someone’s art project in a matter of moments!  Save old baby food containers and small spice jars and use those with just a small amount instead.

Put a few supplies in baskets or muffin trays rather than giving kids a large pile to dig though. (Because they will dig and there will be an avalanche!)  Arranging materials in small, refillable amounts, organized in containers will help keep your area orderly, and that not only helps your kids to be able to focus on their projects rather than dodging disaster, but it also communicates respect for them and their work as well as for your own boundaries for relative neatness.

For messy, goopy materials, you may want to choose repurposed containers that you can rinse and reuse, or simply throw out if it’s become too much.  Yogurt, sour cream, and cottage cheese containers are great and their lids are fantastic for palettes as well.

If you don’t mind rinsing them out, I’m a HUGE fan of these spill-proof  paint cups (*affiliate).  Paints, watercolors, shaving cream, and any other drippy or goopy medium can go right into these cups and their specially designed lids will keep the spilling and splattering to a minimum.  Even if when they get knocked over!

So what’s your secret?  How do you encourage your kids to get involved in messy play, and still keep your own sanity?

Find more tips:

24 Tips for Cleaning Up Art Messes with Children {Tinker Lab}

Let’s Get -Less- Messy!  6 Tips for Cleaning Up and Containing Messy Sensory Activities {Creative with Kids}



Filed under Create, Learning through Play and Experience, Uncategorized

22 Responses to Secrets of the Fearless Mess-Makers

  1. Jenn

    I really needed this! I want to let my son play and explore and make a mess, but I am constantly trying to contain the mess and clean up during the process…I find though that my son favors the big gross motor skills and activities over fine motor skills – he wants to start running around and shuffling through the beans/rice/etc with his feet. Maybe he just isn’t ready to sit still and use only his hands?

    • notjustcute

      I love hearing that I wrote something just in time for someone, Jenn! I think you just have to decide what boundaries you want to set for your son. You can either take the sensory activity outside and let him use it the way he wants to, or you can take it outside (knowing what his predisposition is) and work on reinforcing the boundary of using his hands to explore, but with the safety net of being outside until he gets more comfortable exploring that way. You might even use a baby pool or other marked tub/bin outside to let him do full-body exploring and a smaller tub inside for hands-only. Using visibly different containers may help him differentiate the boundaries. Exploring with large motor movements vs with small motor movements will serve different sensory needs but gradually learning the impulse and motor control needed to keep the medium within the boundaries you’ve set will certainly be beneficial!

  2. For me (at our school) it means clean-up is part of play. They rinse out their containers, clean brushes, scrub toy cars with toothbrushes, sweep with little brooms. It keeps my sanity and connects the children to the higher purpose of maintaining our space. Some days, I will admit, I go home never wanting to sweep up a bean or rice EVER again. It is vital that children get these experiences at home. So many parents say, “Good thing they can make a mess here at school” which is code for I don’t do this at home. Thanks Amanda, you are always a source of inspiration!

    • notjustcute

      Such a great tip, Laura! Not only do we just have to plan on the clean-up, but we need to make kids a part of it! They do enjoy taking ownership of their activities and space, and it also helps them to be more aware and careful about how much of a mess they’re making. They’re less likely to make the gratuitous messes when they know they’ll have a hand in cleaning it up! Thanks so much to adding to the conversation — and for your kind words!

  3. toni

    What would you consider a good age for this type of play. I have 15 month old twins….I have tried a couple of things with them and it seems to get out of control with 2.

    • notjustcute

      Oh, wow, Toni! I have one toddler and a niece the same age. Whenever I have to two together I find myself in awe of parents of multiples! This type of play is great for toddlers, but you have to take it to a safe zone and maybe keep your quantities low (especially with two). I would take it outside almost every time, but gently reinforce boundaries as though you were inside so that they can work up to those expectations. And if it fits best for where you are right now, you can always fall back on bath time for a clean version of sensory play! Just add a few tools and toys and let them play!

      Other tips out there for messy play with twin toddlers?

    • Fenella

      I have now 6 year old twins, when they were toddlers, I would try most messy projects like painting and play dough with them strapped into their high chair to limit the mess! Things that had to be on the floor like rice sensory bin, were either outside, or I just decided the play that kept them occupied for a long time was worth the extra time it took to clean up. I have 3 boys, so I guess I quickly got used to mess as being part of my day! Now my twins are older, they are a big part of the clean up!

      • notjustcute

        Great suggestions! Thanks, Fenella! I remember telling my mom (when she was surprised at the messiness I was allowing) that sometimes it’s a cost-benefit analysis. If I get more time out of it than it takes me to clean it up, it’s worth it! :0)

  4. Jo

    I was interested to read the opinion that messy play has to be at home as well as nursery. I’ve got 30 month old triplets and struggle doing anything more than water painting and chalk drawings with them because one of them is preoccupied with finding where else he can make his marks!
    Having 3 makes it hard to stay in the space, one is always demanding a drink, or a nappy change or something to distract, which means attentions are diverted and I then spend the rest of the day checking where the marks are around the house!
    I love the idea of a messy play room, but space doesn’t allow it.
    I’m looking forward to warmer weather and taking it outside!

  5. Jill

    I have always valued this kind of play in our family. We did lots of messy art and sensory play when my kids were little. Now that they are 10,15, and 17 the need for creative expression is deeply ingrained in them. My kids still get out art, wood working, gardening, and lots of creativity. I came home tonight and my ten year old was painting a old white t-shirt, my son was playing his trumpet, and my oldest was painting a canvas. All on their own nothing was planned by the parents. It is still messy but they try to clean up on their own now.

  6. I loved the “brave is code for crazy” because I’ve had that exact same thought! :)
    Also, a quick tip for sheets that I got from my sister-in-law: ask a hotel for their cast-offs. When I first called they weren’t sure, but said they’d call. The next day I got a call and I went received a TON of sheets (which I have since shared with friends). I am not joking when I say I probably had 100, and they were willing to give me more. It has been so great to have them handy for all sorts of messy projects.

    Plus, if you share, a friend used them to make a parachute and made one for me too as a surprise!! I didn’t expect to get so much use out of them, I only needed a few for a Christmas present project for the boys (I made them a fort kit).

  7. Sarah

    I do home daycare and on any given day I have 2 children who are under 2 as well as a 2 year old, a 3 year old and a 4 year old. So I can sympathize with the mom of triplets. However sensory and creative play are so important for children’s development that I set up my home in such a way that I can change a diaper, give a child a drink or even comfort a sad friend while still providing these valuable experiences. I did these activities fearlessly when I worked in a centre but when I was faced with doing them in my own lovely home I had to stop and think about it a little bit. Eventually I just had to take a deep breath and plunge in. I soon realised that coloured rice vacuums up easily, washable marker wipes off of the wall (even if it is not discovered for days) and oobleck sweeps off of linoleum if you give it 20 minutes to dry out. We now are learning to make clean up a part of the whole process. Now the kids like cleaning shaving cream off of the floor, table, walls, chairs, and each other as much as playing with it. Take a deep deep breath…..

  8. Ingeborg

    Great article! I’m a ‘brave’ mum too. When my kids where toddlers, most of this went on in the bathtub or outside. I also liked to let my kids play dressed only in a diaper or a diaper and a onesie. I just put them in a children’s chair with a dropcloth beneath and let them play with ‘messy stuff’. Afterwords I just put them in the bathtub en the dropcloth in de washingmachine. Bless my bathtub, I couldn’t have done without.

    Now they are a bit bigger I gather some of their friends on schoolholidays and we plan a cooking party. We started with baking cookies en decorating cupcakes and popcakes. But now we sometimes cook a whole meal. They especially love cooking with chocolate. The only thing I’m never going to do again is making chocolate truffles. It tasted great, looked fantastic and the kids absolutely loved it, but weeks later I still found chocolaty fingerprints in unsuspected places.

  9. Neda

    My daughter is 14months old and I really want to start with the sensory play with her but I’ve held back because she loves to put everything in her mouth!!! Any suggestions for sensory play at that age?

  10. Pingback: Let’s Get -Less- Messy! 6 Tips for Cleaning Up and Containing Messy Sensory Activities

  11. Domestic tinker

    I love that you published this . I get that statement ” you are so brave” so much that I was starting to think it was a bad this … So thanks I needed this read today.

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