- Prepare everything in advance, so that you can supervise and join in the fun the whole time your child is playing. Then you'll have more of chance of intervening before the sofa gets a new pattern handprinted onto it!
- Pick a good time, when your child has enough energy. There's nothing worse than setting up an activity up and dealing with all the cleaning up afterwards if they only play for a few minutes. Also it has to be a time when you have enough time and energy to enjoy the activity too!
- Start really simple so you can get an idea of what interests your child the most. For example my eldest loved mixing, stirring and making, and every messy play activity we did involved me being made to drink pretend tea. She liked sand, cloud dough, foam – anything she could mix up, pour and mould. My youngest likes exploring mechanisms more than materials, and can play with a single playdough extruder for twenty minutes at a time. Once you get a feel for what interested them you can set up activities you know they will enjoy.
- Choose the best space available, i.e. the easiest to clean up, or most contained. Outdoors is good but if you don't have any outdoor space (we didn't when my eldest was a toddler) or it's winter, the kitchen is the often best. Hard, wipeable floors and surfaces are useful! Then make sure they stay in that space until they have finished the activity and it's time to clean up – unless you are outdoors or somewhere it doesn't matter so much if they spread the mess around a bit.
- Cover the floor with something you can pop in the washing machine – washable shower curtains are good, but an old sheet would work too. If you are at a table you can cover it with newspaper but I don't find that works on the floor, it doesn't stay put.
- Cover your child up with a long sleeved apron, or just clothes you don't mind getting messy. Or if it's warm enough strip them off – you can always pop them in the bath afterwards to extend the fun!
- Think about the equipment/container you use – sometimes this depends on the materials they are playing with. For messy play plastic underbed storage boxes or tuff trays on the floor are good, but I tend to find children sit in these to play, which in turn spreads the mess around more. A less messy option can be sitting or standing at a low table, or a tuff tray on a stand, which generally means they only get their top half messy. Same goes with painting. Painting on the floor is really fun and definitely worth doing, but often results in full body painting – whereas at a table or easel it is more often restricted to fingers and hands, perhaps extending up the arms! Easels also take up less space if that's an issue.
- Have a second activity ready that will hold their attention (i.e. Cbeebies) and put them somewhere out of the way of the mess while you clean it up – prioritising anything they could reach and get messy with again.
- Build up a collection of toys you can use for messy play that are easy to clean and don't get water stuck in them (and then go mouldy). Many of mine have come from charity shops, which are particularly good for playdough tools and plastic animals/dinosaurs. Ikea are good for sand and water toys, and their some of their kitchen tools are suitable for children to play with too – such as ice cube trays and plastic cookie cutters. In Bristol, Artragous, the art shop at the Children's Scrapstore is good for tools, equipment and materials such as glue, paper and paint. Use your recycling – plastic containers such as yogurt and ice cream pots and bottles are great for using in most messy play activities, and kitchen roll and toilet tubes are very versatile too!
A list of my top ten simple messy play activities to get your started is coming soon!
*Or come along to Happymess, my preschool art, craft and messy play sessions – see www.happymess.info for more information.