Children love playdough and it's great for developing fine motor skills and strengthening little hands. Homemade playdough is cheap and easy to make, and making it can become an activity in itself. I find homemade is easier to clean up than bought playdough too. The possibilities for play are almost endless; you can use actual playdough toys or kitchen tools – rolling pins, garlic press, cupcake trays and cases. You can add natural objects such as pine cones, twigs, pebbles, or lolly sticks, straws, buttons, sequins. To keep it simple use one colour at a time if you don't want the colours to get mixed up, or use two primary colours – i.e. yellow and red so it turns into orange (rather than using three or more colours and ending up with brown!).
I use the Imagination Tree's Four Minute Playdough recipe. Like Jamie Oliver's 30-minute meals, in reality it takes a bit more than four minutes but it's still pretty fast!
2) Shaving foam
Shaving foam is pretty cheap (Sainsburys Basics version is 50p) and one can is plenty for one or two children to play with. It's an interesting texture; light, soapy and mouldable. It's fun to smooth it over a flat surface and make marks in it, and a lot of children like to cover their hands and arms with it. You can stir in food colouring or leave as is. Good with plastic dinosaurs or bugs, ice cream toys, pots and spoons, or just hands! The great thing about shaving foam is that it dissolves away to almost nothing, so although it gets everywhere it's not too tricky to clean up, and because it's a toiletry item, it's clean messy fun!
Sand is an oldie-but-goodie. Whether on a beach or in a sandpit I find it holds children's attention for a long time. My youngest loves it so much that as a one year old he'd eat big mouthfuls of it (not to be encouraged – but it didn't seem to do him any harm!). It can be poured, mixed, sifted, moulded, dug, prodded, smoothed. Play with it dry and then damp – it's texture and mould-ability changes so much that it will hold children's interest for even longer. Playing with sand and water together is also a timeless and brilliant combination. You really just need to provide a digging tool – spoon or spade – and maybe some pots, but you can also add toy diggers, moulds, shells, stones or sticks for extra fun.
4) Cornflour gloop
Gloop is cornflour mixed with water and is quite unique in that is can seem both like a solid and a liquid depending on how it is manipulated. It is very messy but worth it – it's such an interesting consistency and properties are fun for children and adults! To make it gradually add water to cornflour until it's gloopy. Your child can help with this! Then play. Hold a handful up and watch it ooze down. Any toys or tools you leave in the gloop will get 'stuck' to it, and it can be quite hard work to rescue them! You can use food colouring or coloured ice cubes to add a bit of colour. If you use coloured ice cubes they leave a lovely trail of colour as they melt, but use a little less water to make the gloop, or add a bit of extra cornflour later so the mixture doesn't get too runny. A good tip for clearing up is to leave the bowl of gloop to sit for a while afterwards – it separates and you can drain the water off. Then leave it to dry out and the cornflour dries into solid lumps you can pick up and pop in the bin (or food recycling) – or actually could be played with as another messy play activity!
Playing with dried pulses, rice or pasta is quite noisy which can add an extra element to messy play. Generally pulses can be played with in a similar way to dry sand, for pouring, mixing and sifting. I like to put out tubs of different kinds of dried foods which can then be mixed together in smaller tubs, or lifted out with big toddler tweezers. It's good to find some metal bottom cardboard cartons (such as breadstick tubes or some cocoa tubs) as they make such as good noise when they are shaken with pulses inside. You can colour chickpeas, pasta or rice using zipped food bags; put the chickpeas or whatever you want to colour inside, with some gel food colouring and a little squirt of anti-bacterial hand gel (the kind that you use to wash hands without water), shake it all up until the colouring is spread evenly, and pour into a baking tray or large shallow tub to dry. Keep them in a airtight container (make sure they are dry when you put them away) and they keep for ages and can be played with again and again.
Painting can be messy but it's so much fun and so good for fine motor skills / learning to hold a pen that it's really worthwhile, and it is possible to slightly control the mess. We often stick to watercolour paints inside, as there is a bit less danger of spreading the paint around the room than with poster paint. Using an easel or painting on the ground works well outside. Plus being ready to pop them in the bath straight away afterwards! Many little children (and often bigger ones too) love the feeling of poster paint on their hands or feet so starting with hand and foot prints is fun! There are so many variations when it comes to painting - printing with vegetables (celery makes good fish scales), painting with funny brushes (toothbrushes, dish brushes), splatting with fly swatters, or varying the surface by painting on tinfoil, bubblewrap, cardboard are all fun options worth experimenting with!
Chalk and water seems like a simple combination but it can actually be played with in a lot of variations - my children have spent hours playing with jumbo chalk and water in spray bottles, drawing pictures and then spraying them with the water - we've made targets to aim at on the walls and mushed up chalk 'splats' on the ground. They have made 'potions' with water and little scraps of chalk, they have drawn figures on the wall and thrown wet sponges at them - inspired by 'splat the teacher' games at the school summer fayre! Some children enjoy wiping and so just giving them a wet sponge with alongside chalk on an easel enhances chalk drawing. Chalk colours look bolder and brighter on damp surfaces too.
Water is the number one messy play activity in our house. Well, mostly in the back garden! Cheap spray bottles for gardening have provided hours of fun. The plants, walls, windows, chalk board all get sprayed. We have a 'no spraying people' rule but it isn't always adherded to! Both my children like to play at cleaning windows with a spray bottle and a sponge. My daughter is really into giving her dolls a bath at the moment, but she also likes making 'potions' and watering plants, and pretending to be a mermaid in the paddling pool. My son likes pouring and is very keen on watercans - we have quite a collection! Both of them enjoy playing with a simple water wall I made for them (find out more about how to make a water wall by clicking here) and playing with funnels.
When it is not possible to get out to play with mud in nature, playing with mud at home (outside!) is a good plan B! In the past I've used bags of topsoil from a garden shop but more recently I've been using coir, which is really fun to prepare and quite a 'clean' mud if it goes in mouths accidently. It's rehydrated coconut husks which you buy in small, light blocks and hydrate by soaking in water overnight. It swells up quite quickly and you have to crumble it up into the remaining water. It's very cheap and you can use It for gardening as well. You can buy ethically produced coir from Traidcraft by clicking here. Coir (or mud) is good for digging, mixing, planting (we've played with mud and dried beans or real vegetables before), or add plastic animals/vegetables to make a farm. A cardboard box can easily be turned into a mud kitchen if you draw a few circles on the top and cut an oven door out of it. We've got a hand-me-down plastic kitchen in the back garden we use for this purpose!
10) Cloud dough
Playing with cloud dough is like playing with soft, smooth sand! It is mostly flour, mixed with any kind of oil (at a ratio of eight cups of flour to one cup of oil). We mix it with our hands like rubbing scone dough but you could also use a wooden spoon. It gets mixed up as it is played with though too. it is mouldable like damp sand, so you can make shapes with it using sand moulds or cups. You can colour it with powder paint or if you make it with cornflour instead of wheat flour it is just like crunchy white snow. So much fun and very relaxing to play with (if you can cope with the mess!).
There are so many possibilities when it comes to messy play - have fun experimenting!