Messy Play for Babies


child with paint on face

Kids love getting mucky and making a mess.

So, it’s no surprise that they love messy play as they can experiment with so many different materials. Whether that’s squeezing jelly, making a flour snowstorm or playing with chocolate mud, they’re exploring their environment and learning new skills to further their development.

For parents and teachers too, messy play offers low-cost solutions for keeping kids busy on a rainy day or when you’re juggling different things and need to keep them occupied.

Using mostly ingredients and items found around the house, these activities are simple and can be set up in minutes.

There are lots of messy play options for both indoor and outdoor use, so you’ll always have options for keeping them entertained.

Messy Play and Development

Whilst messy play is enjoyable and a great way of keeping babies busy for hours, it’s also key for their development. Through an exciting tactile experience, babies use their senses to explore and to help them understand their surroundings.

According to Piaget’s theory, children learn best when they are exploring a stimulating and challenging environment as they are active in the construction of their own learning through play and discovery.

By interacting with different objects and raw materials through sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, it helps them develop an awareness of the world.

These sensory experiences are why messy play activities keep children busy for so long as they’re actively engaged in the activities, working out problems and building on their skills.

As they’re squishing, pouring, painting, and pushing, they’re not only enjoying themselves but also learning new skills and finding new ways to do things.

For example, using their hands and fingers stimulates fine motor development, coordination and shoulder strength which are early building blocks for future handwriting.

Other messy play activities can further their language development, as by playing with different textures and materials, you can introduce descriptive language.

Talk to your baby while playing with these different materials using words such as ‘hot’, ‘cold’, ‘scratchy’, ‘smooth’, and ‘soft’ to help them understand what different words mean. You can also model how to do something so your baby can copy.

“By observing the actions of others, including parents and peers, children develop new skills and acquire new information”
-Albert Bandura, psychologist and social learning theorist.

This can also lead to babies using symbolic language which helps them express what they mean through actions.

So, let’s embrace it and get messy!

Messy Play Ideas

cubes of jelly on a table

Jelly On a Plate

Wobble, wobble, the fun is endless!

Try hiding some of your child’s favourite toys in some jelly and let them dig them out. This is a great activity for kick starting their problem solving skills and curiosity as they wonder how their toys are encased in this squishy, wobbly stuff.

You could also try grabbing some plastic containers of different shapes and sizes such as ice cube trays or cups. Pour in the jelly mess, let it set, then spoon it out for an assortment of jelly shapes. They’ll be so excited to get stuck in.

Babies will love how the jelly feels in their hands and you just know they won’t be able to resist having a taste! This is a great way of activating their senses as they explore through sight, taste, touch and smell.

Spaghetti/ Pasta Play

Pasta play is always a big hit and so easy/ cheap to do!

Cook the pasta until it is just cooked, drain, and stir in some food colouring to make some wonderfully coloured shapes! Particularly spaghetti is a great playful shape as they can wrap it around their fingers, watching as it bends and moulds to any weird and wonderful shape they like.

They can also make different structures by piling the pasta on top of each other and using the curved lines of spaghetti.

Another option is to keep the spaghetti dry and let your little ones post the pasta through the holes of a colander. This is a fantastic way to develop their fine motor skills and concentration through hand-eye coordination. They’ll also love the sound of the pasta snapping if they push it too far.

To enhance their motor skills further, they could try threading cheerios through dry strands of spaghetti to create a fun cereal chain or a cereal stack.


From a snow scene to a snowy storm never underestimate the hours of fun that can be enjoyed with flour! This cheap item is the perfect way to keep your little ones entertained for hours and is so simple.

Start by setting out a flour tray and let the kids get stuck in.

Flour is great for pouring in and out of containers as well as piling up and knocking down. You might also want to add in some trucks or diggers so they can plough their way through the mounds of ‘snow’.

From making hand prints to drawing patterns, they’ll love the fluidity of the flour grains and the freedom of being able to poke their fingers in and create different swirls.

Also, with a quick shake of the tray, the patterns totally disappear allowing them to start their creative play all over again. Magical!

Sponge Bombs

It’s not summer without playing with some water! Sponge bombs are the perfect activity for those warm days in the paddling pool and is a great way to cool babies down.

They also only take around 5-10 minutes to make so they’re ideal for those days when you don’t have a lot of time.

Your little explorers will be fascinated by the shape, colour, and texture of the sponges, as you can cut them up into whatever shape you like. What’s more, your baby will be in awe that these magical shapes hold and release water!

Watch as they submerge the sponge in water, then grip and squeeze to let the liquid pour out. This gripping action stimulates their fine motor senses and builds strength in their wrists and shoulders.

Babies will love the noise as they squeeze the sponge and hear the droplets hit the surface. For some extra fun, they can also throw the sponges into water and feel the cool splash on their skin.

For parents, this activity is great for future use, as the sponges can be left to dry and stored away.

The soft, cushion-y texture of a sponge makes this a super safe activity whilst still effectively developing your child’s learning through their senses.

chocolate mud messy play example

Chocolate Mud

Super soft and super easy to make!

This sand-like, crumbly consistency is made up of flour, vegetable oil, and chocolate powder – ingredients usually found around the home so an easy playtime activity.

Once you have your mix, add some vegetables and plastic plant pots and you have your very own DIY vegetable patch. Babies will love the idea of digging in the ‘mud’ and planting their own vegetables.

You could also add some animal figures into the chocolate mud to create a farm set up. Let the kids roll the different figures around in the mud, getting stuck in with their hands and watching as the brown mixture coats their farmyard animals.

This sensory activity helps them understand the real world as they discover what mud looks like and feels like.

The paste will also smell very chocolatey which activates even more of their senses and they’ll probably end up trying to eat it – don’t worry if this happens it’s totally safe.

Top tip: Store this activity in an airtight container to use it again and again.


What could be more fun for babies to play with than gloop?

This squidgy, runny consistency provides the perfect messy play idea which stimulates your babies sense of touch.

And it couldn’t be more simple. Using just cornflour and water, it takes minutes to make. Add some food colouring for different explorations and to give your gloop a splash of colour.

Now let your babies play!

They’ll love how gooey and gloopy it feels in between their fingers and how it drips everywhere. Also be prepared for them wanting to smear it everywhere including their arms and face – but that’s all part of the fun.

Playing with this unique texture helps babies understand the differences between solids and liquids as it will seem solid when it is touched but can be moulded into shapes and becomes wet.

This is a great outdoor activity (as it is quite messy) but can also be enjoyed indoors in a small bowl or a large tray.


A true classic, you can’t go wrong with paint as a messy play activity.

Babies love the different colours and seeing them all mix together to create totally new colour colours. They can also get stuck in with their fingers, making all sorts of shapes and patterns such as rainbow swirls.

Squirt a few dollops of paint onto some large sheets of paper or in a paddling pool and let your child enjoy the endless artistic possibilities paint can offer. They’ll love being able to smush it around, and seeing the colours of the paint on their skin.

This is a great opportunity to make handprints and footprints so they can see the paint transfer onto pieces of white paper. They’ll love the sensation and being able to leave their mark.

You could add some paint brushes to let them experiment with brush stroke patterns or some easy-to-rinse toys that they can dip in the paint.

Painting is a great messy play activity which inspires your child’s imagination as they create so many unique creations.

Top tip – this activity can get very messy so keeping it outdoors might be the best option. Also, make sure they’re wearing old clothes as some paints might stain.

Less-messy Play Ideas

Less mess, less stress.

Whilst sensory play is fantastic for babies in terms of their sensory development, some parents don’t have the time or energy for the clean up that follows.

Sure, you still want your little ones to have fun and explore the world around them, but without the worry of tidying everything up afterwards. We understand that parents are very busy and might be looking for activities that keep the kids busy and keep the house tidy.

So what are the alternatives?

Rice Play

This is a low mess activity yet great fun for the little ones.

Either use food colouring to turn the rice into magic grains or just keep them plain and watch as your baby enjoys this great sensory activity. They’ll love taking the rice in big handfuls then watching it pour through their fingers.

As the rice grains fall, they make a noise (almost like rain) when they hit a surface which will activate their senses further.

Add spoons, pots, and pans, and watch your child as they scoop, measure, and pour the rice, mesmerised as it transfers from one container to another.

This is a great messy play idea for a rainy day or when you just need to occupy your little ones for a couple of hours. It’s easy, safe, and rice can be reused and stored for future playtime.

rice and porridge oats

Oats or Cereal Play

Grab a box of oats or cereal for a fab dry play material.

Create a building site for your little ones by adding trucks and diggers which they can use to scoop up and move the different grains. You can also add some kitchen utensils into the mix so they can fill up, pour, and transfer the oats/ cereal.

If you’re feeling brave, add some water to turn the mixture into concrete. Babies will love how the different textures feel and watch in awe as the dry material turns into a paste.

This sticky consistency will feel great in their hands and in between their fingers as they clap their hands together in excitement.

Messy Play for Babies

Messy play encourages babies to learn about the world around them through raw materials without feeling restricted. There is no right or wrong way to do something, it’s about enabling them to freely explore their environment and make sense of the world.

Through tactile activities, messy play develops their sensory experiences of how things look, feel, smell, taste and sound. This is especially important in early childhood when babies can’t communicate so rely heavily on their senses to discover new things and work things out.

Some of the skills developed through messy play includes curiosity, imagination, communication, exploration, coordination and problem-solving.

These skills lay the foundations for further development as they understand different concepts that will come in useful for future learning.

Learning Journals and Development

At Learning Journals, we understand the importance of your child’s development and also the importance of being involved in every stage of this exciting process. Time is precious and goes by so quick when your child is little.

Even if they’re at nursery, we know you want updates on their progression so that you feel part of their journey.

With the Leaning Journals platform, you won’t miss a moment.

From easily recording and sharing observations to tracking progress, you can monitor the progression of your child through this easy-to-use platform. You can also communicate with teachers and interact with observations so you feel engaged in your child’s learning.

Want to see how it works for yourself? Request your free demo of Learning Journals.

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