Call it what you will, messy play, sensory play, utter pandemonium - allowing children the freedom to explore with all their senses is a vital element of childhood. Whilst as adults our instincts often tell us to create order from mess, the more adaptable and creative brains of children ensure they are inspired to experiment and create with just about anything and everything.
Sensory input – touch, taste, smell, sight and sound – all are essential for young children and babies to learn about their surroundings and environment. Each time a child’s senses are stimulated, neural connections are laid within the brain. But there are many more educational and developmental benefits to messy play.
Set up a tub of goo or rainbow coloured rice in your home or at nursery, and you are ensure to attract the attention of just about every child under the age of 5 in a 30 metre radius! For this to be an enjoyable experience for all, children need to use the all-important life skills of sharing, taking turns and collaboration. As an adult, try to hang back and let them work out how to do this by themselves. (We are aware that when the gooey mess starts going everywhere, this might take some sitting on your hands!). You will (eventually, and perhaps not until after some quite considerable mess!) reap the rewards eventually as your child starts to learn that working as a team benefits everyone.
Child care professionals and Early Years academics the world over agree with the importance of child initiated learning, and whilst some forms of messy play might be planned or created by an adult, there is no better example of child led, messy play than a child allowed free reign to explore in nature. And when we say nature, we mean MUD! Mixing together natural materials, leaves, stones, grass allows endless opportunities for learning and fun as well as exposing children to the many benefits of outdoor play.
More intriguingly, there have been a number of studies which show that exposure to the soil microbe Mycobacterium vaccae can increase serotonin output in the brain. A number of academic papers have demonstrated that mice who were injected with Mycobacterim vaccae had their behaved altered in a similar way to the use of an antidepressant, and there is a broad body of evidence to suggest that psychiatric problems are far more common in urban than in rural areas. Scientists say regular exposure to the bacteria may help reduce a child’s vulnerability to depression.
Yes – exposure to mud may make your child happier!
Something to consider next time you bemoan the state of your child’s nails.
All that mixing, pouring, sifting, spreading and sorting is great for little hands, fingers, wrists, feet and toes. Muscles in the forearm control elbow, wrist and finger movements while smaller muscles in the palm of the hand control movements of the thumb and fingers. If these muscles aren’t used and developed sufficiently, then basic life skills such as self-feeding, dressing and writing because much more difficult.
Encouraging children to play with sensory materials is an ideal way to improve fine motor skills. Watch any child pick up a small and fascinating object and see that this is them learning to perfect the ‘pincer grip’. The pincer grip is essential for grasping, manipulating and picking up or dropping small objects. The acquisition of a strong and precise pincer grip is fundamental developmental stage on the journey towards writing.
It may not seem it amongst the clutter and madness, but watch a child play with sand, water, mud or any other sensory material and you are seeing them hypothesise, experiment and make mathematical decisions. What better way to learn about concepts such as volume and capacity, size and weight than to fill and refill objects of various sizes? Counting and sorting are also a natural element of messy play as are the mixing together of materials of differing consistencies and textures.
One bonus for parents surveying a huge pile of mud and mess - these fascinating learning opportunities often engross children for far longer than you might expect.
Time well spent and some compensation for the clean-up operation – surely?!