As any parent knows, children can be very messy. Tidying up after children seems to take forever and more than one parent has been amazed at how much washing can be created by one small person. But now and again, children (and parents) need the fun of being able to play without worrying about making a mess. Every now and again, children need a messy play day.
You might be surprised to find a Montessori early childhood centre promoting messy play. Isn’t orderliness and cleanliness part of the Montessori ethos? This is certainly true, but it is also true that Montessori puts an emphasis on sensory experiences as a way of learning basic concepts. Also, skills like pouring – which are part of learning how to care for oneself and also part of exploring mathematical concepts such as volume and size – become a lot more fun when it involves substances other than water or sand.
A messy play day isn’t an everyday activity, but it makes a good extra bit of fun every once in a while. Like other special activities, you need to set up properly and be prepared. This will make sure that all you make is a gloriously fun mess rather than chaos. A messy play day should be held outside where spills and splashes don’t really matter – preferably in the back yard where the results aren’t visible from the street. Children should be kitted out in old clothes that you don’t mind having a few stains and smears on – dark colours are your best friends here.
During a messy play day, your children (and probably you) get to run fingers through, pour, splash, fiddle with and possibly even throw or spray a range of substances. It’s about exploring wet and dry and a range of different textures. It’s an amazing experience for the senses and it’s liberating to be able to do things that are normally forbidden. Montessori education encourages children to be a good citizen, but everyone who works with children knows that you need to let your hair down every now and again, and a messy play day is a great way to do that. And you don’t throw good manners and courtesy out the window during a messy play day. Why not invite neighbours and friends over to join in the fun?
In spite of wearing old clothes and holding the messy play day outside, it’s best to ensure that the messy play isn’t too messy. There are some things that you shouldn’t involve when setting up a messy play day. You should avoid anything that’s tricky to wash out or anything smelly. It’s best to keep mud, tomato sauce, food colouring, beetroot and paint out of the mix. There’s plenty of messy, squishy fun you can have without these substances.
So what do you have set out for your messy play day? And how do you set one up? To set up a messy play day, have buckets and tubs of the various messy substances set out, each on its own table, with a range of jugs, tubs and the like handy for pouring. To get the most fun out of the different substances, you should discourage children from mixing substances. In accordance with proper Montessori principles, “sets” (substances in this case) need to be kept in their proper place. If you don’t keep the substances separate, then they become a homogenous mess and you don’t get the different textures to explore, so it’s less of an educational experience. (OK, at the end, you can have a free-for-all of throwing things at each other!)
And what are these different substances you set out for messy play? Here are a handful of recipes as suggestions:
1 Soap gel. This is an absolute must in any messy play day. Not only is it magnificently slimy, it also makes the washing up job a lot easier at the end. To make soap gel, cut up a bar of ordinary soap and pour a bit of boiling water over it. Stir and leave to cool. The soap will melt and mix with the water to become a gel. Add glitter or plastic creepy-crawlies if you feel like it. Suitable for pouring and for running fingers through.
2 Cornflour paste. Mix equal parts cornflour and water. This mixture is sometimes liquid and sometimes solid, depending on whether you’re pouring it or applying pressure to it.
3 Sand and water. Mix in equal parts. Good for sculpting and makes a good substitute for mud that’s easier to wash out. If you have a sandpit, just add a bit of water – it will dry out to normal sand at the end. You don’t have to be the one to add the water, either – let the kids do that as part of the messy play day.
4 Cold cooked sago or porridge. Squishy, slimy and safe to eat if children want to. This can be used for making “sago castles”. Bag this one for the free-for-all throwing session at the end.
5 Cold cooked spaghetti. This will inevitably be used for wigs, but you can also try tying knots in it or using it to build bird’s nests.
6 Bubble mixture. Mix ordinary dishwashing detergent with a spoonful or two of sugar and a bit of water. Make bubble wands by taking those circles that come on the bottom of any plastic screw-top lid, squeeze one part to a point and push the point down a drinking straw. You may want to have bubble mixture as a standard piece of equipment for outdoor play.
A lot of these substances look rather bland and colourless. If you want to make it a tiny bit more interesting, you can add SMALL amounts of food colouring. Don’t add too much, as this is likely to stain – you want pastel colours in the substances rather than bright primaries.
Some people aren’t comfortable using food as part of a messy play day. If this sounds like you, then leave these food-based substances out. If you do use them, scrape up the leftovers and put them on a bird feeder – or find a handy dog to come in and eat up the spilt bits. Keep the dog away during the messy play itself unless you want to get the dog plastered with cold porridge from sticky little fingers.
And don’t forget to demonstrate how to use each of these substances – demonstration is part of teaching Montessori style!